The last thing Patty Conlin expected was to fall in love with fine jewelry making.
The Ohio-born goldsmith was majoring in art and was strongly considering making a career out of graphic design when she was offered a student-teacher position at a school near Denver, Colorado.
“Just in case I wasn’t able to become a famous graphic designer quickly, I thought that I would at least get a teaching degree,” laughed Conlin. When she arrived, faculty told her that she would be teaching a jewelry class, fully expecting that Conlin had prior experience. She didn’t.
“I learned one step ahead of my students and I just fell in love with it,” Conlin remembered.
Back in Ohio, Conlin persuaded her college to offer a class in metalworking and her passion grew. Once she graduated, she left her waitressing job for a series of jewelry stores where she steadily learned how to create functional jewelry and how to make repairs.
“I was a real nomad for a while,” said Conlin, referencing one long-standing job in Atlanta, Georgia. During her 15-year stay, Conlin received knowledge of and appreciation for all kinds of gemstones, especially the ones that aren’t typically seen in fine jewelry such as agates, opals and topaz. “The commercial industry doesn’t pay much attention to (them) but they’re so beautiful!” Conlin said. “There’s so much wonderful color.”
Creative in the Mankato Area
When her husband received a job teaching microbiology at Mankato’s Minnesota State University campus, Conlin settled into her own new role working for Harpies’ Bazaar in Old Town but she started thinking of maybe owning her own studio someday. By the time Harpies’ Bazaar closed several years later, the idea had become determination. With the help of a local realtor friend, Conlin began to search the area for a possible site.
I love my job. I can’t imagine having a house without a torch and a drill!
“I was looking for a place that I could have a business and live,” she shared. Although Mankato turned up empty for suitable buildings, Saint Peter produced a lovely Victorian-style house with a big front porch, hardwood floors, and a side turret. Conlin thought it was perfect.
“Jewelers don’t usually get the most attractive studios, but I have a beautiful studio!” she said.
With just a little bit of fixing up, the Victorian house became Stone’s Throw Gallery and Studio where Conlin creates her work in a state-of-the-art goldsmith studio and sells it along with creations by other featured artisans. Photography, stained glass, blown glass and paintings are some of her favorite items to display alongside her jewelry. Conlin finds her staff artists at art shows in which her work is featured. During the events’ lunch breaks, she goes around to different booths to talk with the craftspeople whose work she especially likes. Currently, Stone’s Throw features the work of 50 craftspeople but has had up to 120 at a time.
“They’re all wonderful artists,” said Conlin. “They know what they’re doing and they’re professionals.”
Passing on the Craft
Conlin frequently gets asked if she features the work of art majors from the local colleges. Her answer is that she loves supporting new artists, but wants to give them a change to cut their artistic teeth first. “You’re not a professional then,” said Conlin, recalling the maturation process of her own college days. “You still have room to grow.” Her goal is to feature work that both creators and buyers will be happy with in the long run.
Instead, Conlin frequently takes in apprentices to help those with interest and passion learn about her craft. Right now, she has two apprentices whose benches are near hers in the gallery’s goldsmith shop.
“We do it old-style,” Conlin said, speaking of her teaching technique. Apprentices watch her create a piece, asking questions and getting walked through the process in a hands-on style. Frequently Conlin will call a student over to demonstrate a technique and then offering to let him or her attempt.
“Not everybody can learn from me, but I’ll try!” laughed Conlin. As a budding goldsmith, she worked alongside an established jeweler who would mentor male coworkers but refused to teach Conlin any tricks of his craft because she was young and a girl. The experience was so distasteful to her that she decided to never let bias prevent her from taking on an apprentice. “Anyone who asks me, I will always teach them,” Conlin said.
Gold jewelry takes up the bulk of Conlin’s time. She primarily works with 14 karat gold but will sometimes use 18 and 22 karat. “It is such a wonderful metal – it is worth it!” said Conlin. Although gold can be pricier, Conlin encourages her clients to consider it.
“Silver is not the new gold,” she said, although she will work with it depending on the client and the piece. “Silver tarnishes. Gold doesn’t tarnish.”
For Conlin, the customer’s wishes are of utmost importance. Over the years, her focus has shifted from creating ready-to-buy pieces to custom jewelry. When clients approach her with an idea for a piece, she will create sample sketches until they love their chosen design.
“I’ve gotten much better at making the stuff they ask me to make look like what they have in their head,” she said. Even if she and her customer love a concept, it still sometimes takes a little tweaking to bring it to life. Conlin works with each client to create a design that matches their original inspiration while still being wearable as a 3-D gold jewelry item.
Conlin is proud of her work and her studio alike. In today’s world, bench jewelers at a local jewelry store are becoming more and more rare. Rather than send out to have gemstones set and precious metals shaped, Conlin’s customers can see anything from engagement rings to statement pendants come to life before their eyes.
“I love my job,” Conlin said. “I can’t imagine having a house without a torch and a drill!”