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Humble beginnings

Few precious jewels go into Tom McCarthy's creations, but pebbles, rubber tubing - even concrete - form beautifully designed pieces that are one of a kind.

Published June 13, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - In Tom McCarthy's world, glamor arrives improbably on a rocky road. Or one paved with rubber tubing and molded concrete. McCarthy, an artist who lives and works in St. Petersburg, strings along such earthbound materials to create jewelry of preternatural beauty.

McCarthy's necklaces, brooches and rings are not in the gold-and-diamond genre typical of jewelry stores. Buy a David Yurman bracelet at Saks Fifth Avenue or an Elsa Peretti pendant at Tiffany and, beautiful as they are, others just like them wait for the next purchaser.

Most jewelrymaking is essentially metallurgy. Commonly, the artist creates a wax model to make a mold that can be cast in gold, platinum or silver and recast multiple times. McCarthy fabricates each piece individually, using hand tools, some of which he made himself. Drills with bits the diameter of a hair, picks, files and a variety of items he has appropriated from other crafts, especially printmaking, help him achieve his pieces' minute detailing.

"Casting is completely valid and in a lot of ways would save me money," McCarthy says. "But you can't get the same crisp detail with wax as with fabrication."

He generally favors traditional precious metals as a starting point, but he is likely to reject the expected embellishments. The humble materials and spare, ascetic lines, broken only occasionally with a ruby or sapphire, are the antithesis of status jewelry.

"All materials are fair game," he says.

McCarthy makes reasonably priced pieces - small earrings, for example, for a little more than $100 - but much of his work, however humble its components, can sell for several thousand dollars.

"So many people approach life as a commodity. You're paying for the idea and for all the experimentation. It takes the same time and knowledge to make silver as gold. The cost is mostly design, labor, time. Not materials."

Most of McCarthy's work is commissioned by those who have come to understand his cerebral approach.

"A commission is a dialogue, and if you're both on the same wavelength, it progresses," he says. "I turn down some commissions. I can do anything technically and I've worked in gold and diamonds, and I still do, but sometimes it's not my style. If they want a cocktail ring with 48 pave diamonds, I send them to someone else. In a sense, my jewelry is minimal, severely edited. It's a quest to find the essence of something."

McCarthy tends to work intuitively, arranging the materials littering his work table, things many would consider detritus, experimenting with odd combinations until something works.

So began one of his most recent series of jewelry, which uses small black rubber tubes connected with sterling silver and hung with pearls.

"I like abstracted forms. When a supplier started carrying rubber, I got some and just let it hang around for a while. I decided to use movement as an embellishment, which was as much a reason for using rubber as the contrast between it and the precious pearls, and that beautiful black-white contrast."

To form the silver that is the base for one such necklace, McCarthy rolls a sheet of it through a mill that resembles a pasta machine. That forms a graceful curved bar that, when closely examined, is wider at one end than the other. If the shape needs tweaking, he heats it up with a torch and hand forges it on an anvil with a hammer of his own design. Then holes are punched through it and threaded with the rubber, held by tiny silver screws. He makes those, too. The ends are finished with caps of silver he has soldered with small rings, from which pearls are suspended.

The clasp, which McCarthy could purchase ready-made but chooses to make himself, gets as much time and thought as the main elements of the piece. Sometimes, especially in his brooches, the clasp is an integral part of the design.

Before he assembles all the components, though, he works the silver over a lot.

"Cleanup takes as long as the fabrication," he says.

McCarthy sands the metal and scrapes it with a sharp implement used by printmakers to erase mistakes made on printing tablets, "a tool that has been used probably for 2,000 years," and hand burnishes it "so it isn't dead flat; it's a refined finish that dances with light." The little screws, rings and hinge parts, what he calls the "hoo-has," are burnished in a mechanized rotating barrel loaded with steel shot and a solution of soap and water.

"But I never polish out the scratches," he says. "A perfectly polished surface is boring. And sometimes I like the metal with tarnish, so I tarnish it for you. The parts that are black are meant to be, as an aesthetic response."

If McCarthy, 44, wanted to make standard jewelry, he has had the training for it.

He was born in Wyoming and raised in Connecticut, the son of a career military father and homemaker mother. When he got older, he worked summers with his fraternal twin on ranches in Kansas and Montana.

"Cowboys," he says, "have great accessories."

McCarthy was a history major at Grinnell, a liberal arts college in Iowa and, for a lark, took a jewelrymaking class during his senior year.

"I became born again," he says. "I found my hands knew what they were doing when I started working with these materials, and I wanted to do it the rest of my life."

He graduated and sought an apprenticeship with a craftsman "but it turns out nobody has apprenticeships," so he signed on to do bench work at a small jewelry business attached to a "rock 'n' roll clothing store" - cleaning, repairing and sometimes making jewelry "like big flashy gold earrings" for almost a year.

He found his way to the prestigious Penland School in North Carolina, where fine crafts are taught, and there, he says, "I got my real training."

He learned to weave, too, because he thought he could make, and control, the clothes on which his jewelry was worn.

"I let go of that as too obsessive," he says.

He worked at Penland for two years as a cook in return for room, board and classes, then followed a girlfriend to Raleigh and managed an ice cream store.

"One day the owner of the jewelry store next door came in and was talking about needing help. I raised my hand and was hired. I learned to set diamonds there. Then, out of the blue, the head of the metals program at Southern Illinois University called and asked if I was interested in teaching."

He has made a living by teaching and creating since.

While some in his field bristle at the label "craftsman" rather than artist, McCarthy embraces it.

"I used to say, irritating my art teachers, that I was an artist only until I learned how to be a craftsman. I'm proud of it."

He moved to Florida in 1990 for a residency program at the Florida Gulf Coast Art Center in Clearwater, now the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo, intending to stay for two years.

"I stayed because the arts community is so supportive in Pinellas County," he says.

Currently McCarthy teaches several classes at the Arts Center in St. Petersburg to supplement his income.

"I barely make it sometimes," he says. "I couldn't if I had a family."

But for the first time, he is able to afford a small studio separate from his house, which used to be almost completely taken over by his equipment and supplies.

Concrete is a recent fascination.

"I've spent a lot of time playing with cement recipes," he says, taking a small molded brick and slamming it into the floor. "I did a lot of stress tests to find one that wouldn't shatter when you do that."

He'll bend and forge compact shapes in silver, which he fills with his concrete formula, adding metal to make parts of it oxidize. The result is jewelry that is a hybrid, something that appears to be unearthed from an archaeological dig and melded with a futuristic sensibility.

And he loves rocks and stones - not the precious kind. Friends bring interesting ones back from trips to foreign beaches. He's just as happy using river rocks ordered from a garden supply store or sold in bulk at hardware stores. Large bowls filled with varying sizes cover the workbench, and he fishes them out, lining them up until, from hundreds, he finds the few with the symmetry he seeks.

Drilled with small holes and strung on a fine silver cord, held in place by chunky clasp, they ripple like a living, articulated creature.

The necklace feels surprisingly light around the neck.

"I really like making necklaces now," McCarthy says. "For a long time I focused on brooches. But they require something to pin them to and they don't come into direct contact with a person. I like something more intimately associated with the body."

Rarely does color find its way into McCarthy's jewelry beyond the occasional precious stone or the natural colors of the material.

"I describe myself as Crayola-phobic," he says. "Though I did get this (loops of bright-pink tubing) and I've been looking at it for a while. Maybe it'll work into something."

One day several weeks ago, he finished a first version of a necklace fashioned from silver bars and links, with a small rock suspended from it. It is beautiful, even in its crude manifestation, but it doesn't hang right.

"The weight is perfect if it doesn't involve a human being," McCarthy says, laughing. "If it was on cloth, the weight of the stone would hold it but not if it's resting on a neck. Physics is working against me, so I have to rethink it with different elements."

When finished, it, like most of his one-of-a-kind jewelry, will have a name, probably of a woman he knows and admires.

"It's a big basis for how I design now," he says. "Having someone in mind when I design, even if it's not for her, even if she doesn't buy it."

McCarthy is also experimenting with a concept he's calling Sidewalk Pieces. They look like miniature paving blocks scratched while wet with initials or a hopscotch pattern. He's playing with tiny silk leaves to emulate weeds growing in cracks. They are evocative and nostalgic, but, like all of McCarthy's jewelry, even that made for family members, they are never sentimental or overwrought. The idea could take months or a year to develop into jewelry with his stamp.

"It's always different from the original concept," McCarthy says. "I'm seduced by the materials first and then try to find the technique for them. Technique is a grammar. I'm interested in the essay."

-- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or

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