The Studio – Jewelry Blog by Rio Grande

Saul Bell Design Award Winners, Valerie Jo Coulson and Bruce Hartman: The Stories Behind the Artists

Jul 21, 2014
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Bernadette Bennett

We are delighted to introduce you to our Saul Bell Design Award winners…one category at a time! The Saul Bell Design Award competition challenges jewelry artists to push the limits of jewelry design. Today's featured winners placed in the Silver/Argentium category. Not only did they both place in the same category, but coincidentally, they both live in Pennsylvania. AND they both discovered the foundation of their passion for jewelry at the ripe old age of 10!

Valerie Jo Coulson has been a voracious consumer of classical art, literature, and music since childhood. These passions are perfectly reflected in her winning piece.

Bruce Hartman admired gemstones from afar during his childhood…until that one day, all grown up, he delved right into the world of jewelry making. His winning piece reflects his profound appreciation of hand-cut gemstones. The secret to his success? Loss of time awareness!

Read on to learn how hard work, unique life experiences and passions brought Valerie and Bruce reward and recognition!

Valerie Jo Coulson – 1st Place, Silver/Argentium Silver


Valerie Jo Coulson proclaimed at the age of 10 that she wanted to be an artist after reading Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, a biographical novel of Michelangelo. She brings curiosity and philosophy directly to her work. The secret to her success? Her mind.

Bernadette Bennett: Can you describe the moment when you knew you wanted to be a jeweler?

Valerie Jo Coulson: In 1974, I was studying fine arts at Millersville University. After three years of studies in painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, art history, and ceramics, I was able to enroll in a jewelry-making class. I knew almost immediately that this was the medium I wished to pursue, as it combined the aesthetics of art, design, and craft.

BB: What is your favorite design? And why?

VJC: The eight-pointed star pattern as incorporated in "The Cynosure II" is a favorite design. The definition of the word reflects what I desire for jewelry to infuse in the wearer and the viewer. Cynosure is something that attracts attention by its interest and brilliance, serving for guidance and direction; hence, the brightest star in the sky.

The Cynosure II

Valerie’s winning piece in the Silver/Argentium Silver category, "The Cynosure II"

BB: Who inspires you?

VJC: My parents as mentors and teachers have always been an inspiration to me. They recognized and encouraged my creative talent from the time I was a child.

BB: What is your favorite architectural design? And why?

VJC: My favorite architectural design is the vaulted ceiling, in particular, the "groin vault." The vantage point of looking upward serves as a metaphor for the universal questions that we ask of ourselves. What is our purpose in this life? What is the nature of our soul and our spirit? It represents optimism and inspiration.


"Firenze” bracelet by Valerie Jo Coulson

BB: What kind of influences did you have growing up?

VJC: All things classical—architecture, art, and music.

BB: What is your earliest memory of being inspired by classical architecture, art, or music?

VJC: My earliest memories are from about the age of ten. My parents had a wonderful collection of classical music, which I listened to regularly. My favorites were Antonin Dvorak's "New World Symphony" and Beethoven's 5th.

I also remember a library of books consisting of biographies of Alexander the Great and, of a later period, Leonardo da Vinci. I was specifically impressed by Irving Stone's novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, about Michelangelo, which was given to me as a Christmas gift at age 10. I proclaimed at that impressionable age that I wanted to be an artist. Geometry has always been a mainstay of my lessons and design aesthetic. Reading of Michelangelo's, as well as Brunelleschi's, journey to Rome to study the Pantheon cemented a keen interest in architecture and an emphasis on balance, order, and symmetry.

BB: What are you working on now?

VJC: I recently finished the "Firenze" bracelet, homage to the Pietra Dura of Florence and the Renaissance with a reference to the bricks of Brunelleschi's dome, making possible the construction of the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiori.

BB: How has winning the Saul Bell Design Award competition impacted your life/work?

VJC: Winning the Saul Bell Design Award and attending the awards ceremony has been one of the most treasured moments of my professional life and has more than any other honor or recognition, validated my work. It was instrumental in providing me the momentum to complete the "Firenze" bracelet!

Bruce Hartman – 2nd Place, Silver/Argentium Silver

bruceBruce Hartman has appreciated gemstones for their natural beauty since he was 10 years old. Eventually, in 1977, he and his wife, Darlene, signed up for a metalsmithing and stone-cutting class. Two years later, Bruce did an internship in Germany with a master stone-setter. Before he knew it, he went from spending his days at a computer to losing all awareness of time at a jeweler's bench, finding his voice in design, and his place in the industry. He hasn't looked back since 2009, when he and Darlene decided to make their passion a full-time venture.

They created a brand for their jewelry line, Creek Reflections, and launched their website. Bruce’s award-winning designs reflect European tradition and innovation in design, as well as his love for hand-cut stones.

Bernadette Bennett: Tell us more about the internship in Germany. How did that experience inform your style?

Bruce Hartman: I was working in Germany for the U.S. Department of Defense and we lived about 60 miles from Idar-Oberstein. The owner of the store where I purchased my tools and supplies introduced me to a stone-setter. The stone-setter allowed me to join his workforce for two weeks as a short-term apprentice. I went from the world of computer support and a six-way adjustable chair to a very short three-legged wooden stool at the apprentice bench in a traditional German stone-setter's workshop. I learned to set stones using tools that had not really changed in the last 400 years. I continue to use the tools and skills that I received during that time to help push my designs into new areas.

BB: What challenges have you faced as a small business owner? What rewards?

BH: Challenge #1. Finding my voice. My main focus has been to find my voice as an artist and to perfect my techniques. I have not focused on sales as much as I have focused on developing a unique style. I now feel that I am beginning to find my place in the art/jewelry world.


Bruce’s winning piece in the Silver/Argentium Silver category, “Carnelian Wave”

I have always been drawn to unique stones ever since I visited Bernd Munsteiner's studio in Germany in 1985. As a designer, I was struggling to find stones to fit my designs. I used to cut stones back in the 1970s, but I felt I did not have enough space in the studio for a stone-cutting area. Then I took a stone-cutting class with Michael Boyd, and he helped to reignite my passion for cutting and carving my own stones. I love to take the design from a raw stone all the way through to a finished piece of jewelry. I continue to be amazed at the variety of patterns and colors that God has hidden in the vast array of stones he created.

Challenge #2. Finding a place to share my creations. We live in a rural area, and it has been a challenge to get our pieces in galleries that have customers who can afford unique one-of-a-kind pieces that take days and sometimes weeks to create.

Challenge #3. How to create, in the visible world, what I see in my mind. I found that I was drawn to techniques/textures that are very challenging to master. I am thankful for a class that I took with Harold O'Connor on alternative stone settings. He encouraged me to design and try new ways of mounting stones. He also introduced me to the techniques of reticulation and granulation. All of these events challenged me to find better ways of fabricating metal for my designs. I hated using binding wire to hold pieces together during soldering and I could not afford a laser welder at the time. I was blessed to find a used Orion Pulse Arc Welder that has been an amazing aid in helping me fabricate my designs, and it has allowed me to leave my binding wire behind. (Yea!!!!)


The greatest reward is the loss of time awareness. When I am working I enter a wonderful place where time disappears. I will start something and then when I look up I realize several hours have passed. Someone once wrote that when you find your passion in life, time disappears. I love being able to work in the pursuit of my passion. My passion is really a passion to create new things. The process of creating is what fuels my spirit. The added plus is when my creation brings joy to someone else.

BB: What are you working on now?


Two of Bruce's latest creations, left to right: Agate Path with Silver Granulation Overlays and Purple Agate with Faceted Lemon Quartz.

BH: A carved blue agate with reticulated silver inlays and 18K-gold granulation. (When it's finished, you'll see it on the Creek Reflections Jewelry website.) My latest pieces are on the top 2 rows of the portfolio page.

BB: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting a career in jewelry making?

BH: Constantly seek to learn new skills and techniques. When you see a piece you like from another designer, rather than trying to mimic it, ask yourself what you like it about it. Then try to create a piece that incorporates the parts/lines/techniques/textures that you admired in the other piece. Ask yourself what makes your design uniquely yours.

(P.S. Just for grins…I think, to be free as an artist, it helps to have another job that pays the day-to-day bills so that you can concentrate on finding your own voice as an artist.)

BB: How has winning the Saul Bell Design Award competition impacted your life/work?

BH: The greatest impact of receiving the award was being able to attend the award ceremony and the Santa Fe Symposium. It was great to meet and talk to the other artists, symposium attendees, and personnel from Rio Grande. I made connections with people who are helping me push my work in new directions. I was able to attend a stone-setting class at Rio Grande the week before the conference and that was fantastic.  

Before the award and my trip to Albuquerque, I was not aware of the high level of technical support that was available from Rio Grande. Before the award trip, I was just a crazy artist working alone in the rural hills of Pennsylvania. Now I have new set of resources/contacts to discuss my art with and places where I can get help to resolve problems.

I am still working to find a larger customer market for my work, and I am hopeful that more avenues will open up as the award winners are published in various publications. It was a great honor to be chosen for the award and the new friendships that I developed the week I was in Albuquerque were a fantastic gift. Thank you to all those involved with the award and the symposium.

Every year we look forward to this competition and appreciate the artists for taking the time to reveal more of themselves as well as their challenges and inspirations. In next week's spotlight, we’ll be getting to know the winners in the Hollowware/Art Objects category. Be sure to check back in the coming weeks to learn more about them and ALL of our Saul Bell Design Award winners!


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Annie Koenig’s Saul Bell Design Journey Chapter Two: Surrender is a Finalist!

Jul 16, 2014
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Heather Apodaca
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Annie (also known as Andrea) Koenig won second place in the gold/platinum category of the 2014 Saul Bell Design Award competition. She documented her artistic journey, from the first spark of the idea to enter the contest, through completing the piece and attending the awards dinner, on her website. Today, on The Studio, we share the second in a four-chapter series. Check back in the coming weeks to see more of Annie’s journey!

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Annie Koenig’s Saul Bell Design Journey Chapter One: The Design

Jul 9, 2014
Heather Apodaca
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Annie (also known as Andrea) Koenig won second place in the gold/platinum category of the 2014 Saul Bell Design Award competition. She documented her artistic journey, from the first spark of the idea to enter the contest, through completing the piece and attending the awards dinner, on her website. Today, on The Studio, see the first in a four-chapter series. Check back in the coming weeks to see more of Annie’s journey!

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Saul Bell Design Award Competition Meets Santa Fe Symposium®!

Jun 18, 2014
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Mark Shipman
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May 18, 2014, marked two very special events: the 14th annual Saul Bell Design Award celebration dinner and the opening night dinner of the 28th annual Santa Fe Symposium®. What made the evening truly extraordinary was combining the two events into one, in what Alan Bell, President of Rio Grande, described as a “mashup.”

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2014 Saul Bell Design Award Competition: Meet the Winners!

Jun 12, 2014
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Molly Therese Bell

Take a closer look at the boundary-breaking design of the 14th annual Saul Bell Design Award competition winners. Today’s post showcases all fifteen extraordinary winners and gives you some insight into their techniques, materials, and creative approach. Here are the spectacular winners. . .

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Examining and Challenging Rules in Art Making with Jeweler Ricky Frank

Jun 11, 2014
Ricky Frank
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Today’s post, by master enamelist and jeweler Ricky Frank, is a thought-provoking examination of the “rules” we impose on ourselves in our creative process. Ricky asks you to remember that a rule is just one way in which to do something. It is not the only way. Ask yourself if the rules you adhere to are helping you or creating obstacles.

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May is Gold Month Contest Winner: Congratulations Kelly Noonan of 5 Oaks Studio!

Jun 5, 2014
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Heather Apodaca
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Throughout May we celebrated “May is Gold Month” with a special edition of our What Are You Working on Now? contest! The weather is warming up and gold is HOT, so we were thrilled to see 15 outstanding gold contest entries! Kelly Noonan of 5 Oaks Studio won the contest, a $100 Rio Grande gift certificate, and a moment in The Studio spotlight!

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In the Spotlight: The Magical Colors of Hsu Studios

May 8, 2014
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Amy Cliser
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Carol and Jean-Pierre Hsu of Hsu Studios are in the spotlight at The Studio today. See how they create pieces with lively movement and vibrant color by turning anodized aluminum into contemporary jewelry, wall art, and mobiles.

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The Color Clash—Purple and Orange: They’re Better Together

Apr 28, 2014
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Heather Apodaca
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Purple and orange. They’re bold. They’re daring. They’re two colors you might think clash, but don’t make enemies of them quite yet. With the color-blocking craze going on everywhere and both hues playing a starring role in recent trends reports, these former bold-faced rivals are quickly becoming the best of friends. Check out The Studio today for purple and orange inspiration!

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What Are You Working on Now? Show Us Your Stuff AND Stay Tuned for Our Special May Contest!

Apr 24, 2014
Molly Therese Bell

What inspires you these days? What materials are on your bench? It’s another “What are You Working on Now?” contest, and once again we’re inviting readers to submit a picture or two and a description of what’s on their bench right now. This month’s winner, Alex Anderson, has won a $20 Rio credit and a moment in the spotlight! Now June’s WWoN? contest has officially begun and on May 1, here at The Studio, we’ll announce details about a contest in honor of Gold Month. Come show us your stuff!

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