In a forthright conversation, Dean Brown reveals his experience as a jewelry designer, being a student again, his industry experience, and what it is like being an African-American male in his major. He also talks about how a public library, a metal working father, and his community made a difference in his life.
Long story short:
I grew up in a family that worked in metal. My father came from Jamaica and opened an iron welding shop. When I was younger I didn’t care about it.
In high school I worked at a library and took home art books. My high school was next to a Michaels, back when there were only three in the city. I was making stuff out of polymer clay. I made a piece for someone and saw him wearing it. I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
He said “Oh I’m taking this to the jeweler to get the real thing made.” That thing took me forever to get just right, set it, sculpt it and make sure that when I baked it so it didn’t crack. But I couldn’t be angry because he was really complimenting me; he wanted to see it in metal.
Jewelry-making takes form
I started to think how far I was from actually making my own jewelry. My father had come here with nothing, drove a cab to start and saved enough to open a metalworking shop. I grew up around metal.
Torches and centrifuges
I started talking with my dad about how he did it. He showed me how to use torches and different tools. I bought my first centrifuge, a broken-arm centrifuge to cast bronze. I wanted to see what I could do on my own with mold-making. I made a few pieces and fell in love with it.
Are people going to call the cops?
It was a challenge. I was literally doing it on a fire escape outside of my bedroom on a major street. Every time I lit my torch to melt metal, I was worried people would call the cops and wondering how that might play out.
I started succeeding. I bought more equipment to polish, and equipment just to get my stuff out there. I started out with bronze, but once I got good with it, I started working in silver because it is an easier metal to work with, and more people appreciate its value.
From coffee to professional metal working
I was working at a coffee shop. There are lots of people passionate about coffee; I’m not one of them. I was good at it. It paid the bills, but talking to people about the foam on their cappuccino when what I really wanted to do was sculpt wax and make jewelry wasn’t cutting it.
I got a job at a fabrication studio, Gotham Metalworks, working with large scale casting. I was casting huge sink dies to handle pressed-copper sheets for use replacing facades of historically significant buildings around the city.
Whenever those buildings got historic preservation designations, they became our customers. Their old copper-fitted facades eventually have to be repaired or entirely rebuilt. The old copper was easier to work with, as it contains lead, making the sheets softer. But when they’re restored, the copper can’t contain lead. It makes the job harder because lead-free copper is more brittle, harder. It is not as easy to press a design into it.
For large repairs, we would get a chunk of the original facade to make a die that looks exactly like that building. You end up reproducing a design that’s not necessarily yours, despite the joy of applying great craft. The craftsmanship is what people judge.
Jewelry for Buildings
The facade is what people see first. It’s like you’re making jewelry for buildings because these floral patterns and columns have to be preserved and done in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing but also structurally sound. They’re supposed to be up there for another 100 years.
I loved it. It was unlike anything I had done. I was getting health insurance. I thought I was set. My girlfriend and I were thinking about saving for a home. Then the rug got pulled from underneath us. I got laid off. Last person hired first person fired. They got outbid, or contracts dried up.
I thought I was doing such a great job, and felt I was being trained to replace my boss if he moved up to management. As someone who has never been laid off, been fired from a job, that mattered to me. It left me in a really dark place. Luckily I got good support at home.
A look back before applying to FIT
On the other hand, I learned a lot in less than a year there. I learned to solder. I got to use all those power tools. I learned to drive a forklift.
I had started toward a journalism degree at Brooklyn College, but stopped to work at Gotham because I was spending all this money and the degree I was working toward I had no passion for. I thought about FIT and how transferring my credits from a CUNY to a SUNY school would be good for me.
“Dean is a passionate learner. He is never afraid to start over. He never asks me to accept work that isn’t the best; he’s willing to do what it takes. Patience is a tool and he’s learning that. I predict he will create wonderful designs that include the DNA of his history and his hopes, beautiful, sensitive work with the ineffable taste of who he is, where he’s been and where he’s going.” – Jewelry Design Professor Wendy Yothers
I never know until someone tells me that I’m doing everything that I know; I just try to keep the ball rolling. I got my transcripts ready and applied. I was hiking with my girlfriend and kept calling FIT over the summer. People were getting their admission notifications with rolling admission. I applied in June, finished my application early July, and got accepted mid-July. I had to register that week and start classes in August.
My first semester at FIT has been my first semester at college after a four-year hiatus. It’s been really informative. It’s been really challenging.
Although I’ve been doing jewelry for almost eight years, I’ve learned so much in the few months I’ve been here. My soldering technique and putting different metals together, I draw this metal and this metal. I form these things and then I bring them together into a piece. That wouldn’t have been possible for me just a few months ago.
I melt metal and turn it into jewelry. People have no idea in my neighborhood that that’s how it’s made.
“I tell my friends that whether they want to be a sound engineer, or fashion designers or write a book or be in business of something, if you feel like you need to go to school to do it then do it because we can’t be YouTube students forever.” – Dean Brown
I just want to take all the positives from every experience. I come here and I’m kind of like a fish out of water because I’m like the only black person I see. I’m the only 28-year-old male that I see in this entire program. In fact, there’s only two other male students in the entire year of jewelry design.
For me, that’s nothing new. It’s not like my community doesn’t love jewelry. But I’m the only person I’ve known that casts and makes his own jewelry, over the last eight years. My friends and most people I know say that a lot of the process of how things are made has been lost. People would rather buy it on Amazon.
Not being able to have these conversations with anyone before I got here seems esoteric. It can get deep trying to explain what a broken arm centrifuge is. Yet I look at people’s hands and know that everything they’re wearing was made through that process. It’s like having a secret knowledge and then just wanting to go deeper into that world and I’m here!
I come from a family of makers. My mom was a sculptor and painter and my father is a metal worker to this day. But still, I’ve been alone in much of my pursuit.
I never pictured being here. Nine months ago I was on a different trajectory. Think about it, I started out being interested in jewelry because I was close to a crafts store. I spent a lot of time looking at crafts as far as the history of how other people make stuff. I’ve always been into fabrics. I’ve always been into enamels.
I love really complicated executions of what appears to be simple techniques. I like bright colors. My girlfriend is from Tibet so I’m exposed to a lot of Asian art.
Navigating the all-too-common surprise
The common idea in this country that criminality surrounds the black man remains the biggest challenge in my life. Someone being startled when they turn a corner and see me. Security guards giving me an extra look. I’ve dealt with that my entire life so surprise is not surprising to me.
I overcome it on a daily basis, on the train here, on the bike ride here. I still got to make it to this bench. I still got to finish my assignments. I still got to prove to myself that I can do it. At this point people are gonna be people.
I get to class and they say “Oh we’re going to go to the jewelry show.” I’m not terrified to be in that room because I don’t know anything about gems. I’m terrified to be in that room because when people look at me they’re not questioning what I know. They are questioning who I am and that hurts because it’s not just white people, it’s all types of people wondering how I got this far when I don’t feel like I’ve gotten anywhere at all!
I have to play way straighter than the average person. I’m not saying that it’s like a gloom over my life because my life is dope like I have a dope partner, I have amazing friends, I’m actively doing what I’m passionate about, and I have people around me even my classmates; they’re maybe 10 years younger than me. Some of them look to me for answers and some of them treat me like the regular person that I am and I appreciate that.
Coming up from the library
I’m going to be someone who does workshops for youths because I’m someone who came up from a library that pretty much saved my life. I worked there as a volunteer in the children’s section before they hired me. I had to put in a year of volunteer work. My mom used to work there, too. We moved to her old neighborhood in Queens. The librarian knew her so they gave me a shot and It changed my whole trajectory of life.
I didn’t want to be a rapper anymore, I wanted to be a jeweler and probably because rappers wear jewelry.
The inherently political
We’re learning about stones and their impact on global trade and how they’re accessible and how they’re sold. When you start talking to people about that in our “intro into diamonds” class with gemology, learning in-depth about the stones that I see rappers and other celebrities wear? The knowledge behind that — knowing the destruction behind that as well, knowing what it takes to get some of these materials. Wow!
It’s gonna impact my work. I want to make political statements because it’s inherently political, you know whether you see it or not or whether to care or not everything with silver the brass whatever you’re working with trickles down to your neighborhood where people are wearing it but don’t understand how it’s affecting people on the other side of the world and I’m in a place where I’m working with this material.
I’m black and I can’t ignore that. It affects me one way or the other, whether I’m the black guy in the mine, or the black guy buying it from whoever. There’s this contradiction I’m trying to rectify. This space that I’m trying to fill where I can talk about where these things come from, but also why it matters that we have it in the first place because ultimately it’s just jewelry. That’s what I’m learning, this story I want to tell.
Learned so far:
I’ve learned metal forming, hydraulic pressing, how to properly use a jeweler saw to saw brass, new gold silver sterling silver, proper filing techniques, what sort of files to apply to get the cuts in the corners that you want in your pieces, a lot of finishing techniques, how to use magnetic polishers, the polishing wheels. I learned how to solder, how to care for precious metals like how to mix metals.
That’s just studio stuff. Talk about what I’m learning in Intro to Diamonds or Gemology, that’s a whole ‘nother bag. It’s a lot of science that I’m picking up in those classes. In studio fabrication we’re learning idealization, how to take an idea and put it on paper and generate it in either an image that looks like the final product in Photoshop, Rhino or just on paper with paint brushes and stuff, a lot of rendering techniques.
And then it’s still coming in and doing the studio hours to apply what you’re learning, so you’re not just hearing it and forgetting it. The list goes on. I never really stopped until now to think about it.
I never soldered anything on a small scale before. I had to learn how to draw down wire to the right diameter, to form bails. I had to learn how to make clasps. That all happened here in the last eight weeks since this semester started.
Prof. Frank Fraley provides a reflection
When Frank walked right in, I was like, alright, maybe they’re not racist in here. I have a Black professor teaching me jewelry design. Seeing myself reflected in someone who I think is successful who makes jewelry and has a foot in this industry makes me feel like I could eventually do the same thing. I heard you’re never too old to go back to school my entire life. But we have an administration that is not giving out any second chances.
If you have a dream, now’s the time. If this administration keeps operating the way it operates, it’s like it’s going to be harder to pursue your dreams coming from where I come from.
I just want this to be a sort of message to those people who are thinking of getting out of that coffee shop, getting out of that bike messenger life because I did that for a long time.
I tell my friends that whether they want to be a sound engineer, or fashion designers or write a book or be in business of something, if you feel like you need to go to school to do it then do it because we can’t be YouTube students forever.
photos: Rachel Ellner