We’re excited to announce that the Bee Team and Bee Charmer offerings have expanded to include extraordinary bee-themed silver work by local Goldsmith and jewelry designer Susan McDonough.
Susan’s handmade designs are original. That means each piece of jewelry is unique, created with small-batch alloyed fine metals. Susan’s technique is also remarkable, as she employs the ancient progress of granulation in her work.
Queen Bee Jillian approached Susan after chatting with a customer at the store who had on one of Susan’s granulation rings. After learning Susan was local, Jillian had to reach out. It went well. We’re thrilled to launch her Bee Line silver jewelry collection. Learn more about Susan and her process below.
An Interview with Susan McDonough
Queen bees Jillian and Kim sat down with Susan to get some insight into her remarkable work, process, life, and her passion for jewelry and honey. Here’s what we uncovered:
Can you tell us about your process for creating the Bee Line jewelry?
The Honeycomb and Bee are carved out of wax with tools similar to dental cleaning tools, cast in silver using what is called the Lost Wax Process, then the casting is cleaned up and polished and then a mold is made of it. In my case, I use rubber and a vulcanizer to create the mold. Then I cut the mold with a scalpel, inject it with hot liquid wax and now I have a wax copy of the silver bee and can make a new silver or gold one using the lost wax casting process.
For the Pollinator band, I started design using the process of Granulation, which is an ancient fusing process using 999.99% pure silver and a mouth torch. No solder can be used in this process so the design is laid on top of a prepared surface and then carefully fused down. Then I polish the ring, make a mold, cut the mold, inject with hot wax and now I have a copy of the original granulated Pollinator Band but in wax that I can now cast using the Lost Wax Casting Process.
Can you elaborate on the Lost Wax Casting Process?
The Lost Wax Casting Process starts with the wax copies from the molds or the master wax carved by hand. You sprue these onto a tree of wax and fix into a steel flask, which is filled with investment that has a similar look to plaster of Paris or pancake batter. This investment goes through a vacuum process to remove bubbles from the “batter” and then it starts to harden around the wax tree within minutes. This flask is then put into a kiln to fully harden off and burn out the wax inside leaving a cavity in the shape of your tree. After 9ish hours of a complex time schedule of increasing temps and long hold times at specific temperatures all programmed into the kiln, the plaster cavity is ready to receive molten metal.
You melt the amount of metal you need (there is lots of math in jewelry making) and pull the 1150ºF flask from the kiln and in my case, I use a vacuum assist for the pouring though lots of folks have a sling that uses centrifugal force to assist the metal into the finer details off the plaster cavity. After cooling the metal a bit, the hot flask is quenched in water which turns the rock hard investment into putty so you can retrieve the now metal tree with your design(s) attached. Then they are clipped from the metal sprue tree and cleaned and filed and polished and stones set if needed, then cleaned again and sometimes photographed and then packaged and sometimes gift wrapped and then mailed to you!
Tell us more about your work with granules.
Ah the granules! So, my undergraduate work was in Philosophy and Religious Studies and I became fascinated with the Greek, Etruscan and Roman cultures. I have always loved museums and sought out the displays of archeological finds from those eras. And being an avid reader, I was exposed to a lot of books about the Greek and Roman periods as well as original texts. In those books and museums are photos and exhibits of amazing gold work from Troy and from Herculaneum and Mesopotamia. You can look them up and see but the detail of their gold work was unrivaled and has survived thousands of years for us to see it today! Well, I had a book of jewelry techniques, a Bible for jewelry techniques by Oppi Untracht called “Jewelry Concepts and Technology” that has a chapter about granulation and the various techniques re-discovered to create this surface pattern. I read it over and over but didn’t really understand all of it. And then I took a class from Fredrika Kulike at the Kulike Jewelry school. Freddie learned from her father and was a great teacher to me. I learned the Kulicke/Stark technique there using Fine Silver and 22k with an enameling kiln and Acetylene torch. Later I became enamored with the work of John Paul Miller who employed a different technique for granulation on charcoal. The Master Goldsmith Kent Raible uses a similar technique to Miller and I worked at making pieces until I felt I was good enough to learn from Kent Raible himself without embarrassing myself. So I did! I learned his process of granulation and that is what I use today.
Are you a honey fan? What’s your favorite honey?
I love honey. I grew up in Asheville and I bake a lot and my favorite has always been local Sourwood Honey on buttered fresh bread or biscuits. I also love a hearty dollop of ABC Blackberry Honey in my tea!
Why the bee theme? What draws you to pollinators?
I am an avid gardener and am always drawn to pollinators in the springtime. I work alone in my studio and gardens, so the big bumblebees and speedy honeybees are my confidants and constant companions to me and the flowers. I have been working between commissions on a line of pendants, pins and brooches made with the granulation process and colored with bright enamels. This work led me from flowers to bees and beetles and now some other pollinators are trying to get my attention, too! (I see you Bats and Hummingbirds…wait your turn.) I have a future vision of granulated enameled pollinator and flower charms for a customizable bracelet. It’s a lot of work, so I have not introduced it yet, but it is in the works! Hopefully for Spring 2022. Jill and Asheville Bee Charmer contacted me around the shift from flowers to pollinators and the Bee Line solidified and became reality!
Do you remember the first piece of jewelry you received?
Way before anyone was giving me jewelry, my Mom had an old jewelry box with old pieces from her family as well as pieces that came from my Dad’s mom’s family. Someone in the past had amazing taste and there were some old silver filigree pieces with paste stones, a silver filigree aquamarine stone ring and a large dragon ring with a paste topaz. It may have been that dragon piece that sparked my interest in jewelry. I was maybe 6 or 7 and would lay out each piece on my mom’s bed when she was folding clothes and I would inspect each piece. The dragon ring had a terrible repair that obscured one of the dragons and I spent a lot of time thinking about how it was made and why the repair was so bad.
The first piece of jewelry you purchased and why?
The first pair of earrings I saved up for to purchase ($80!! In the 90s!) Was a pair of dangle silver earrings with a largish triangle stone set in them, maybe a Flourite? They were so unique and weird I just loved them instantly! I still have never seen anything quite like them.
What is the most difficult part of designing a new piece of jewelry?
When designing for another person, the most difficult part is intuiting what that person is envisioning. Being on the same page as far as vocabulary and technique is sometimes hard. I do a lot of custom work where I remove the stones and melt old pieces and design and make new ones using the old materials. Mostly those old materials are 14k and that customer may want a granulated piece but using their 14k, which is impossible. Granulation is a fusing process that can only be accomplished with high karat or pure metals such as 18k, 22k or fine silver. And I can’t alloy old metal up and expect to know the contents in the old alloy. So, I do a lot of explaining with gentle suggestions to make sure I can meet the desire of the customer.
When designing for myself, the problem is stopping or rather, finishing. I will have an idea and then do 4 or 5 versions in various stages of completion and get backlogged with items to finish. I have a bowl I put half-finished pieces in and when I have time or my brain is otherwise occupied, I work to complete those random ideas and unfinished lines.
Silver or gold?
I love to work in both silver and gold but high karat gold seems to behave intuitively like it knows where you want it to go. The richness of 18k green gold is currently my favorite. The color just sings! I love to roll it out after annealing. Between the steel rollers of my mill, it is as malleable as dough.
What is the most difficult piece of jewelry you’ve ever made?
I think the first wax-carved ring was the most difficult. I had not yet taken classes from Kate Wolf, who is a world-renown master carver offering classes in Portland Maine. I was in a program at Revere Jewelry Academy in San Francisco and while we were on break in between classes, an instructor handed me a chunk of purple wax and a file after I asked how a photo of a piece on the wall was made. I did not have the right tools or the technique and it was awful. I worked on it for weeks after class was over and still have the unfinished hunk in a drawer somewhere. It took me years before deciding to give wax work another try. When I did, I started with a class with Kate Wolf and suddenly the light turned on! Wax carving is a joy with the right tools and techniques.
How hot is that flame thrower you use in your videos?
LOL! I use 2 different torches, but neither is a flame thrower! The first torch is a workhorse, a Hoke torch with a Propane and Oxygen source that you combine to get the size flame you need. Fine Silver melts at 1763ºF and 24k Gold melts at 1947.52°so my Hoke gets up to at least 2000ºF but I don’t know exactly how hot it can get. My mouth torch is a more delicate flame, it is also propane but the air to create the hotter flame comes from a hose I blow into to control the flame. So it gets to about 1650ºF liquidus temperature and maybe higher but I don’t use it for hotter flames than to flow the surface to attach the granules.
Get in touch with Susan
If you have questions about techniques or where to learn how to make jewelry, Susan is available to answer questions and make suggestions. You can learn more about Susan McDonough, follow her work, and get in touch at https://www.susanmcdonough.com/.