GIA Scholarship Helps Designer Build Technical Skills and Creativity
July 27, 2018
Daniel Wisner’s pulse quickened as he walked down the corridor with his mother to pick up his older brother from metalsmithing class. The closer they got, the louder the strains of Black Sabbath and rhythmically clanging hammers echoed down the corridor. The wide-eyed 9-year-old entered the arts centre classroom and was immediately captivated.
“People were hunched over mandrills and forming stakes, hammering away at silver bowls, while my brother, Justin, was in the corner with a blow torch and massive, Mad Max-style goggles shielding his face,” remembers Wisner, a GIA Jewelry Design and Technology (JDT) graduate and co-owner of Brooklyn jewellery design firm Matthias & Wisner. “The instructor stood in the centre, hair past her waist, encrusted in silver from head to toe. I immediately felt at home in the metal shop and from that point on, I wanted to be a jeweller.”
Wisner anxiously waited for his 11th birthday when he could join his brother in an apprenticeship with the instructor, silversmith Kristen Alice Urffer. The brothers studied alongside Urffer for the next five years.
“Kristen did things the old way, and really drove home the ‘practice makes perfect’ maxim,” he says. “She instilled in us patience and dedication to the craft. Her focus and ‘do it again’ mentality gave me the backbone to continue in the industry.”
Wisner then apprenticed with a production jeweller before heading to Kutztown University of Pennsylvania to earn his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Enamel and Jewelry Arts. While there, he worked as a studio monitor in the school’s metal and jewellery arts programme and began a small business creating commissioned jewellery pieces.
He graduated from Kutztown in 2014 and was awarded a residency and year-long staff artist position at the Vermont Studio Center (VSC) in Johnson, Vermont. As the end of Wisner’s year of experimenting with sculpture, performance art and his long-time favourite – jewellery design – at VSC drew near, he began to explore work as a designer in New York City. He was soon hit by an uncomfortable reality.
“I quickly found that while my artistic skills were on a par with industry expectations, my technical knowledge was lacking,” he says. “I’d spent years working on techniques that were no longer used industry-wide. Though I knew how to talk to a jeweller about making a three-stone engagement ring with a cathedral setting and could show them a sketch, I didn’t know how to produce it in CAD – or even what CAD was.”
After one disappointing job-hunting trip, Wisner remembered that another mentor, jeweller Janna Gregonis, had told him about GIA and how it could give him an “unparalleled education” and “a better edge against competition in the job market”. He did some research and was surprised to learn that GIA offered a seven-month intensive programme in Carlsbad on CAD and design. He applied to the programme and for a scholarship the next day.
A few months later, Wisner received a letter stating he had received the scholarship in full.
“I could barely speak,” he says. “I knew from that moment that my life had just made a major shift.”
That life change was dramatic: Wisner moved from the East Coast to Southern California in 2016. His brother Justin, who had also trained as a jeweller and blacksmith and was working in jewellery sales, moved with him to help support him while he threw himself into the intensive programme. Wisner attended every student lecture, checked out stacks of books at the “second-to-none” Richard T. Liddicoat Gemological Library and Information Center almost daily, and focused on showing up every time.
“These classes are gruelling and long, filled with painstaking detail and work, but that’s exactly why you should come to class every single day,” he says. “So much happens in one day, it can set you back more than you think just by missing even an hour.”
Wisner clearly remembers a day in class when he was “mesmerised” by the “absurd levels of detail” he and his classmates learned to create a piece of jewellery in Matrix. His instructor told him it was “just the beginning” of what was to come in technology.
“At the time I couldn’t believe that CAD could get any more advanced than what I’d just experienced, but now I know how right he was,” Wisner says. “The JDT programme prepared me to enter the industry as a technical designer and gave me the tools and knowledge I needed to get started.
“I learned more in seven months about technology, stone grading and business practices than I ever thought possible, and my base of knowledge is more expansive than I ever hoped. I feel more confident and in control of my work than ever before and know that I’m able to create exactly what I’ve drawn on paper using the knowledge I gained during my time at GIA.”
Wisner’s hard work paid off – within six months he had a full-time job as an assistant technical designer at Alexis Bittar. Though his own company was successful, he felt it was important to work for and with other professionals.
He also continues to operate Matthias & Wisner – a homage to his parents’ surnames – with his brother. They create commissioned jewellery together, and Wisner says their work complements each other.
“I tend to focus on the stones, and Justin is more metal-focused,” Wisner explains. “And I hold fast to some of the ‘rules’ of design, while Justin’s organic design background frees him of that cage. Our aesthetics are quite similar, though, and we both have classic taste, focusing on using the best materials and creating timeless profiles. This leads to a harmony of contemporary classics.”
They’re both avid students of history and distance themselves from trends in favour of comfortable, wearable jewellery and lasting style, looking to “the greats” like Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen, Jackie Onassis and David Bowie for inspiration.
“Style is inherently personal,” Wisner says. “Learning how to interpret style gives someone the key to learning how to design what a client really wants.”
As the brothers look forward to growing the business and creating a new line of jewellery, Wisner has no plans to stop learning.
“Technique and technology are crucial to successful design,” he says. “Staying current with technology in our industry allows for new possibilities within design – when we stop being restricted by possibility and are allowed to express ourselves, we can create without concern. That’s why I attended GIA, and why I continue to push for development today. Our industry grows every day, and with it, so should we.”
Jaime Kautsky, a contributing writer, is a GIA Diamonds Graduate and GIA Accredited Jewelry Professional and was an associate editor of The Loupe magazine.