Bench Jeweler Takes to the Streets

If you’re a retail jeweler in Houston, Richmond, Va., or Oxford, Ohio, young bridal couples asking about the uniqueness, meaning, and craftsmanship of jewelry may have seen one of Gabriel Craig’s public performances that combine bench jewelry work with performance art.

In 2007, Craig gave his first such public “Collegiate Jeweler” performance. As the performance evolved from entertainment to performance art, he’s been known as the “Pro Bono Jeweler” for three years and counting.

The Collegiate Jeweler

Gabriel Craig as the Collegiate Jeweler

As the name implies, Craig packs up his entire workbench and does basic jewelry repairs and makes hammered and textured silver rings for free. Coming from a family of mechanically challenged sales professionals, Craig is the black sheep of his family. The jewelry-repair and jewelry-making bug bit while Craig was attending art school.

He’d heard a lot about an offbeat and far out jewelry-making instructor who had long gray hair and a matching beard. The 70-year-old holdout from the Summer of Love days also had a penchant for Hawaiian-print shirts.

The teacher was near retirement and Craig just had to experience the Hawaiian hippie’s jewelry making class. “This class was literally a life-changing experience for me,” says Craig.

On the first day of class, the instructor gave students a piece of aluminum, a hammer, put each student in front of an anvil and told them to pound on the metal until they made something. While students dutifully pinged, pounded, and tapped with their hammers, the instructor played music and read poetry. And, from that experience, the seeds of destiny were sewn.

The Collegiate Jeweler

As much as Craig and other students enjoyed the practical, nontraditional approach to learning jewelry making, what fascinated Craig was realizing by hammering, bending, sawing, and annealing the lesser metal, he could give metal shape and produce something different and meaningful.

At 27, Craig is on the cusp of the all-things-digital age group, members of which seem to be only cognizant of the world contained in the World Wide Web. And, like many near or in that age group, Craig felt disconnected about hand-tooled craftwork. He also felt detached from his class work at art school. The combined feelings of being disengaged lead up to the union of two schools of thought that combined his new handheld and heartfelt passion for jewelry making with performance arts.

“When I discovered I could transform materials, I felt reconnected with so many missing parts of my life,” says Craig. And, with that realization, Craig went to nearby college campuses in 2007 to educate and entertain crowds as the Collegiate Jeweler, the precursor to today’s Pro Bono Jeweler.

Silver rings

Gabriel Craig’s handiwork: free silver rings for those who take in his public performances

His first performance as the Collegiate Jeweler was at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. Addressing the crowd of students, Craig at that time was more about entertaining the masses. “In an age when people are disconnected from the means of production, they have no idea how things are actually made,” says Craig. “So when they see something that’s impossible to do, it’s magical.”

And when it came to being magical, Craig delivered the goods. Flash paper, a dash of drama, and twirling his wood mallet then catching it in midair by the handle pulled people in. Add in philosophical discussions about making physical and emotional connections between a craft practitioner and the object being crafted, and the campus craftsman left indelible impressions on young students.

“For many standing around that day, jewelry suddenly became interesting,” says Craig. “I’d give students a hammered or textured silver ring and it’s a piece of jewelry that they’ll always remember me and that day by. I think that’s pretty powerful.”

To Craig’s credit, comments from students captured on his homemade videos are testimony to the magical connection the wandering bench jeweler hoped his performances would establish.

On day 1 of the VCU performances in October 2007, a male student remarked on video that the ring “will definitely remind of everything we talked about today.”

Attention was grabbed, eyes were focused, iPods were muted (or at least turned down), and students tuned into Craig’s bench work and the discussions about how giving a silver ring is a spiritual exchange between the maker of the jewelry and the recipient. Or as Craig likes to say: “making my work and using my bench as a soapbox to preach the jewelry gospel.”

After a year of being the Collegiate Jeweler, Craig found out he wasn’t the only one out there. In San Francisco, multimedia artist Michael Swaine was taking his sewing machine to the street with his Free Mending Library project. Frau Fiber (Carole Lung) had also been organizing “fiber-based outreach events” including her Sewing Rebellion. Encouraged, Craig began the Pro Bono Jeweler in 2008.

It’s hard to make a living with “pro bono” in your job title. Craig does Pro Bono Jeweler performances a few times each year and is currently a full-time teaching artist in residence at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.  

Craig has moved six times in seven years, which accounts for the many places people have seen his public performances. The Savannah gig is a temporary job for Craig, but it’s steady work for now. In addition to teaching, he’s also a writer, a “craft activist,” and a metalsmith.

Each year Craig spends roughly $200 to $300 on materials for his public performances. Giving away free jewelry repairs and silver rings made from silver wire is part of Craig’s altruistic philosophy as the Pro Bono Jeweler. Receiving a free silver ring or jewelry repair is “what people get for participating in the performance,” says Craig.

Scouting missions for sites are an important part of being the Pro Bono Jeweler. Craig typically picks “marginal” or “transitional” areas of a city. Crowds generally start with a few people at first, then slowly build up to three to 10 or more people—the average number of people who take in Craig’s public performances.

“The most people I’ve ever had for a public performance is about 50 to 60,” says Craig. “When the crowd reaches 30 or more, it’s a little hard for people in the rear to hear what’s going on.”

The Collegiate Jeweler

Audience members typically have the same practical reactions to Craig’s craftwork. “Many people are amazed that a saw with such a thin blade can cut through precious metal and people enjoy seeing the torch at work,” he says. On a more philosophical level, Craig is pleased that many walk away from an average performance appreciating jewelry, jewelry making, and craftsmanship.

In the four years Craig began doing public performances, he has taken only one respite from his formal role. With his homemade soapbox, Craig took to the street and preached the “gospel according to craft.” He’d shout out to passersby: “Have you accepted craft as your way to salvation?”

“In the Gospel According to Craft I engaged with an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse viewing audience as I had in past performances,” says Craig. “But instead of gauging their reaction to jewelry, craft, or the handmade, this performance used the form language of religious preaching to both attract and repel potential viewers. But, beneath the ridiculousness of the activity there is a genuine desire to share craft and its benefits with a wider audience. Though I found some new converts, some were unready to hear craft’s message.”  

Whether he’s teaching, preaching, performing, or practicing his craft, Craig’s message and driving purpose remains the same. In a world where the means of production are far removed from not only our grasp but our sight, his performances help people to appreciate what studying a craft and working with your hands can do.

In addition to the confidence that comes with conquering a hands-on skill, the connection between the creator and the object created, and sharing what that connection means, is a message Craig seeks to advance in a modern society where texting, gaming, and fiddling with mobile devices seems to be the most common task done with our hands.

Americans need a little schooling on appreciating craftwork. It just so happens a jeweler’s bench is the portable altar from which Craig preaches and silver rings and repairs are the symbols and the workings that facilitate spreading the gospel according to craft.

“The audience’s unwavering enthusiasm keeps me going back to the street,” says Craig. “For now the performances are ongoing, with the format continuing to evolve, though the end-goal will always be the same—to share studio jewelry with as many people as I can.”

Craig’s future plans for full-time work remain undecided. But he would like to organize a nationwide tour of like-minded craftsman to travel from city to city to demonstrate what he and some others think is the lost art of craftsmanship.

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