Meet Renowned Jewelry Educator and Tool Maker Kate Wolf
Kate Wolf has been carving wax and making jewelry for 42 years, and teaching for 31 years.
Kate taught workshops throughout the United States and Canada and at her dreamy studio in Portland, Maine. Kate won MJSA’s Innovation Award for her Wolf Wax Carving Tools and Wolf Wax by Ferris and she continues to develop tools for jewelers to love. Kate is a former Director, Production Manager and Master Model Maker for the Jewelry Division of the Franklin Mint. She was a freelance master model maker for 16 years. Kate holds a BFA in Metalsmithing and Jewelry from Tyler School of Art.
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“What was your path as a jeweler and designer early on, and how did it influence your branching out into creating products for other jewelers?”
I earned a BFA in Metalsmithing and Jewelry from Tyler School of Art, in 1981. I learned that I loved making jewelry, but not how to make a living at it.
For the next six years, I worked in the Samson Street Jewelry District, in Philadelphia, with the Merdjanian brothers—5 wild and crazy guys who grew up in a refugee camp in Beirut. They were new to this country, and epitomized the immigrant story—work crazy hard, for little money, and build a dream— a full service trade shop, doing repairs, fabricating master models and one of a kind pieces, wax carving, mold making and injection, casting, finishing, stone setting, plating and polishing.
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Some of my classmates got jobs in the field, too. They did grunt work for years before their bosses taught them anything. This was typical of our industry; but my bosses wanted me to learn everything they knew (except stone setting—Nubar did that). A typical day went like this: Hampo, Varouj, Apo or Nazaret would say “Lon, Querique (Hey, Sister) I need you to learn this fast, because we need 50 of these by 2 0’clock.” They taught me how to be a jeweler and how to modify my tools.
This was when people started buying jewelry by the gram; it was cut-throat. We cranked out thousands of rings for a customer who was looking for third world prices. I got into the Zen of production. I had mountains of raw castings on my bench to finish, so made a game of it—found ways to be efficient, to break up the monotony. My boss helped: he took a torch to a casting and burned it into the benchpin; now the castings fit in the burned arc and made filing easy. I made plenty of mistakes, but my bosses weren’t tough on me because I was serious about my craft and conscious of the cost.
They took me to my first trade show, MJSA New York. At Rio Grande’s booth I saw Adolfo Mattiello carving wax. I was captivated. I remember thinking, “I’d love a gig like this.” Hah. I watched him all day. Every year.
I applied to grad schools and did freelance wax carving, on the side. One of my customers, The Franklin Mint, offered me a job as a master model maker. I was not qualified, but my bosses told me I’d be crazy to turn it down.
A few days before my new job, I went to a lecture by Albert Paley. He didn’t see obstacles, just opportunities. He didn’t turn down commissions, because his space was small; he cut through the ceiling and said yes. He showed me not to let the limitations of my understanding determine what I could accomplish.
At The Franklin Mint I worked with master wax carver Lazar Portnoy (he showed me how to make carving tools from bike spokes) and master engraver Ralph Alpen. They inspired me.
I went from making vast fast quantities of jewelry to making master models that were to be molded and mass-produced. Every mistake I made was multiplied by the size of the production run. I was terrified.
I realized that my creative process is divided into 3 phases: Avoidance, Amateur Hour, and Flow.
Avoidance: I had to evaluate designs, estimate my labor, and the weight and cost of each piece. I was clueless.
Amateur Hour: Unfortunately, this lasted much longer than an hour. I didn’t know the techniques and tricks that I teach now. The evil monolog in my head said I was an imposter and the last job that I pulled off was a fluke. (Someone told me they call this ‘Spending time with my itty bitty shitty committee. ‘) Come to find out—this painful part of the creative process is vital, it fosters breakthroughs.
Flow: Miraculously, the piece I carved pulled together like it was being freed from the block. I’d get excited, and work around the piece, finally seeing the form—losing sense of time and space. In this joyful, creative zone, the piece was completed.
By the end of the first year, my Amateur Hour became shorter and less crippling. I was promoted to Production Manager, then Director of the Jewelry Division. In three years we went from doing 54 to 91 million dollars in annual jewelry sales.
I moved to Maine, produced a line of jewelry (during a recession), ran out of money, and ended up doing master model work for 16 years. I did work for Monet, Lenox, Gorham, Art Carved, House of Faberge, QVC, Disney, and many others. All the while I took out my frustrations on my tools. If I was having a problem, maybe it wasn’t me; maybe my tools were wrong. I kept modifying my tools until they became new, better tools.
I started as a jeweler, and ended up inventing tools for jewelers and teaching them how to use them. I didn’t foresee owning a tool company or teaching when I was in art school, but I can’t imagine a richer life.
Enthusiasm is Inspiring
Kate’s favorite teaching moment? “That ‘Aha!’ moment. It’s a blessing to be a part of the learning process, to help students see things in a new way and master skills they thought were beyond their reach.”
Get Inspired – Be Inspiring
Can I buy tools directly from you?
Only if you have taken a class with me (except for Wolf Clay). This policy is respectful of those who market and distribute my tools; and my time spent taking individual orders and shipping takes away from more important tasks.
How do I get good at carving?
Get lost in the process. Carve a pound of wax. Have fun! Make a mistake—and then do a taaa-daaaaa! Play without being attached to results. Push your boundaries—get out of your comfort zone. Take each carver out of the canister and play with it—see what else you can do with it. Read the booklet that comes with the Carvers. Carve some more wax. Make another mistake and do another Taaaaa-daaaaaa! Instead of setting out to make one perfect ring–prep 4 ring blanks and play with the expectation that you will not love them all—but you will learn along the way.
Are you available to teach in my city/studio?
I’m flattered to be invited, but my teaching on the road days are done. Maybe I’ll see you in a class in Portland, Maine one day—or in an online class?
When will you be teaching in-person Maine Workshops?
I’m not sure. I am hoping to have classes in Fall of 2021— Those on the wait-list from 2020 Covid cancellations will most likely fill up these classes.
Is Wolf Wax vegan?
Yup. Not only is it vegan–it’s gluten free (but don’t eat it, it doesn’t taste very good.)
Where can I get help with my Wolf Belt Sander?
The Sander hasn’t been my product for years. For help contact Ikohe Inc., they are the original distributors. www.ikohe.com. Check the Learning Library for video clips that may help.
Get In Touch with Kate
P.O. Box 244
Portland, ME 04112