My first impressions of Albuquerque involve a wide open sky, sprawling desert and the neon time capsule of Route 66. There's an ancient mystery to this place. The glowing colored monolithic sculptures that flank the highway overpass on the road crossing the Rio Grande river on my first day of Kate Wolf's wax carving class are a reverberation of it's Navajo roots. My class is held at the headquarters of the Rio Grande Jewelry Supply Co., one of the largest dealers of jewelry making supplies in North America. It's a solar panel bedecked fortress at the end of a lonely desert road. I get dropped off on my first day a little bit early and I must wait outside in the wind until the automated front door unlocks promptly at 8:30. The front door of the airlock must close behind you before the door to the inner sanctum can be entered.
"It slows down the robbers!" reasons the exceptionally cheery receptionist who sits behind the grand curving desk of Rio Grande's showroom, which throughout the day services a steady drip of silver studded cowboys, brief case carrying mystery men, and grandmotherly metal smiths.
I'm one of the first nerds on the scene in this emerald city of nerd-dom, so I'm able to pick a jeweler's bench at the front of the class. Within my first five minutes I meet Mark Nelson, whose celebrity in the circle of jewelers need not be explained. For the un-initiated, Mark hosts a series of tool demos for Rio Grande's official youtube channel. His soothing nature, gently lilting silver ponytail, and sturdy frame make for a southwestern mashup of Bob Ross and Hulk Hogan. As Ed Grimley says, "He's a pretty decent guy I must say..."
For my next jewelry celeb, I meet my instructor, master wax carver Kate Wolf. Also a terrifically nice human and super funny too! Kate cut her teeth in a fast paced production studio in Philly before taking a job as head designer of the jewelry division of the Franklin Mint. She has a voraciously inventive mind that she applies to everything she does including but not limited to: tool design, wax carving, and storytelling. I've had just a few experiences in my life where I felt that I was in the presence of genius and this was one of them.
Kate's class is a treasure trove of secret knowledge akin to the rights of the free masons. The comprehensive class was broken down into 5 days where the skills learned on one day were applied to the next. The first day was something like the equivalent of that scene in the Karate Kid when Mr. Miyagi makes Daniel San wax every car in his massive vintage car collection. Kate introduced us to her specially designed collection of wax carving tools and showed us how to properly use them to carve a relatively simple flower or lapidary design. The lessons snowballed from there in intensity and difficulty until the last day when we carved a complicated marquise ring design.
Kate peppered her many demos with harrowing and humorous tales of characters she's encountered in her journey through life on the inside of the jewelry industry in Philadelphia as well as the docks of Portland, Maine. The insiders perspective reminded me a lot of reading Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential in that it gave insight into a world that I otherwise never would have even known existed. Also, and most importantly, the demos were filled with tips and secret skills that she invented along the way in her years in the biz. By the end of day 5 she had passed on so much information I thought my head would explode!
After her excellent demos, Kate would go around the class helping each of the 12 students to put the her techniques to use. She was very patient with us novice wax carvers and it was good to have individual instruction in this tiny and complicated process. Here's a picture of Kate showing me another use for my scoring tool:
To sum it all up, I had a great time in Kate's class. If you have any interest in making jewelry this is a really fun class to take. You'll leave with a ton of knowledge and possibly some pieces to add to a new or existing collection. You may even make some new friends along the way!