A Conversation with Jewellery Designer Thomas Dailing

A Conversation with Jewellery Designer Thomas Dailing

Jewellery Designer, Sculptor, Inventor…and Philosopher

When I first saw some pieces designed and handcrafted by jewellery designer Thomas Dailing , founder and owner at Thomas Dailing Designs, I was left speechless! Not only were the gemstones and colours of the pieces simply exquisite, but the composition and forms of the pieces were like nothing I had ever seen before. My mind told me that these are fine jewellery pieces but my heart said that it would be unfair to box them under just one label-they are Art, Natural Sciences and high craftsmanship beautifully presented in the form of jewelled adornments.

Thomas Dailing’s Instagram profile describes him as a “Jewelry Designer, Sculptor/Inventor” and he is all three but he is also a philosopher. Everything he handcrafts is imbued with his distinctive view of life and what it has to offer us. A winner of over seventy National and International jewellery design awards, his jewellery designs pull together tendrils of precise craftsmanship, innovative ideas and sculptural expertise, to create spectacularly unique jewellery pieces. What I find most amazing about his design process is the smooth marriage of craft and skill with Mathematical Principles. If the Fibonacci Sequence does not work, Thomas turns to Spherical Trigonometry in order to achieve the exact results that he had envisioned. However, underlying every jewellery piece is Thomas’ own particular worldview- life is complex but has so much beauty to offer, we only have to look for it.

In our telephone conversation we spoke about how Thomas started his jewellery crafting journey, his jewellery design process and what winning so many awards and accolades means to him.

Multi-Gem Pendant Set in Gold

How has the Covid 19 pandemic and lockdown been with you?

Everything changed. The store is open again, but initially we shut down for about two months. While shutdown I worked through it and experienced something truly remarkable. During the lockdown I went into an empty studio and got to experience pure creation without any interruptions (something I haven’t experienced since my years at University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, over thirty years ago).  I had the opportunity to work on projects that I had backburnered for years. This was rewarding in many ways. However the isolation did get tough. Also during the pandemic, I am not traveling or meeting many people (except at work). I go to the studio, I work, and go back home to be with my wife, Diane (and see my daughter occasionally), and our pets. I love to travel. We were days away from heading to Rome when the airlines started shutting down. I especially wish to travel to see my mother who is 97 and lives in Oregon. Even if I could see her, I wouldn’t be able to hug her. Everybody has similar stories about the pandemic which overlap.

Life is very complex. My father passed away about a year and a half ago and the same day I found out that I had won first place in a design competition. So very emotionally contrasting things can happen at the same time. On the big scale we can’t change many things, on a personal level, riding in the beauty of life is our safety net, a cocoon from all the harm that the world can do to us. You have to find a beautiful place and so much of it is in the mind.

Making something from passion is the ultimate creative experience”

Thomas Dailing

On your Instagram Account, you describe yourself as a Jewellery Designer, Sculptor and Innovator? Which came first and how do these three roles interact with each other?

I’ve been an artist all my life. I was the kid who never stopped drawing. All my schoolbooks were covered with scribbles. My parents were told to put me in a special art school, this just wasn’t possible. In hindsight it’s just as well, I probably would have burnt out had I been pushed too hard too early. In my mind I see things three-dimensionally, this is something I started teaching myself when I as about 17 years old. I practiced envisioning objects in my mind having crisp, tight details and then moving those three-dimensional objects in my mind with a light source on them, all the while studying how the light source would play off of the contours and surfaces. I did this regularly, eventually it became natural. Now I can literally make a piece in my head and change it instantaneously. Much of my work gets made in my mind before it ever gets started in real form. It is as if I am looking at something that already exists. At the crux of it, I carve because most of the pieces I make are cast. I hand sculpt every detail into the wax to bring it to life; for instance, look at my octopus tentacle ring. I’m not the first person to make this kind of ring but I’ve never seen another so life-like. I aim to make pieces so fascinating that people can’t live without them. Really, I’m pushing myself to the point where a project will at first feel impossible and then by not stopping, eventually I overcome and master that form. I enjoy carving things that in the beginning feel uncarvable. Also, I don’t study contemporary jewelers, this keeps my work fresh. I study Leonardo Da Vinci, Bernini, Louis Sullivan, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin and other inventors and old world architects. The idea that, “there is nothing new under the sun,” is for people who don’t like to think. There always something new. We just have to conjure it up. I love to explore and it fuels my need to invent and conceive new things. I have designed pieces for which there were no tools to execute. I then designed and made the tools that allowed me to execute those pieces. I am trying to anticipate what the rest of the world will desire but mostly I want to be pleased with what I create. I know that one day I will be gone but these jewelry pieces will still be around, my hopes are that people will marvel at them and understand that instead of chasing money I was creating serious art.  

Tahitian Pearl and Diamond Pendant

I find it difficult to pin down your jewellery design style. Would you like to elaborate on that?

I am wonderfully diverse and my work displays the intricacies of my character. But then, life is complex. On occasion I sit back and look at my work and it appears to be the work of many different designers but it all comes out of one head.

You are one of North America’s most awarded jewellery designers. Which award has been the most memorable for you and why?

I have won over seventy awards, but I compete with myself. That’s how I work. The fact that the judges like my work is a bonus. This question is a tough one because it is like talking about your favourite musician and asking which song is your favourite.  When I was just starting as a jewellery designer, I was really focused on winning awards. If I lost in the Nationals I would be devastated, but I would try again and again. Then one year it all came together, and it was like a flood of National awards from 2002 onwards. I used to make pieces especially for design competitions and feverishly sweat over them, now I usually just walk out to my cases and pick a piece or two that intrigue me and send them off. I like this new way much better!  I don’t have anything to prove. Back then I had to prove that I could do it. I live in a small town in Central Wisconsin and I felt that I had to prove that I could be as good as anybody in any major metro area. Now I feel that I can relax and focus on my creative growth and really enjoy the most fluid phase of my career. Design wise I’m becoming far more diverse and the world’s allowing me and that is really nice.

My Nautilus Pendant is one award-winning piece that is particularly close to my heart. It took Grand Prize Rio Grande’s Saul Bell International Design Competition in 2008. It was the first time I entered the competition. The pendant is based off three mathematical concepts which are:  a spherical depression, Descartes equiangular spiral, and a truncated cone made of spiralling white gold wires. These three mathematical concepts when put together create the effect of the chambered nautilus shell. The pendant blends reflection and form in a way that has never been done before and its magical. I still look at it and feel so pleased that I was the person fortunate enough to introduce it to the world. It is like it chose me, it is almost as if I didn’t have an option. The fifth Nautilus Pendant is now in the gem collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. It’s really neat to know that one of my creations is in the same collection with the Hope Diamond and Marie Antoinette’s Diamond Earrings.

A National Award Winning Pendant with a Citrine Accented with a Pala Mine Tourmaline, Diamonds and a Lazulite.

What is your source of inspiration for your highly innovative and unique jewellery pieces?

Almost all artists say that they are inspired by nature, but then what else is there? There is human-made stuff and then there is nature, and nature is a far better artist. I am a visual sponge. I study everything that I find intriguing and then I bring it down elementally. I try to discover what makes it work and what doesn’t and how it could be made better. I do that all the time. It is like a mental practice. Everything I find fascinating is my inspiration. Music is a whole other inspiration, but it is far too ethereal to for it’s effects to be explained with words.

What is your jewellery creation process? Does it start with jewellery design or with the gemstones?

It always starts with the gemstones. The world is full of beautiful gemstones but if I can’t see a finished piece out of it, I pass on them. However, I tend to favour transparent and faceted gemstones.

With creating there’s the mechanics of it but the real beauty is when you break down the mechanical process, it’s like disappearing, you become a nonentity. Some of my best work is done when I am unaware of it taking place. It’s a beautiful potential of the brain to allow the rational part of the mind to let go and this allows other parts of the brain to kick in. It becomes a primal process instead of a rational mind making things.

Could you tell us a little bit about your “Hidden Reflection” Series? How did you come up with this idea? Did you face any challenges in the process of translating the ideas into jewellery pieces and how were you able to overcome them?

The Hidden Reflection Series started about twenty years ago and there are more ideas for them that pour through my mind than I will ever make, and every variation works well. They are not a new idea and I’m not the only person to play with reflective dishes in jewellery. It’s how lanterns, flashlights and listening devices work. Archimedes supposedly burned enemy ships with a highly polished bronze dish. There is a point at the center of the dish which is called the focus point. Any object put in the focus point of the dish will fill the dish with a reflection of itself. You can put a pearl or gemstone at the focus point, and you get stretched out and mutated reflections of the gems on the curved surface of the dish. I started with that and then built from there. There is always an element of surprise about what’s going to happen when you bend or stretch a reflection. I can anticipate it to a general degree but since I’m  dealing with reflections and not form, whether it is a bent or curved reflection, I can’t know for certain until I have tried it whether it will end up being a great piece. It’s very much an Edisonian approach of trial and error. In the Hidden Reflection Series pendant you posted on Instagram, the Burmese red spinels reflections stretch, bend and disappear and then reappear, captivating to the viewer.

Pendant with a Richard Homer Citrine and Sapphires and Diamonds. 2020 Saul Bell Design Compeition Finalist

Many of your jewellery pieces feature gemstones that have been cut by Richard Homer. Could you tell us a little about this jewellery collaboration?

I work a lot with Richard Homer. He is an internationally famous gem cutter, an inventor and a pioneer in his field. Richard is the first person who worked with the equipment that created concave faceting, pioneering that faceting technique. He can create in his mind a never before seen method as fluidly as I can. So, I will throw ideas about jewellery making at him and he will throw ideas about gem cutting at me and together we will conceive a new piece of jewellery with new techniques. There is a lot synergy there and I know of no jewellery designer and gem cutter collaboration as symbiotic as this. Every National Award I have won has a stone in it cut by him. Sometimes when I conceive a piece based on a gem, I will call him and he will create a new cut with no sketches and it will look exactly like what I wanted.

Richard and I met over the phone. I needed a stone specially cut for a piece I was making, and I called him up and we found an instant friendship in our conversation. Once the project was done, we stayed in touch.  We found that our knowledge and disciplines overlapped so fluidly, our genuineness for the art just clicked. When I met Richard, I was a young, fledgling jeweller. I had only won a couple of awards but was quickly defining myself as an innovator in the field. Richard on the other hand was already one of the Nations most recognized gem artists  Back then he predicted that I would be making National Award winning pieces based on his stones and it wasn’t more than a decade later when I started winning waves of National awards and my jewellery pieces highlighted  on covers of many national magazines.

Tahitian Pearl Ring Set in Gold

What, in your own opinion, is the most unique and creative piece that you have designed and why?

I haven’t made it yet. One of my dream pieces will create the effect of moving water.  I have remade this piece in my head for over 15 years now. I either don’t have the time to involve myself in it or I feel that I don’t have the skill to try and execute it yet. It will be one of my best pieces I’ll ever make but as yet it’s not willing to come out.

For those of us who don’t know it, could you tell us what Laser Welding is? How has it changed jewellery crafting process?

Laser welding is fusing metal with light. It requires high-tech equipment, and you can set it for different types of metals and for different desired results. However, I am old-school. I know many of the traditional methods of making jewellery and laser welding is a very futuristic method and I use it sparingly. I choose to make jewelry using traditional methods. Using laser welding feels almost like cheating but in certain circumstances it’s absolutely necessary. Many gems don’t like the heat of a torch. With a laser welder you can fuse right up next to a heat sensitive gem, fusing metal together without harming the gem. It has remarkable applications, but I believe that a person should know all the traditional methods of bonding metal together before they start using a laser welder. There is beauty to the old-world techniques of jewelry making. Jewelry has been made in the same way for thousands of years.  I don’t use CAD-CAM. As a sculptor, I find that it takes away such a remarkable journey in the jewelry making process. To me this computer driven, machine-made jewelry making process would make the whole thing feel soulless. Lasers and CAD are the two amazing pieces of equipment that have entered the studio in the last few decades, one I use sparingly, and the other I will not touch. I take great pride in this. Blazing trails needs nothing more than passion, inspiration and desire.

Amethyst, Spinel and Diamond Pendant, Set in Gold

What is your favourite gemstone to work with and why?

I have three:  sapphire, tourmaline and spinel. All three come in just about every colour. Sapphire’s varying colours are breathtaking and they are tremendous hard. Tourmaline in its blue-green colour are some of the most stunning gems, like shallow sea water in the Caribbean. Spinel have their own unique colour spectrum and are wonderfully elusive.

What does your jewellery workshop and creative space look like?

There are tools, gems, fossils, mineral specimens everywhere and the wall is covered in pictures, sketches and curiosities. It’s a bizarre mess. On occasion I will neaten it up, but then it becomes a very sterile space, almost as if creative things should not be borne out of such order. I definitely enjoy the chaos effect. It is a collage of my fascinations.

What are you working on these days? Any new projects you could share with us?

Many. I am putting together one of my dish pieces from the Hidden Reflection Series with a white gold disc, an amethyst with rose gold accents and diamonds. I’m also making some silver scarab pendants for the Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans, something that keeps me smiling.

Currently I am also working on a few client pieces. I’m making an engagement ring with some very large collector’s grade sapphire. I am also working on an octopus’ tentacles pendant holding the guts of a vintage Rolex watch for The Crown Collection in LA. The tentacles are draping and swirling around, covering the Rolex but not hiding its vital parts. You can still see the dial but there are tentacles covering some parts of the face to make it look very organic.

‘Poseidon’ Martini Olive Spear Holder with a Wisconsin Freshwater Pearl
  • How would you describe your personal style?

My personal style of jewellery is really wide range: for the longest time I tried to figure out what my style was, and it frustrated me that I didn’t have a particular style. I finally accepted that my style was wide ranging with a common thread that links it all together: fluidity with tight, crisp detail.

 

  • Do you wear any jewellery that you have designed and crafted yourself?

I do. I have a couple of rings on from what I call my Historic Artifacts series. I like to make pieces of jewellery that look as if they’re ancient. One of the rings I wear has Jerusalem Crosses on it, from the time of the Crusades and it’s covered with carved cracking and pitting, as if it has been dug out of an ancient archeological site. To me it’s the ultimate challenge to carve something that doesn’t look carved, it looks like nature did it. The other ring I wear suits my nature the best. It’s a ring that’s broken down into multiple sections of carved details taken from petroglyphs and ancient pottery shards made by primitive humans from different continents. The interesting thing is that they all look right together even though they would not have had any means of communication between continents. I also wear a pendant with a two Reales Cob from a Spanish shipwreck in the Caribbean. I have carved a corroded looking frame around it, once again giving it an aged quality. It suits a philosophy of mine which is that “all things fall to the hands of time”.

  • What is the one thing you miss doing the most during this pandemic?

Travelling.  I love to travel.

  • Do you listen to music when you are crafting jewellery and if so, what is your favourite type of music?

One of the absolute best is Gates of Delirium by Yes and most music from Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Hendrix–all ethereal music. 

  • What was the first piece of jewellery you ever designed and crafted?

My three-dimensional work slowly evolved into jewellery. Before I started making jewellery out of metal and gemstones, I made things out of shell, antler, horn, bone, wood, etc. Back then, I was working at a gourmet restaurant in Florida and my brother (Jim Dailing, also a jewelry designer) sent me a chunk of carving wax. I carved a roaring lion’s face and sent it back to him. He cast it out and made it into a pendant. I realised then that carving wax was just like all these other materials that I had been working with for so long, but you could cast the finished carving in metal. At that moment, I had an epiphany and I realised that I was going to become a jewellery designer. I just changed materials from wood and claws and bone and shell into metal and it is been a whirlwind ever since.

  • What is your idea of the perfect vacation?

I’m a perfect recluse. I don’t like to go where there are a lot of people. So, my perfect vacation would be to go to anywhere in the Tropics where there is only me and to simply absorb the place.

  • What is the best gift you ever received?

My grandfather, Grandpa Charlie was a self-taught engineer. He had a mentality that he could dream up anything and figure out how to make it. In his work, he invented countless tools, if there was a tool that was needed, he would make it himself. In my family, we call it the “Charlie Gene” and we believe that the Charlie Gene allows you to envision and create pretty much anything and I have it. So, I know I am speaking metaphorically but the best gift I’ve ever received is the Charlie Gene.

  • What is your favourite comfort food?

Shrimp with a homemade cocktail sauce, and of course I make the cocktail sauce–cooking is an extension of creating.

  • If you could have dinner with three people, celebrities, public figures or some one from history, who would they be?

Three’s a noisy bunch! I’d like three separate dinners, one on one. Historically there’s Leonardo Da Vinci because I believe he’s the most brilliant artist that has ever existed. Being a mathematician, inventor and artist myself, I‘ve studied his sketches, drawing the tools and his equipment he had designed in great detail. I would love to have dinner with Leonardo Da Vinci and pick his brain and try to figure out what was going on inside that mind. Also, my mother who I haven’t seen since the pandemic started and my Aunt Moo who has passed away and who was the most soulful person I have ever known.

Thank you so much Thomas for taking time out in your busy day to talk with me. It was a privilege speaking with you and in the process getting to know your very unique understanding of life and art-both offer us beauty and a chance to experience something bigger than ourselves.

You can find out more about Thomas Dailing’s jewellery at www.dailingdesigns.net or you can follow him on Instagram at @thomasdailing

Featured Image: Cultured Pearl Pendant from the Hidden Reflection Series

All images used in this post are the property of Thomas Dailing Designs. Any person or organization not affiliated with Thomas Dailing Designs may not use, copy, alter or modify any of the images used in this post, without the advance written permission of Thomas Dailing Designs.

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