Everything was quiet at the outset of this year’s second-round judging for the Saul Bell Design Award competition. An annual international competition that has inspired and challenged jewelry designers around the globe for the past 13 years, it always draws pieces that are technical marvels. But this year’s finalists’ entries are truly awe-inspiring.
One judge broke the silence and asked, “Can we start at the end and go backwards?” As you might expect from such an unconventional opening conversational gambit, this group of judges had a style all its own. One judge reached immediately for the magnifying glass, intent on looking at the fine detail of the work. A second stepped back from the crisply draped tables displaying the finalists’ entries for Beads, Metal Clay and Hollowware/Art Objects. (Finalists for the other categories—Gold/Platinum, Silver/Argentium® Silver, Enamel, as well as Emerging Jewelry Artist for 18-and-under—would be displayed and judged over the next few hours.) And yes, one judge went straight to the end of the line-up displayed on clean white leather busts and pedestals. The five judges spread themselves among the finalists’ pieces as evenly as birds on a wire. It wasn’t long, however, before they were working collaboratively, drawing on individual panel members’ strengths—a bench jeweler pointing out possible fire scale and a fashion editor commenting on which designs appeared the most ground-breaking to her experienced eye.
It’s good to note here that scores from the first round do not carry over. Slates are clean as a second group of judges looks at the finalists with fresh eyes. This year, the panel of industry experts assembled were Ron Beauchamp, owner of Beauchamp Jewelers and a recipient of the coveted Spectrum Award; Hannah Connorton, fashion/associate editor at National Jeweler; Jennifer Heebner, senior editor at JCK; Phaedra Rayner, vice president of Lilly Barrack; and Marlene Richey, author and industry consultant. It always impresses me how careful the judges are in their deliberations. This group moved slowly from one piece to the next, then back again to confirm their initial impressions. Reading every description, they discussed technique, opened and closed every clasp and examined the work under a loupe. Their conversations were hushed, but spirited. While they understood the gravity of their decisions, knowing that an award can change the course of a designer’s career, they also enjoyed the camaraderie of working with their peers. “Did you feel the weight on this?” “I did – I liked it.” “I did, too. It would be fun to wear.” Wearability was a common thread among these whispered conversations, even before the pieces were modeled by Rio associates. Is the piece too heavy? Will it drape appropriately over the collarbone? Will a rough finish on the reverse side irritate the wearer’s skin?
For this reason, modeling is a critical part of this round. About two weeks before the second judging, Rio models try on the final pieces. Some six or eight people—including the team photographer—determine which piece looks better on which model. A bronze metal clay bangle might bring out the golden tones in olive skin while a black–and-white necklace will pop on a blonde. Clothing, down to shoes and hairstyles, is also finalized. Heather stepped into the pueblo Deco-style ballroom of the Hotel Andaluz in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was her first time as a Saul Bell Design Award competition model, but she was confident and strong in her presentation of the pieces. One of the first she wore, a necklace in the beads category, received a buzz of attention. “This kind of work would drive me nuts,” exclaimed one of the judges. “I have trouble when I make a pair of earrings that has to match exactly, and this level of detail is a marvel!” Shelby, who has been modeling in this event for years, was relaxed and casual as she paused before entering the ballroom. I took a moment to straighten her collar to ensure the necklace was shown to its best advantage.
Both models were similarly scrutinized and adjusted before standing in front of the judges; presentation frequently changes judges’ scores—for better or worse. “I like this one a LOT better on.” “Me, too. I wasn’t digging it at all on the bust—which is a shame because it’s incredibly well-made—and now, seeing it being worn, I’ve totally changed my mind. It’s my favorite so far today!” Modeling is interspersed with the still-life judging throughout the remainder of the day. Just like a New York fashion show, it was a grueling day of rapid-fire changes, comb-outs, touch-ups, stepping into shoes, and zipping up dresses as models scurried down hallways. The judges finished marking their scores on each entry, taking one last chance to compare notes. Afterward, the models, Rio staff and judges retired to the Casbah for well-deserved drinks and noshes. Rio’s dinner guests poured into the historic hotel—it was Conrad Hilton’s flagship property in the 1930s—and began discussing one breath-taking entry after another. Everyone was smiling. It had been a good day of very hard work. Next? Rio staff will total the judges’ scores so that winners can be announced at a gala event during JCK Las Vegas.