One of the questions I get asked a lot is; “How does someone learn to be a jeweler?” I say the exact same thing every time, “I spent three years in jewelry school in Paris.” And then I just go quiet.
Then they’ll say things like, “that’s so cool,” or “that must have been fun,” or “I’d love to do that.” To each of these comments I just agree and tell them that it was fun, it was cool, and yes, they should absolutely do it. But every now and then, someone takes it a step further, and asks; “Paris, France?”
Nope. Paris, Texas.
I’ve always liked how people just assume that if I spent ‘3 years in jewelry school in Paris,’ I must be talking about Paris, France. I mean come on; everyone knows that’s where all the good things in life come from, right?
Every chef, worth his weight in ‘paprika smoked sea salt’, went to culinary school in Paris. It’s a given that the world of fashion is based entirely out of Paris. And all art that’s ever been worth owning was painted by someone who lived in Paris a long, long time ago. And everyone knows where all of the good perfume comes from - wait for it - PARIS! So of course all the good jewelers must be trained in Paris as well.
Yep. Just the other one; the one in Texas.
So, after I’ve been busted into admitting I didn’t spend three years in jewelry school in Paris, France, I go on to tell them all about the Texas Institute of Jewelry Technology (TIJT), located at Paris Junior College (PJC), in Paris, Texas.
I go on to explain that there is only one school in the country (and I mean this country, not that country) I recommend that trains professional bench jewelers and watchmakers, and it’s located in Paris, Texas. I’m aware that there are other schools out there, but today I’m going to brag about my alma mater. My long-time shop assistant, Sidekick Nic, a high school senior, has decided that he wants to follow along in my footsteps and attend TIJT this fall.
Nic started working for me by accident when he was 13 years old. His older sister worked for me and had to give him a ride to the store a couple of days a week after school where he had to kill an hour while waiting for his mom to come and give him a ride home. I put him to work sweeping and cleaning up around the place, and now he runs half of it. But it’s the half he doesn’t run that he needs to go to school for.
I get asked by people all the time about interning with me so they can learn to make jewelry. In the real world though, that doesn’t work very well. Mainly because I’m not a school, I’m a professional jewelry repair facility. I’m usually too busy to slow down and show people what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it the way I am, including Nic. That’s what schools are for.
Although Nic can do many things in my shop, there are many things he can’t do, simply because he hasn’t been taught. He’s worked for me for 5 years and the things I haven’t taught him are far greater than the things I have taught him. But, just to brag on how talented he is, all of our Touched Impressions pieces (my fingerprint jewelry company) have been made by Nic and his sister Kaite for the last several years, with very little input from me. Nic and Kaite run that entire company.
I have people all the time that want to do an apprenticeship with me, but what am I supposed to have them do, sweep the shop like I originally hired Nic to do? My shop is not really dirty enough to have a full time broom tech. Plus, Nic still has that job.
I can’t just stick someone on the polisher to polish 40 pieces of expensive jewelry for someone who hired a professional to do the repair - not an apprentice that is learning on-the-job. It’s a tricky situation in a professional shop between wanting to be helpful and having to be responsible. I’ve got deadlines and commitments, and my clients sent those pieces to me for ME to do the work.
I’ve never met an apprentice candidate that brought in all of their own work to do, and brought their own bench, tools, and equipment to set up in the huge open space I DON’T HAVE in my shop. Now granted, there are some shops out there where an apprenticeship can work, but in my four decades in this industry, I can’t name two. Like I said, that’s what TIJT does; it trains professional bench jewelers in every aspect of bench work.
So, a couple of months ago, Nic and I took a road trip to Paris, Texas for a college visit. I’m sure he told all the girls in his class that he was going to Paris for a few days to look at a jewelry school, and just stopped talking like I still do…hoping they wouldn’t ask that question!
Paris, TX, a city of about 25,000 people, is a 2 hour drive northeast of Dallas. It’s a pretty average small city. It has a historic downtown square, a Walmart, and a grocery store or two. It’s also the home to the main Campbell’s soup manufacturing facilities. That creamy tomato soup, that we all know and love, is made right there in Paris, TX. And, Paris has a very impressive college. Nic and I were given a comprehensive tour of the college, and I wish I had the space to tell everyone about all of the other aspects of PJC in addition to the jewelry school, because it’s a very impressive campus.
TIJT was established as a vocational rehabilitation center training wounded and disabled soldiers as watchmakers in the 1940s. A few years later they added the bench jewelry courses. A few years after that, they added the gemology program. Over the course of 8 decades, TIJT has turned out thousands and thousands of professional watchmakers, gemologists, and bench jewelers.
I attended TIJT from January, 1981, through May, 1983 and received my Jewelry Technology Certification, my Gemological Certification, and my Associate Degree of Applied Science in Jewelry Technology. And, I’ve used every skill I learned at TIJT every single day since. Here’s the way the school works today, which hasn’t changed much from when I attended.
The jewelry and horology programs each take 2½ years from start to finish. It is four semesters of bench instruction, with probably 99% of that being hands-on bench work. Nic and his classmates will start this fall, but a new jewelry and watchmaking class starts every spring and fall semester. PJC has a new, modern, on-campus dorm building where he’ll live. They have a cafeteria, daily campus activities, on site laundry facilities, and pretty much everything you would expect to find at any major college in America.
This class will spend the entire fall semester learning the basics of filing, sanding, cutting, soldering, and polishing, using brass and bronze. It’s months of learning the basics that I’ve used every day of my professional life. Then, after the Christmas break, they’ll move into a new classroom for a semester of casting. Here, they’ll spend several months casting all of the pieces they’ll need later for stone setting. When this semester is over at the beginning of summer, they’ll move on to gemology.
They will spend the entire summer in one of the finer gemological learning environments in this country. And, just an FYI, anyone can attend TIJT just for the summer to receive your gemological certification as well. Just be sure to get your application in now before the class fills up. You can also live in the dorm just like the other jewelry students. It’s a great deal for a great education.
The next fall semester they will move into yet another classroom for beginning stone setting. Here they will assemble and set all of the hundred or more pieces they cast last semester. Then, once their piece is set beautifully, the instructor will break it and give it back to them to fix, just like in the real world. At the end of this semester is the Christmas break.
When everyone comes back, you’re once again in a new classroom, and this last semester is all gold and platinum work. The security and costs of dealing with precious metals here is tightly controlled, just like we do in the real world. Every pennyweight of gold and platinum is accounted for and documented. You can’t just throw gold away in a real shop, and you can’t do it here either. This semester is their last bench course, and ends at the beginning of summer, but they’re not done yet. One more class to go.
Over their last summer, they’ll move into the CAD/CAM lab for an intense summer of instruction on all things CAD and CAM. And then, just like that, before any of them know it, they will be done, and ready to enter the work force.
As much as I’d love to have lots of apprentices and teach them everything I know, it’s just not realistic. I can’t teach someone how to set a 1 carat diamond, and then hand them a customer’s diamond and tell them to set it. You need thousands of hours of hands-on instruction in order to do this job, and TIJT has been delivering that instruction to bench jewelers and watchmakers since WWII.
I’ve used the skills I was taught there every day since 1983. So, if you wanna be a jeweler, I know someplace that can hook you up.