BEHIND A STRIP-MALL DOOR, A SMALL brigade of makers has blowtorches blazing, tiny hammers swinging, and buffing stones whirling.
At Albuquerque Silver & Stone Academy, beginners and pros alike learn the art of silversmithing and stonecutting. Founded in 2015 by Eileen and Dennis Ott, the school reflects the couple’s three decades of passionate work in the gem and jewelry industry. A former federal agent, Dennis searches out beautiful gems like a detective on a trail. Eileen, in turn, has created and sourced jewelry for heavy hitters such as QVC and Nordstrom.
“The most exciting part for me is when new students come to my class and say, ‘I’ve had this idea in my head forever,’ ” says Eileen. “We like to help make their vision a reality.”
In a beginners’ silversmithing class, Eileen sets a plastic box full of intriguing tools—including a clamp, saw frame, mandrel, and bezel cutter—before each student. Then she holds up four silver pendants: a four-petal flower, a butterfly, and two different leaf patterns. “By the end of our three, three-hour sessions together, you will walk out of class with one of these made by your very own two hands,” she says excitedly.
The first task? Anger management. Eileen gives each of us small sheets of thin copper, a metal block, tiny hammers, and huge stamps that resemble nails. She demonstrates how to properly hold the stamps to avoid banging our fingers. “When people first start stamping out patterns on metal, they can be very timid. I tell them, ‘Think of someone that’s made you mad and take that anger out here!’ ” she says, laughing.
Although the class is designed for beginners to learn Silversmithing 101—from polishing silver to patterning silver with fabrics, straight stamps, and dimplers—seasoned jewelry makers also pop into the studio to hone their craft beside the newbies. “No matter how long you’ve been at this, it’s a beginner workshop for everyone,” says Don McGuire, a student who left jewelry-making 40 years ago and returned with zeal. He now sells his bold, superhero-style cuff bracelets, belt buckles, and rings via Instagram (@dondesignsnm). “Eileen is always pushing us beyond our comfort zone to try new things,” he says. “We learn from each other, too.”
New Mexico has a long history of silversmithing, an artform brought here by Spanish and Mexican settlers and picked up by Native American artisans. “We’re trying to keep the silversmithing and stonecutting arts alive by offering these classes,” Dennis says. “In turn, it’s become a real community of friends.” In addition to teaching stonecutting classes, he sources rare stones from all over the world, including a psychedelic-looking Mohave turquoise from Kingman, Arizona, and a blue polka-dotted stone from K2, the world’s second highest mountain.
Many students become regulars to sharpen their skills and find cool gemstones to use. Sandy Johnson, who has christened Dennis her “master stonecutter,” employs his finds, like the cherry-red Brazilian Rosarita stone—a byproduct of gold smelting—in her Asian-inspired jewelry, which she exhibits at Wild Hearts Gallery, in Placitas.
Back at the beginners’ table, a woman in her thirties pulls up her visor and beams, proudly showing off the perfect, pointy silver leaves she polished on the buffing machine.
“We tailor this class to each student’s interests,” Eileen says. “It’s so satisfying to see them find their own style.”