Crafted in Metal

Here at J.Forks Designs, jewelry is more than a business. It is our life-blood. From leather to turquoise, the variety of materials we love and incorporate into our pieces is astounding. One of our favorite materials is metal. Below, we interviewed five artists that make up just some of our favorite metal workers. We gathered insight into the stories behind their beginnings, how they describe their own styles, who they admire, and what motivates and inspires their work today. These people are crafting metal into elaborate buckles, stunning rings and bracelets, cufflinks and money clips, and so much more. These artists represent very different types of work, while all having an underlying tie to the western industry.

The following artists are included:

- Kit Carson with Kit Carson Jewelry | Instagram | Facebook

- Miguel Davalos with Silver King | Instagram | Facebook

- Jeff Deegan with Jeff Deegan Designs | Instagram | Facebook

- James Stegman with Comstock Heritage | Instagram | Facebook

- Nick Cunningham. The Bad Bronc Studios | Instagram | Facebook

*** Our dear friend Clint Orms is currently on vacation, but will be interviewed in our upcoming podcast, “Dare to be Bold”

Photo of Kit Carson working on designs for J.Forks Blog.

Kit Carson | Kit Carson Jewelry

How did you get started in metal work?

Chalking his career up to the right place right time, Carson explains that he is very fortunate and lucky. In his early 20’s Carson was introduced to intaglio printmaking- a style of printmaking that requires the artist to cut into copper plates and use the plates to make the prints. Carson was instantly captivated. Soon after he says, “I took those plates later and tried to make a box out of them. I did not do very well. So then, I took a jewelry class to learn how to use my copper plates to make a box.” Carson loved the jewelry class, so at 23 he transferred to the University of Oregon Eugene to begin classes with a trophy engraver. “I learned classical lettering from him. For two years, all I did was stay in there and study old english script and lettering styles.” In 1975 at 25 years of age, Carson moved back to his hometown of Prescott, Arizona and engraved letters into metal items at a jewelry store for $1 a letter. Carson quickly realized that his income was not sustainable and that he could use the same engraving techniques that he uses on lettering to apply to his own drawings. Carson believes, “That is where it truly began.” Carson is still engraving his drawings into his work today. “I was very lucky at an early age to get a recognizable voice in my work. The only reason that happened was because one, I was already engraving, and two, I already knew how to draw. I put those two things together, and I had a recognizable look really quickly. I am so fortunate and so lucky to have had that happen.”

How would you define your style?

Image of one of Kit Carson's pieces on J.Forks BlogCarson explains that he has been given the adages of “gothic, nouveau, rock and roll, cowboy,” and it is fitting! The gothic look comes through in his work from the exotic lettering styles and his addition of the Day of the Dead skulls. According to Carson, the art nouveau look comes from, “The accelerating curve used a lot in my work…. Rather than the classical scroll [in artwork from the art nouveau movement], mine whips around.” The rock and roll is defined in his edgy, musical imagery and knack for playing the guitar. And finally, the cowboy influence stems from his background on the ranch as a child and his parents naming him Kit Carson. He says, “I have always lived in the southwest areas of Arizona and New Mexico, and I use traditional colors of the Southwest in my work.” His work is full sandstones, turquoise and spiny oyster shell, along with tanzanite and diamonds. “Turquoise is still one of the main stones I use, more so because I am finding really fabulous turquoise.”

Who are your favorite metal workers?

As for engravers Carson says, “You cannot beat Sam Alfano. I took a class from him at the GRS Institute in Kansas.” Carson is not only blown away by his mastery of engraving but also “his ability to do it in a result and style that looks effortless.” Carson’s favorite jewelers are Jeff and Susan Wise out of Durango, Colorado. “They are so inventive in what they do…. Their use of metal has just been an inspiration for me for many years.” Half of Carson’s income comes from his sculpture business, and he defines his favorite sculptor as Albert Paley. “Albert Paley is currently America’s most famous blacksmith, ironworker, and sculptor. He started off in jewelry back in the 70’s. I saw his work and it had a very art nouveau line to it... I have followed him my whole career. He is the master of metal, design, and what art means to society today…. I just do not know what else to say, he is my favorite!”

 

What is your current inspiration and motivation behind your work?

Carson has recently moved back to Prescott from the desert, and explains that imagery from his current landscape is creeping into his work. But one of the things that inspires him the most is combining rusty metal from found objects with gold, silver and high end stones. “My current line of jewelry, is called Romantic Rust.” Carson will find and incorporate old license plates, pieces of old tool boxes and real estate signs into his jewelry. “Whatever I have found that is flat, I am engraving…. I can walk down the street, pick something up out of the gutter and make jewelry out of it.” Carson explains that rust fascinates him because it is a metaphor for life as nothing is permanent.. “The whole spectrum of life is associated with that. The textures and the curves and decay which I call a sun-sanded patina.” A single piece of metal can contain a variety of colors from the original paint to the bare metal and even the rust. Rusty metal is “full of nuances and shading, line, texture, tone and composition. Everything you strive to achieve in a piece of art, but it is already done in nature…. I am just fascinated by that progressive of aging materials, so I put it into my jewelry line”

Miguel Davalos | Silver King

Miguel Davalos of Silver King on J.Forks Blog

How did you get started in metal work?

“Well I feel like I am one of the luckiest people alive in that I was born into this family business.” Davalos explains that his mother and father started the business, which includes both works of silver and leather, about 43 years ago. “As far back as I can remember, I was already playing around with leather and watching my dad work.” Davalos recalls that he was always creative and naturally inclined to draw. His parents recognized his talent and helped foster the creativity, which is exactly what is happening with his own children, nieces and nephews. Davalos explains that it is the role of the adult to recognize the talent and encourage them to continue. “Once you get them to believe that they are awesome artists, your work is done. They will just explore and go in their own direction… To be born into a family that does creative work has just been a godsend for me.”

How would you define your style?

Silver King Cuff Bracelets on J.Forks BlogAs for Silver King as a whole, they meld new and old. However, for Davalos personally, he describes his own style as western with a touch of rock and roll combined with a mixture of his Mexican heritage and religious beliefs. Davalos recounts that when his parents started the business, their work was anchored in a western style.“My parents are both from Mexico, and my father [who worked on horse equipment] started taking on the tradition of that western style here in southern California.” Davalos himself has now been at the helms of the business for almost 20 years, and his style has morphed into an edgier look. He combines his Los Angeles background of rock and roll with his Catholic upbringing by incorporating Day of the Dead and religious relics.
Silver King Cuff bracelet on J.Forks Blog

Who are your favorite metal workers?

One of Davalos’ favorite craftsman is James Stegman of Comstock Heritage. “This morning, I was wearing a belt buckle that a friend of mine [Stegman] made me, and it is funny because I am a silversmith and I make belt buckles. And yet, I wear other people’s belt buckles.” For Davalos’ 40th birthday, Stegman made him one of his favorite belt buckles that he wears often. Davalos also likes Jeff Deegan and explains that his work is like a three dimensional sculpture that you can wear. “The amount of detail that he puts into his stuff is incredible. He is so meticulous. Deegan’s style is very recognizable. I know that he made them just by the way that they are made. That is one thing that I admire about him. He has definitely carved a style that is unique to him.” Davalos also really enjoys the work by Lee Downey. “That guy is a master silversmith. His work just blows me away.” Davalos explains that all of these guys are friends, and they would always hang out in Denver at WESA. “Every time I come back from shows and hangout with these guys, it just makes me want to be a better silversmith.”

What is your current inspiration and motivation behind your work?

Davalos is motivated each day because he loves what he does, and he constantly strives to be better by pushing his own boundaries and limitations. Davalos explains that a few years ago, his father passed away which is hard on so many levels, but from the aspect of a family business, his father was such an integral part of the company. “He was a very intricate part of our business. He did all of our leather work, and he would support me in the silver work... .When I needed help, he would help me out. Looking back helps me see the whole circle of life. He did a great job of preparing me to take on the family business, and he taught me pretty much everything he knew.” Davalos is constantly striving to improve himself by constantly building on what his father has taught him. “That might sound funny, but my dad always said ‘I want you to be better than I was’. He meant that in life as a father and as a craftsman.” Davalos believes that his own son can be better than him because he will have the knowledge of the craft passed from his grandfather to his father and then to him. “I am starting to realize that I am not here forever… I just want to do as much as possible, learn as much as I can, leave as much of an impact right now... and I am just lucky that I am able to do what I love to do every day.”

As for inspiration, Davalos is inspired by his children and discovering the details in the outdoors. “I am always looking at patterns, flowers, stuff that is in outdoors and nature.”

Jeff Deegan | Jeff Deegan Designs

Jeff Deegan of Jeff Deegan Designs on J.Forks Blog

How did you get started in metal work?

“I got into silversmithing by accident,” Deegan explains. He was introduced to the idea of making jewelry out of metal by a friend who used to round out the edges of a quarter (that were once made of silver) by tapping it with a spoon. “It was awfully annoying- the ‘tap, tap, tap.’ Finally, I asked him what he was doing. He said he was making a ring… and I thought that was just the coolest idea ever. Then, I started doing that: carrying around a spoon and a quarter.” Soon after that, another one of Deegan’s inquisitive friends suggested that he should instead buy silver from metal stock and tools to make a ring. “I was flabbergasted that civilians could buy precious metals because at that point gold was restricted when money was still backed by the gold standard.” So, Deegan purchased metal and tools and made his first ring in his friend’s parents’ basement. From there, he taught himself from books by trial and error and took his tools to college to make jewelry in his dorm room. After college, he worked for a silversmith for a year and eventually got scooped up into the oil business. He ran a factory and did not touch metal again for years. As a creative outlet, Deegan began designing women’s clothing and registered in a pattern making course at the local night school. One night, he had a dream that one of the outfits needed a belt buckle. “Nothing has ever happened to me like that [again]. Every design I have done comes from sweat and hard work. But that one, I just woke up in the middle of the night, and I happened to have a pencil and paper next to me. I scribbled it down, and that became the first buckle I have ever made…. It was totally serendipity.”

How would you define your style?

“I would define it as sculptural. That has a lot to do with how I choose to make my buckles.” Deegan’s pieces are made from cast. “When I got into the business I made a conscious decision not to make a typical western buckle design. I really felt that there were some super talented people making some great designs in that traditional realm, and there was not a point for me to go there.”

Jeff Deegan Bottle Opener on J.Forks BlogSo, Deegan turned to high relief sculpting to make his work. “That whole process is one that is a very challenging and sensual process to bring a design to life through the process of sculpting that I use. And the high quality casting allows you to make your additions from your original sculpting.” Deegan also takes care that his pieces have a connection between the visual and tactile aspects. “From the earliest point, my goal has been to have a consistency between what your eyes see and what your hand feels…. The worst interruptive to me is to see something, and when you pick it up it translates into not that something…. It should be kind of one sensual experience that mutually reinforces your vision and your tactile sense.

 

Who are your favorite metal workers?

Jeff Deegan Belt Buckle on J.Forks BlogFrom a historical side, Deegan really enjoys the work from Suzanne Belperron. “She was an early rare example of woman rising to the top of this business…. Her designs were so distinctive to the point that her belief was that she never signed her pieces because people would know her style. They did not require her literal name on there…. She was a fierce women, including standing up to the Nazis when they took over Paris. It is a very inspiring story on a human level, but also on a gender level.”

Deegans also enjoys the works of David Webb and describes his art as “super imaginative and well-made.” Lee Downey, James Stegman, Miguel and Malila Davalos are among some of his other favorites.

What is your current inspiration and motivation behind your work?

Jeff Deegan Belt Buckle on J.Forks BlogDeegan describes jewelry as a “decorative art” and explains that through the ages, once a human being’s basic needs are met, they begin decorating themselves. “One of the earliest ways has been with jewelry: animal skins tied around the wrist or a bear claw tied to a piece of leather.” Deegan is very interested in the “basic psychological connection that the human race has with decoration.” That is what has sparked his interest in the types of artwork he creates. “I think I work a lot with symbols: symbolic animals, symbolic designs, things that resonate, things that I have gotten the closest to the collective unconscious…. It is just some primeval connection that goes back over eons. That is always kind of my overarching inspiration: to think of things that people respond to strongly as symbols.”

Deegan also draws inspiration and motivation by creating pieces that can be incorporated into traditional dress clothes and not something inherently western. “I find myself in a funny place in traditional American silversmithing in the western sphere. I do not really [create] the common motifs, but what I think that I do is offer a different perspective for people who have developed or always had an appreciation for belts and buckles. This is a way to extend it to a different level with my pieces.”

Lastly, Deegan has recently been revisiting some of his 3,000+ designs that he has made over his 38 years of work, which has always been something that he resisted. “I have always considered my designs as a part of my library, but I have never really so much taken advantage of it as I could have in the past. When I was done, I was kind of done with it.” As he is re-exploring some of his earlier pieces, there are instances where he is adding different metals and stones. “There are various things that I am not afraid of now.”

James Stegman | Comstock Heritage

James Stegman of Comstock Heritage on J.Forks Blog

How did you get started in metal work?

Comstock Heritage has been in Stegman’s family for almost 100 years. He worked for his father during summers until he was about 14 years old simply because he needed a job. At the time, Stegman did not really like it. He was not a fan of nickel and bronze and claims, “It was monotonous. His business was volume, and I did not like doing the same thing over and over.” Since Stegman’s goal was to become a lawyer, he moved to Seattle for college starting on his journey to law school. Then, he got married, and his wife became pregnant. At that time, her parents decided that they would help the two of them buy a house in Nevada, and he began to work for his father again. “I did not like the confines of my dad’s work because there was a catalog and everything had to be just show. I was really so concerned that it looked just like it did in the pictures.” Stegman explains that it did not leave much room for experimentation or developing a style. So in 1993, Stegman and his wife asked if they could open their own brand of the company. “We started off with about $2,500, and we kind of grew it from there.” They spent most of that money on an advertisement with Studio Seven. Stegman explains that he was very fortunate to have customers that allowed him to learn on the job. He wanted to make a different type of buckle than the ones that his father produced by using a different metal and style. “I am largely self-taught…. The shop was 6,000 square feet of tools, but no instructions.”

How would you define your style?

Stegman describes his style as both untethered and free, and it took a long time to arrive at that point. A few years back, one of his customer’s friends pointed out that Comstock Heritage sounds industrial when Stegman always thought of it as boutique. Stegman was challenged to really develop the artist behind the brand, so they launched the “James Christian” (Stegman’s first and middle name) couture line. Out of this, Stegman was able to explain himself as the orchestrator and designer of the line. He defines it as, “a designer that makes a collection have continuity over the years.” Stegman also describes his style as an unfolding process. His pieces are built from the ground up without drawings. “I just start with the metals, and I start with what is around me.” Stegman always likens his work to “The Sorcerer's Apprentice” from Fantasia. “I travel around the country, even the world, to find the right ingredients. I do not know if I am going to use them today or a week from now, a month or in five years, but they are here. One day they have a purpose.”

Who are your favorite metal workers?

Comstock Heritage Belt Buckle on J.Forks BlogStegman has always liked the work from Scott Hardy, a TCAA member. “He does some really interesting things. It is not my style, but I really like the way that he executes it.” Stegman also respects the work from Clint Orms. Stegman explains that whereas some buckles are valued solely by the sum of the parts, work that comes from artists with amazing styles like Clint Orms have added value. “When you are done, it is not the sum of the parts. It is the whole thing that makes the piece.” Stegman also enjoys the original work from John Hardy and the pieces from William Henry Designs.

What is your current inspiration and motivation behind your work?

Stegman’s inspiration comes from travel, thinking outside the box, and trying to see beyond his own work. Last year, Stegman went on a trip to England and Italy. While in Venice, Stegman went to Damien Hirst’s art exhibit Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable that is comprised of statues, three-story installations, and videos broken into two seperate locations. Stegman explains that the concept was fascinating. “It blew my mind. People say that all the time, but I do not think I have ever said that except for this. Just the scope of it [the installation] was so much bigger than what I am thinking of. I am thinking in terms of a two by three inch belt buckle or a bracelet, but these things [that comprise the entirety of the exhibit] were mind blowing. My focus is is trying to work on that expansion that I saw, and trying to see beyond what we do.”

Nick Cunningham | The Bad Bronc Studio

Nick Cunningham of The Bad Bronc Studios at work, photo on J.Forks Blog

How did you get started in metal work?

Cunningham has been exposed to art since he was a child. His mother, who has a degree in fine arts, was a classically trained artist and had an art studio in New Mexico, while his father was a very skilled craftsman. They lived in the country, thus he was encouraged to find a hobby. Metal work became that hobby. “I made my first piece in 7th grade.... I started selling [my own work] as a freshman in high school.” Cunningham continued working with metal throughout college as a source of income while he earned his business degree. Cunningham never assumed that this would become his full time profession, though it did. "Looking back, it was meant to be."

How would you define your style?

Cunningham defines his style as "Americana." When Cunningham first got started, his work was inherently western, but over time it morphed into a different style as he grew bored creating the same type of pieces. He explains that there was only so much he could do, and he felt that the market for his kind of work was larger than just the traditional western consumer. So, he switched his focus towards his interests, and his style became “an evolution from traditional western” marketing to people both in and outside of the western industry.

Nick Cunningham Metal Work

Who are your favorite metal workers?

Cunningham’s favorite artists include Douglas Magnus, Rebekah Chamberlin, Matt Litz, and Clint Orms. “I get a lot of inspiration from [Rebekah's] designs....Clint Orms made it possible for all of us to do what we do.”

What is your current inspiration and motivation behind your work?

Cunningham explains that since this is his only source of income, some of his motivation comes from survival. “That is the business side of it, which I hate. It is much more fun to just create.” But from the other perspective, Cunningham explains, “I seem to get a lot of inspiration from traveling and building in other places. I am a minimalist as far as tools.... I can put everything in the bed of a pickup truck and go.” Next month will mark his 26th year in the business, and he has kept a record of every single buckle that he has ever created totaling 8,473 buckles. “I have to get out and see something new, just load up my tools and build a little bit here and there just to keep my mind fresh and not lose it. I do not mind working in a studio or a box, I just like to change the box every so often.”

These artists makeup five of some of our favorite metal workers. Their work is phenomenal, their stories are intriguing, and they all have vastly different styles. Jewelry is so special in that these designers are creating pieces that can stand alone or stack alongside one another’s work! If you are not following them on social media, we strongly suggest that you do!