Behind the Scenes: Judging the 2013 Saul Bell Design Awards

There are good reasons to call New Mexico the Land of Enchantment: the nearly two mile-high plateau it sits on offers a stunning perch to view the surrounding Sandia mountains, and a convergence of cultures—non-Spanish-speaking European, Hispanic, and Native American—makes for a culturally rich community. Then there’s Rio Grande, the 69-year-old findings and machinery manufacturer that employs dozens of locals who call Albuquerque home.

I first visited the facility 10 years ago, when Andrea Hill was one of its directors, and was beyond impressed by my tour of the cavernous facility, where the scale of manufacturing ranges from tiny inch-long head pins to jump rings to drill presses. Thousands of jewelry artists and hobbyists (myself included!) rely on Rio Grande to supply them with metal sheet, wire, findings, gems, and tools to make their inventories, and when you see the capabilities of the firm and its employees firsthand, you can’t help but be awed. Rio Grande has 30,000 SKUs, and ships anywhere from 2,000–3,000 orders daily.

Conveyor belt at Rio Grande helps expedite thousands of daily orders

A conveyor belt at Rio Grande helps expedite thousands of daily orders.

When I arrived in town earlier this week, to take up the company’s invitation to judge the 2013 Saul Bell Design Awards, I headed over to company digs on Bluewater Road for a tour with Molly Bell, one of founder Saul Bell’s nine children who helps run the business. As we walked the warehouse-style facility, everything was familiar again: the happy, smiling employees, the multitude of complicated-looking yet efficient machines working on auto pilot to turn out some of the very findings I use to make beaded and wire-wrapped jewelry, and the spotlessness of the environment itself. “When we built this building, my brother, Hugh, said ‘I want these floors to stay white’, and they have,” Bell says.

(Though some things have indeed changed: Hugh recently retired, and in January, Rio Grande joined the fold of the Richline Group, a Berkshire Hathaway Company.)

Molly Bell of Rio Grande with a rough version of a 2013 Saul Bell Design Award

Molly Bell of Rio Grande with a rough version of a 2013 Saul Bell Design Award

During the tour, we saw brass Saul Bell Design Awards trophies in various stages of completion, and Bell recounted one of the most moving stories I’ve ever heard about a company big wig. Her father, Saul Bell, had lent a hand and guidance to a young man just out of prison, trying to turn his life around, who later in life came back to gift a sculpture to the Bell family in Saul’s honor. That man was the first artist the Bell family invited to design the first Saul Bell Design Award in 2000, an effort to pay homage to a man who had done so much—job creation, compassion, giving a hand up—for so many people. “And there are so many more stories like this about him, but he didn’t tell us many because he was such a modest man,” adds Bell.

The beginnings of a 2013 Saul Bell Design Award

The beginnings of a 2013 Saul Bell Design Award, being made at Rio Grande in Albuquerque. Each trophy features founder Saul Bell’s silhouette.

On my first visit to Rio Grande in 2002, I didn’t have the privilege of meeting Mr. Bell, but in hearing this story and in rekindling my acquaintance with a firm whose history I admire, I am honored to be part of this year’s judging experience, which took place yesterday afternoon in the stunning Andaluz Hotel, a completely renovated Hilton property—among the brand’s first—decorated in a southwestern-meets-Moroccan style, complete with a bevy of tucked-away lobby casbahs.

2013 Saul Bell Design Award

How the finished trophy will look

My judging peers included author and consultant Marlene Richey; Hannah Connorton, my friendly competitor at Nationaljeweler.com; Ron Beauchamp, owner of Beauchamp Jewelers in Albuquerque; and Phaedra Rayner, vice president of Lilly Barrack in Albuquerque. We sat in a conference room adjacent to the property’s Ibiza bar and restaurant on the second floor, with views of the outside patio and elongated contemporary gas fire pit. In front of us were about 40 individual designs across six different categories: Beads, Metal Clay, Hollowware/Art Objects, enamel, Silver/Argentium Silver, and Gold. Keep in mind that this number of entries was an edited-down assortment; Rio Grande employees had the difficult task of sifting through 400-plus rendering submissions to present the judges with a tidier number. We were asked to judge pieces based on how well each stuck to the category criteria (was 75 percent of the piece made in beads, metal clay, enamel, etc.?) and then about the balance of design, uniqueness, aesthetics, construction, and more. Unlike other competitions I’ve judged, salability was not a factor, and Rio added one extra step to help judges determine scores: models wore the pieces.

After everybody eyeballed the jewels and art objects, two different female models (Rio employees) put the jewelry on to show us how items looked, and the results were often score changers—a process that shocked even me, whose daily job it is to scrutinize jewelry. For example, I was unimpressed with one beaded necklace on a neck form, but when Heather, one of the models, put it on, it was like seeing a completely different—and exciting—piece. (Which I would now like to buy!) And when our other model, Shelby, put on a bracelet that everyone admired, my opinion of it changed—and so did my score—because I found parts of it distracting, unlike when it was a piece of art laying on a table. One other big difference between the pieces in this competition and others I’ve judged is the caliber of the art. Rio Grande contest entrants are supremely talented! Just two pieces were commercial looking; all the rest required lots of thought and planning, and many had great stories behind them—some of which you could even “read” on the piece itself!

Holy wire room! You can get any gauge you like at Rio Grande.

Holy wire room! You can get any gauge you like at Rio Grande.

Among the judges, we had great chemistry, and our individual strengths were a boon to each other, such as when I overheard Marlene and Ron talking about the evidence of fire scale on one piece, something they both spotted thanks to years of production experience. Meanwhile, Ron viewed another piece differently after I told him that its design was rather mainstream, or common, a point he hadn’t realized because he doesn’t scour the jewelry shows like I do looking for fresh design.

After the judging ended, we moved on to a cocktail hour and dinner in the hotel, and then to prepare for our journeys home today. As for the winners, we won’t know who they are until JCK Las Vegas in June, when the awards dinner takes place. Rio Grande will tally the judges’ final scores in the coming months. And while there are still a multitude of trade shows that I’ll attend before June, Vegas can’t get here quickly enough for me.