In the early 1990s a Japanese company called Mitsubishi Materials patented an unusual material called Precious Metal Clay. It looked like putty and could be easily molded by hand, but after it was fired in a kiln it turned to solid silver. Truly hard to believe until you see it with your own eyes! I was lucky enough to be one of the first people to see PMC in action, and for me it still has a “Gee Whiz” factor.

Rio Grande became the distributor for PMC and I was invited to help introduce this odd new relation to the jewelry family. Articles were written, advertisements were printed, and some fearless artists came forward to check it out. The work those artists made intrigued others and word of mouth led to widespread interest. Because the material was so unlike anything that had come before, people wanted to learn to use it. We found ourselves in the unusual circumstance of having more students than qualified teachers.

These are examples of projects that make use of techniques taught in the PMC program.

I remember a meeting with representatives from both Mitsubishi Materials and Rio Grande. We were talking about ways to creatively meet this need. It was in everyone’s interest to have people teaching PMC, but it was important that the teachers knew what they were talking about. The man from Mitsubishi told us that in his country they followed a specific curriculum that required all students to exactly duplicate the prescribed pieces. He suggested that we do the same thing here.

Honestly, I wasn’t keen on the idea in the beginning. I’d taught dozens of workshops and taken dozens more and I didn’t remember any that started with a rigid list of projects and ended with a test. Despite my doubts, the idea didn’t fade and eventually my objections lessened. Over time, here’s what I learned: Students who work on pre-established projects can focus on technique rather than design. I learned that these skills can be taught and practiced best when they are isolated from aesthetics. I became convinced that this method covers more ground, and in greater detail, than the format I was accustomed to. I now fully support the discipline of a standardized curriculum.

PMC beads. Another skill taught in the PMC program classes.

A plan was established: We would collaborate and call the program Rio Rewards. Mitsubishi would supply PMC, Rio would offer discounts to customers who participated in the program, and I would develop a curriculum. The program encompassed a series of projects that between them sampled all the skills necessary to work with PMC. Our goal was that students who completed an intensive three-day class would have confidence in his or her skills. For those who were on the road to teaching PMC classes, the lessons provided a starting point for their own workshop ideas.

The Education Department at Rio itemized the tools and materials that each student would need and compiled them into kits. Rio produced a booklet to accompany the class, and developed a discount schedule and financial details that still guide the program.

Pendants made from PMC.

To distinguish this workshop from the kind more generally seen in the craft world, we established a “certification” process wherein successful completion of the workshop projects, to a fixed standard, would earn the participants the title of Certified PMC Artisan — and significant discounts on PMC and related products.

The inaugural class was held in St. Louis in 1999. Since that first class there have been over 400 classes. To date, more than 3,000 people have successfully completed the program, with several dozen taking it twice because they got so much from it the first time. The Rio Rewards program now has ten instructors, each a hand-picked leader in the field and a respected teacher. Every year or so the crew gathers in a studio in Albuquerque to compare notes and ensure that the program continues to improve.

Wormtrails Pendant, made by Tim McCreight

When the certification program was originally developed, PMC was only offered in silver. A few years later, a new product called PMC+ was added to the line and class projects were changed to take advantage of its special properties. Over the years, the program has grown to include new products such as PMC3, Aura 22, and now, PMC PRO. The program is now a collaboration that evolves from instructors’ ideas and feedback from the many students who take the class.

And the adventure will continue! If you’d like to get started with PMC, you can check out Rio’s classes here.