The Innovators, Part III Steven Kretchmer: Jewelry's Mad Scientist

April 1998

Precious Metals:Metalsmithing

The Innovators, Part III Steven Kretchmer: Jewelry's Mad Scientist

by Alan Revere

Metalsmith makes his mark by breaking the rules

Steven Kretchmer is the most visible innovator on the American jewelry scene today. At just 44, he has made his mark and received wide acclaim for his blue and purple gold alloys, his use of colored golds in mokumé gané and his alloy-based tension mountings. Though he now enjoys the niche he has carved out for himself, like many free thinkers, Kretchmer didn't always fit in and he has rarely followed the rules.

As a child, Kretchmer liked to pick up shards of metal and bits of broken objects from the street and take them home to build things. He spent more time taking his toys apart than playing with them. This trait may have been passed on by his father, a world-famous pediatrician and a tinkerer in his own right. The elder Kretchmer was the first to synthesize lactase, an important enzyme used to digest milk products. Though intelligent and clearly capable, Steven was not interested in academics and was far from the ideal student. Wanting to do things differently than other students often got him into trouble. He excelled in auto shop, not chemistry or biology.

Becoming the "Mad Scientist"
Though one of his grandfathers had been a jeweler, Kretchmer's route to precious metal design and technology followed a circuitous path. He tried fishing in Alaska, attended the Rhode Island School of Design, then worked in Italy for a famous Italian jeweler. He also studied and mastered martial arts and earned black belts in three forms, including Philippine stick fighting and Tae Kwon Do.

He later attended the University of Michigan and earned a master of fine arts degree in the metals program. At the university, he studied with Eugene and Hiroko Pijanowski, early developers of mokumé gané (Japanese wood grain metal) in the United States.

Even in college, Kretchmer says, his professors didn't know what to make of him. While other students took inspiration from their mentors and strove to prove their merit, Kretchmer just wanted to be left alone to explore. It is easy to understand why, early on, Kretchmer earned the nickname "mad scientist." The name still follows him.

After school, Kretchmer's genius and energy were hard to conceal. During the early stages of his career, several "patrons" recognized his potential and put him to work in their research-and development departments before he chose to go out on his own. At Harry Winston Inc., New York City, for example, Kretchmer was asked to develop exotic colors of gold, including blue gold. At another company, he was paid to develop new directions for mokumé gané.

Failures Lead to Successes
But like most experimenters, most of Kretchmer's early pursuits failed. In a perverse way, though, Kretchmer prides himself on these failures. He says martial arts taught him resilience and patience. Through these attributes, he says, he learned that to get somewhere worth going, you have to try many different paths, most of which lead nowhere. But ultimately, he reassures, "If you hang in there long enough, hard work does pay off."

And Kretchmer loves hard work. A few years ago, he relocated his jewelry operation and workshop from Los Angeles to an old stone school house in upstate New York. Because he and his wife, Alma, live just upstairs from the workshop, Kretchmer spends most of his time at work. His primary focus is developing new products in the laboratory he designed and attached to his jewelry workshop. While Alma runs the jewelry business and manages 10 employees, Steven plays alchemist, formulating new alloys and researching several directions in precious metallurgy at one time.

His laboratory is filled with high-tech equipment (such as lasers and precision-controlled atmospheric chambers) as well as the same low- tech tools that have been used for centuries. It was from this laboratory that he formulated the new Platinum SK alloy, a recent innovation now marketed by Hoover & Strong, Richmond, VA.

Asked about his current work, Kretchmer speaks excitedly of gold in exotic colors like the fire-engine red alloy he's working on, but then he falls silent. He confesses he has a lot in the works he can't talk about yet. Then with a manic wink, the man who has brought more new products to the market than any other individual working in jewelry today simply states, "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

Kretchmer's Breakthroughs

The Feb. 1998 issue of Professional Jeweler discussed Steven Kretchmer's latest innovation, the Plat/SK alloy ("Platinum Redefined," p. 86). Here and on p. 62 are other innovations for which he is famous.

Colored Golds: Purple and Blue
In the hands of a skilled artisan, gold can take any imaginable shape. Yet one of the most limiting characteristics of precious metals is color. As a matter of fact, of all the metals, only two don't fall within the gray-white spectrum: gold and copper. So the ability to add color to the goldsmith's palette is an exciting prospect.

There are two ways in which metals appear colored: through composition and through surface treatment. Color can be achieved by alloying or blending different metals in specific formulas. Rose gold, for example, is a gold alloy with a heavy concentration of copper. "Green" gold has more silver and so takes on a slightly greenish tint. But beyond these – and of course white golds – there have been virtually no other colors available.

While purple gold is not new, the intermetallic compound resulting from a mixture of 75% gold with 25% aluminum has always been very hard and brittle. Kretchmer's work has resulted in a purple gold that is castable and, thereby, controllable in shape; he's developing a purple gold alloy he hopes will be malleable as well.

His development of blue gold is the result of a patina or chemical reaction on the surface of the metal. A thin surface layer of a controlled thickness causes optical interference. The patina itself is not colored, but color is the result of the way the light is changed as it bounces off of the metal through the patina.

18k blue and yellow gold necklace with sapphire, diamonds and rubies, courtesy of Harry Winston, New York City.

Colored Gold Mokumé Gané Patterns & Alloy-Based Tension Mountings Steven Kretchmer holds a patent for mokumé gané ornamental surface patterns that result from breaking through very thin layers of colored gold sheet.

He uses diffusion rather than solder to bond thin sheets of different colored gold alloys. Patterns appear when the layers are revealed either by subtraction or by forming and then leveling the bumps.

In the field of tension settings, Kretchmer is not the first to conceive of setting gems so they appear to float between thin struts of precious metal. However, most other tension settings rely on work-hardening the metal to create the strength needed to hold the gemstone. Kretchmer holds two patents, based on his use of specially formulated alloys that are subsequently heat-treated. The Kretchmer process leaves the metal strong enough to secure gems permanently in place.

The "Jupiter Ring" features a tension setting by Steven Kretchmer for a 2.5-ct. radiant-cut diamond and platinum with 18k multicolored mokumé gané and 24k gold inlays. Copyright 1993 S. Kretchmer. U.S. Patent Nos. 5,084108 and 5,188,679.

Alan Revere is a master goldsmith who received training in Germany's famed goldsmithing program in Pforzheim. He is an award-winning jewelry designer and director of the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts, San Francisco, CA.







Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.


 

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