Beauty and the Geek: Paul Michael Bierker of Paul Michael Design on Jewelry 2.0

How one jeweler struck a viral chord with sci-fi designs

“Jewelry 2.0”: It’s how Paul Michael Bierker describes Paul Michael Design, his tech-ified workshop and retail space in Lawrenceville, Pa. “Most of our production is done right in the middle of the showroom. We even have an active 3-D printer,” says Bierker, “printing out parts all day long.” Bierker began his career in graphic design, but an inspiring professor, Stephen Saracino, turned him on to jewelry fabrication while he was at SUNY Buffalo State. Now the tech-savvy Bierker is near ­Internet-famous for his astoundingly creative sci-fi designs. His “geek jewelry” borrows imagery and motifs from comic icons, Star Trek, and Star Wars, without skimping on impeccable artisanship, fine metals, and gemstones. One ring depicts a miniature Han Solo helplessly encased in carbonite; another depicts Wonder Woman’s iconic gold belt. “I’m blessed because I’ve done so much custom work,” he says. “I have a lot of practice thinking outside the box.” In other words, the Force is with him.

How do your customers react to all the tools in your shop?

People tend to keep tech behind the curtain so people don’t know what’s going on. We tend to bring it in whether the [consumer] likes it or not. We like to share our passion for looking to the future. Sometimes we do great things. And sometimes we fail miserably!

How has staying abreast of fabrication technology helped you do your job?

When I began to embrace technology, I realized this is where I belong. Ideas come to me so rapidly; I can’t focus on sitting down for a week and carving one wax. I need to be able to focus on 10 pieces a week. The technology we have allows me to constantly be experimenting. And it’s all about giving people what they want. One of our biggest pleasures is our ability to make something for almost anyone. You can come in with two rocks from the moon and say, “Dude, do ­something with this.” And we’ll say, “No problem.” As a custom jeweler, you don’t sit down and listen to what people want and turn around and give them what you’re able to design. I have to reinvent myself for each customer. If I don’t, I’m going to be cranking out the same old crap.

What tools do you use most often?

We use 3Design CAD, 3D-Coat, Gemvision Matrix, ZBrush. We like to play. We have an Adobe Creative suite because corporate jewelry is one of our bedrock businesses. I utilize photorealistic rendering often just to sell—and to sell to people around the world. The key to that, though, is the guys at the bench have to live up to the expectations of the photorealistic image. The Old World craftsmanship is still there. If you can’t deliver at the bench, you’re dead. You’re never going to replace hand-engraving with a computer. It needs to be touched by a human.

How did you start making the sci-fi jewelry?

I’m a big geek myself. I was doing this ring for this guy back in the day, and together we conceived the first R2-D2 ring. It was a ridiculous design—we ­custom-cut every single stone; the process took forever. That went a little viral, and I said, “I think we need to take this wider.” We try to make the designs cool and fashionable and different. We have a Star Trek ring that you’d never know was Star Trek unless you were a hard-core fan. I have to be careful to not step on intellectual property, but we like to take the essence and interpret it. This whole jewelry design thing is not a static process; it doesn’t go from A to Z. It may start at G. I let the product drive me.

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