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Jonathan Rutledge has worked with other metals, but prefers gold for its color, interaction with light, and its malleability and ductility. It can be shaped or formed, as by hammering or pressure, and can also be drawn out into wire or threads.
Mr. Rutledge uses gemstones and pearls as well. A technique that informs his work, both visually and historically, is granulation, “a 4,500-year-old technique … [that] is the process of taking tiny granules of gold and fusing them onto a base in order to create a design on a piece of jewelry.” The stunning results are an intermingling of contemporary understanding and Etruscan method, using tools that the pre-Roman Etruscans did not have – a microscope, for example, that he uses to ensure that fusing of the literally sand-sized particles of gold has taken place satisfactorily.
Evanston Township High School student, military man, art museum tourist, firefighter, jeweler and designer – Jonathan Rutledge, remarkably, has been all of these things. Asked what led him to his current life as an award-winning goldsmith, Mr. Rutledge laughs and says, “I did everything backwards.”
When he was in the air force in Germany, working with sheet metal and fixing F-16s, he went to museums all over Europe – before he knew what he was looking at. He went to college (Illinois State University) on his return, and near the end of a degree in political science, he “accidentally” discovered small metals in an art course.
The professor in that class, a Viet Nam vet, had made a place for Mr. Rutledge in the closed-to-all-but-art-students class, and, impressed with the student’s work, invited him to return as a graduate student. Mr. Rutledge, however, says he thought at that time that he wanted to make a life in federal law enforcement.
On the very day of his local interview, as he nursed a cup of coffee at the Unicorn Cafe waiting for the appointment time to arrive, it hit him: What he really wanted to do was to design and create fine jewelry. Mr. Rutledge cancelled his appointment and went back to school.
A year and a half later, he left. Mr. Rutledge says he realized his own goals were more practical than they were academic: “An art program at the graduate level is conceptually based. … My ideas have always been more design-oriented. … I wasn’t doing what, as a student, you should be doing, so I ended up leaving.”
But, he says, “I always knew I didn’t want to be a ‘starving artist.’”
He was turning 30 and did not have a job – he says he needed to be a bit more secure than that to begin work as a jeweler.
Mr. Rutledge decided to become a firefighter. He did the training and got a position in just three months. He worked and put his money into equipment and materials, and designed and made jewelry when he could.
When, finally, he took the next big step and, for the first time, entered some of his work in a juried show, it was the nationally prestigious American Craft Exposition, held every August on the Northwestern University campus. His work was accepted; this was in May of 2004, and by October of the same year, Mr. Rutledge had left the fire department and was in his studio full-time.
Among other awards, Mr. Rutledge has won second place in the 2008 Saul Bell Design Award – international in scope – in the beads category, in which the “predominant design elements are beads, pearls, or other strung ornaments.” His entry was a necklace of granulated gold with tiny gemstones and black pearls.
This year Mr. Rutledge won first place in the same category, for a necklace of lapis, gemstones and gold. The necklace places the rough-surfaced squarish lapis stones against intervening small bars of gold, the top of each of which is covered with granulation surrounding five tiny white gemstones. The result is magnificent (to see it, as well as the artist’s 2008 entry, see http://www.saulbellaward.com/). Mr. Rutledge and his wife have just had a baby, and among the goldsmith’s hopes for the future is to go back to Europe and visit museums – with his newer understanding of art and craft.
One might wonder how a kid from Evanston, with no particular artistic hobbies or training, ended up designing superb pieces of craftsmanship for a living.
“Everything happens for a reason,” says Mr. Rutledge. “This whole journey has been one coincidence after another.”