This evening I took a jewelry making class at Boston Bead Works in Cambridge. The shop, on a side street in Harvard Square, is a great local secret for bead and jewelry aficionados, and contains a wide selection of glass beads, cloisonne, and semi-precious stones. Though I’ve dabbled in jewelry making off and on (mostly off) for many years, I’d never taken a class before, and was pleasantly surprised. The class was small, the instructor was attentive, and at the end of the evening, I had a shiny set of earrings made with a wire-wrapping technique I’d never before seen, stringing amethyst beads inside a silver hoop to resemble an abacus.
The photo quality here isn’t great because I took the picture with my ipod. But you get the idea.
Though I could leave the post here, as a “this is a cool thing to do if you’re in Boston,” I prefer to take a moment to think about why activities of this kind are available specifically here. Bead shops like this one exist in cities all over the US, and I’ve seen them in Western Europe as well. In the developing world, though, art supply shops with classes on how to make things are pretty much non-existent. In China, when I was buying seed pearls, the saleslady was aghast that I wanted to leave my strung pearls as-is, rather than having them made up into a necklace or earrings right away (I relented and allowed her to turn a few strands into jewelry there at the shop–the necklace and earrings that she put together are quite lovely). Point being, though, that the idea that I would want to go home, take the strands apart, and make something by myself was pretty much unheard of.
There’s a particular mentality in the West, and in the US in particular, that basic art techniques can and should be accessible to everyone, if only on the simplest levels. Shops like this one offering beginning jewelry making, paper embossing, paint-your-own pottery, etc. are exceedingly common. The do-it-yourself mentality is strong, and structured art projects give people a sense of fun and accomplishment.
From what I’ve seen in the developing world, things are very different. Crafts like pottery and jewelry making are seen as professions, rather than leisure activities for the middle class. Though I did have a friend in Morocco who made pottery for fun, she was very much in the minority. And the fact that she worked closely with American Peace Corps volunteers may have something to do with her view of art as a potential leisure activity.
What makes this difference, between craft as profession and craft as leisure? In some ways, it may come from how consumer goods are produced in a given society. In a society like Morocco, where until very recently most peoples’ plates and cups came directly from the potter’s wheel and had damned well better be usable, making pottery was not something to be tinkered with. Likewise, if you wanted jewelry, it was going to be handmade by a craftsperson, and the supplies needed would generally only be available to the professionals. In a society like the US, where most of our plates, cups, jewelry, and pretty much every material object is manufactured, rather than made, crafts like pottery and jewelry making are seen as quaint activities and throwbacks to an earlier time. If you make your own bowl and it breaks, you might be sad, but you can still buy another bowl at Target. If you make your own earrings and mow through a foot of silver wire trying to bend it into the right shape, it’s okay, you can still buy earrings at the mall. Your efforts aren’t materially affecting your well-being, nor are they taking away from anyone else’s profession. So you’re free to explore, and free to screw up, and you spend an enjoyable afternoon. I’ll be curious to see, as manufactured goods spread to more societies, and as leisure time among the middle classes increases, whether the phenomenon of do-it-yourself craftwork catches on in the developing world.