Lord of the Rings: Talking to Jay Whaley of Whaley Studios in San Diego

DIY bridal jewels are Jay Whaley’s specialty

Retailer Jay Whaley deals in bridal and fine ­fashion jewelry, but his merchandise flies off the shelf the very day it’s created. That’s because each item forged at his San Diego–based workshop, Whaley Studios, is made by its owner, and gleefully whisked away at the end of the day. The veteran bench jeweler specializes in one-day wedding ring workshops where couples design and make their own rings. Whaley’s been shepherding ­jewelry neophytes through the fabrication process for more than 30 years, notably as an instructor at the University of California, San Diego. Now, “I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing,” says Whaley, who cut his teeth in the industry “making squash blossom necklaces and Indian jewelry” as a bench jeweler in the 1970s. “I’m a fairly personable guy, pretty outgoing,” he adds. “And teaching is very social. Longtime students often form ­communities. We put on music, make things, and have a blast.”

How did you transition from bench jeweler to jewelry instructor?

I had an opportunity in 1976 to teach an adult jewelry course for the Scottsdale [Arizona] parks and recreation department. That was a real game changer for me. I realized I really loved teaching. I moved to San Diego in 1980, and a few years later I got a teaching job at the University of California, San Diego. I stayed there for 24 years, teaching the jewelry program. At UCSD I developed my techniques based on the platform of commercial jewelry making. I learned to do things quickly and effectively.

What prompted you to open your own studio?

I was working at UCSD and saw an ad in SNAG News [the Society for North American Goldsmiths’ publication] in 2005 for a business in San Diego that helps couples make their wedding rings. When I contacted the guy, he said he was looking for a ­jeweler. So I got into this studio in the middle of the Hillcrest neighborhood and he eventually said, “Take over the lease.”

What’s your approach to teaching?

We have a really unique program. We have a fabulously equipped studio; it has everything you can imagine or ever want. Most people come in with zero knowledge—they’ve never taken up a tool. They do 90 percent of the work on the rings with their own hands. We say, “Here’s the sheet, here’s the wire.” We start from the design, and we show them how to make every part of that piece. It’s a very cool thing.

Who’s your core clientele?

Hillcrest is a great gay neighborhood, so we have a lot of gay couples come in—and every other type, too. They pay a package price for a workshop based on the metal they want: palladium, platinum, or 18 karat yellow or white gold. Two sterling silver rings are $750; two platinum rings are $2,350. They come in at 9 a.m., and I sit and show them a bunch of samples. We use calipers to do measurements, and talk about shapes and finishes and thickness. We measure up the gold or metal they’re using, then they pour an ingot. We run it through a rolling mill, and at the end of the day they walk out with a finished ring. I’m about two miles away from a jewelry manufacturing center where I have connections for diamonds and colored stones, so we make use of those services often.

How would you characterize the demand for making your own jewelry?

I’m running over 80 students a week. There’s this ­unending stream of people who want to make things with their own hands. I would say 90 percent are women; they’re not interested in 3-D printing or CAD—they want to do it all with their hands. And that works because that’s my business model: old-school metalsmithing. It’s a unique and social thing. We have a champagne toast at the end of the day. I run out and get a great lunch for everyone. It can feel like a party.

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