Skip to content

Meet the Winners of Battle of the Benches

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Get to know the masters of the bench from Bench Jeweler Workshop.

Last month, Bench Jeweler Workshop returned to Stuller after a two-year hiatus with bench jewelers from all over the world joining us at our Lafayette, Louisiana, global headquarters. Bench Jeweler Workshop features in-depth training on essential skills, new product demonstrations, networking opportunities, and more. Participants were able to meet with members of the Stuller team and discover new ways to enhance their businesses — not to mention enjoy some good old Cajun cooking!

The highlight of the workshop was the Battle of the Benches®. Battle of the Benches is a real-time series of mini challenges that test the skills of exceptional bench jewelers. From stone setting and metal working to CAD, Bench Jeweler Workshop participants competed against each other to show off their mastery of the bench and create pieces live in front of an excited audience.

Each challenge was streamed live on Stuller’s social media channels. You can look back at footage that includes interviews, behind-the-scenes details, and more from each challenge at Stuller.com/BattleOfTheBenches.

Four challenges produced four outstanding winners whose creations impressed all in attendance. Let’s take a moment to meet our winners and learn about their experience.

Stone Setting Winner: Fred Gavia

Reeds Jewelers | Columbia, South Carolina

fred gavia battle of the benches

Before we jump into the details of your win, tell us a bit about yourself and your background in the jewelry industry.

I’ve been a jeweler for over 25 years, and I’ve been with my current company for 12+ years, a truly fabulous company: Reeds Jewelers. They’re a large family-owned company based in Wilmington, NC. I’m based in Columbia, SC, where I’m a house jeweler at one of our larger stores.

What was your experience at Bench Jeweler Workshop?

This was my first visit to Stuller global headquarters. It was an amazing experience! In some ways, I feel I had a VIP trip. I did compete in the setting challenge, which was very fun. My two fellow competitors were so talented and friendly. I felt honored to be on the same podium. The classes were truly informative. Guy [Borenstein, Stuller’s Senior Gemologist,] especially had a great workshop on lab-created diamonds which are changing so much of our established industry — for good or ill is so far a matter of opinion. The people of Stuller, I cannot say enough about. The tool ‘masters’ of Stuller I found to be so generous with their time and expertise. The main showroom was a wonderland of equipment with everything a modern jeweler could need, and the ability to try out and use a live version of some of the equipment was a real “test drive” moment to anyone looking to make a purchase. On a different note, the crawfish population did suffer slightly. Stuller was so generous to shuttle and cater everyone to a genuine treat!

Tell us about the ring you had to set and what your technique was to ensure the best quality fit.

The contest was centered around a single three-stone ring being set with [Cubic Zirconia]. So simple and challenging. I felt it was a nice test. My personal approach was to make it perfectly geometric, perfect symmetry of stone alignment and prong placement. I like to actually measure and scribe my prongs before I cut. In this instance, I feel it proved decisive. Also, not to damage the [Cubic Zirconia] stones, I treated them as like fine opals through the process. And, of course, presentation, and true multistep polishing with progressively finer wheels and polish combination for the true showroom finish.

What advice would you give to young bench jewelers looking to get better at stone setting?

For the newer setter, no matter your current skill level, a microscope is a must to a modern jeweler. It’s a single piece of equipment that will change your quality level on day one. The ability to see girdle thickness, rail seat clearances, stress lines, prong seats…it can be a lifesaver at times. The Leica A60 that Stuller has is a perfect constant companion and an investment that will pay for itself. An optivisor and bench lamp will only get you so far. A stereo microscope with a ring light will get you the rest of the way.

Parts & Pieces Winner: Thomas Bodham

Reeds Jewelers | Huntsville, Alabama

thomas bodham battle of the benches

Before we jump into the details of your win, tell us a bit about yourself and your background in the jewelry industry.

I officially got into the jewelry industry in 1999. I had always helped my mother pick loose gemstones and settings growing up and when she found out her favorite jeweler needed an apprentice, she contacted me. I applied and have been a bench jeweler ever since.

What was your experience at Bench Jeweler Workshop?

This was my first time to attend the workshop and I absolutely loved it. I had wanted to attend for years, ever since I first read about it. I know it’s cliché, but it was literally everything I had hoped for and more!

Tell us about your winning design. What components were you given and what was your inspiration behind your piece?

I volunteered at the last minute to compete and had nothing in mind as I sat down at the bench. I have always loved vintage jewelry, especially from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Then, combine that with my wife’s love of elegant dangle styles and that has influenced many of my personal designs. We were all given a grab bag of identical items to work with, all simple and basic items as well as an assortment of gemstones.

The first thing that caught my eye was a foot-long piece of twisted wire which you see a lot in vintage pieces. So, after looking at all the other parts, I went with it as a base for my design. The gemstones were more challenging. There was a wide array of colors and styles but nothing that grouped together elegantly. I finally settled on purple and pink, two of my daughter’s favorite colors, as well as some colorless stones for sparkle. My design changed many times as the time ticked away, and I decided against the colorless stones. They just were not working to add to the design. In the end, the time limit was as big a factor as anything on my design but most often simpler is better. I am very proud of the design I turned in inside the time limit!

What advice would you give to young bench jewelers looking to try new things and explore creativity in making jewelry?

Always try and love what you make. If you can’t, who will? I personally love to experiment with style and gemstone combinations and have many great people around that I never hesitate to get their opinion on a new design.

Hand Engraving Winner: Tim Nelson

Symmetry Jewelers | New Orleans, Louisiana

tim nelson battle of the benches

Before we jump into the details of your win, tell us a bit about yourself and your background in the jewelry industry.

I have a very large and incredibly supportive family and feel very fortunate that they have always encouraged me to follow a path in life that makes me happy, and they have helped me to do that in too many ways to count. I got started in the jewelry industry in a rather unusual way I think. I was initially going to college to be an architect but found rather quickly that it wasn’t as creatively exciting for me as I had hoped it would be. I knew that my paternal grandmother had been a jeweler in the past and always thought that was a really cool art form, but it wasn’t until I called my mother about my disappointment and frustration regarding my architecture studies that she recommended I try out some other fields of art like jewelry or sculpture to see if that would be more to my liking, saying she thought that jewelry in particular would really resonate with me. I can definitively say and will always say that she was absolutely right, and that moment would in fact shape my future more than I think either of us realized.

I went on to graduate from the University of Kansas with a double major in jewelry design and sculpture with a minor in art history. My first job was in quality control for a mail order jewelry distributor, which paid the bills, but obviously didn’t check the creative boxes I had hoped for. So, when I met someone and paid a visit to the city of New Orleans, it was an easy — albeit emotional — decision to leave home and pursue more opportunity outside of small-town Kansas. That is where I found Symmetry Jewelers and started working for them as a repair jeweler. Over the last 10 years I’ve taken many continuing education courses and have increased my knowledge and skills to become the head jeweler and designer for them. I’m incredibly grateful to have had the support and opportunity to make this my career and have loved being able to not only create beauty in the world, but to connect with people’s lives through my art in a deeply personal way. It’s very fulfilling work for me.

What was your experience at Bench Jeweler Workshop?

I had a great time at the workshop. I very much enjoyed getting to take the classes, watch the demonstrations, tour the Stuller facility, and of course meet and learn from so many great people who I might never have met otherwise. It was very interesting to hear their stories and learn about their experiences in the industry and how it related to my own. I have no doubt I’ll be returning in future years to reconnect with people and meet new ones! Plus, I got to get more tools! I kind of have an obsession with new and fancy tools.

Tell us about your engraving. What was your inspiration and how did you make your design unique?

Admittedly, I was rather nervous going into the competition because I didn’t know what we would be doing. Even though I engrave nearly every day, engraving is such a vast category of art but especially in jewelry. It can be a ring, a pendant, a flat plate, a set of earrings or freeform design and all the things in between. Knowing that, obviously I had some jitters to work through at the start. Then, I realized that the Stuller logo shares a lot of characteristics with the traditional scrollwork that I do on a regular basis when engraving rings or bracelets, and even the guns and knives I’ve worked on in the past. Once I decided to treat it that way, I thought I would make it stand out by trying to incorporate as many techniques and styles as I could to show the broad range of things I can do and that are possible with gravers. I incorporated bright cutting, leaf work, sculpting and beading into it while trying to make a visual contrast between the clean, bright cuts and the sculpted and shaded textures, all while doing my best to work in a way that would prevent slips or mistakes because there isn’t any going back. Once you cut it, it’s there and you got to just keep moving.

What advice would you give to young bench jewelers looking to expand their skills and create pieces that are more personal for their customers?

The best advice I can offer is that same advice I have been given so many times in my life: do what brings you the most happiness and satisfaction in the work. If you really love setting gemstones, learn as many different styles of setting as you can. If you really love forming and shaping metal, challenge yourself to incorporate more hand formed pieces into the things you make. If you want to pursue engraving (which I obviously recommend in the industry), take some classes specifically about engraving. If you love nontraditional materials, want to work with enamels, etc., bring those elements into your work as much as you can, as often as you can. When your work makes you happy, you make better things. That and the simple fact that nothing helps more than having someone teach you. If you want to grow as a maker, a creator, an artist, a jeweler and truly master those skills, the first, middle, and last steps to that goal are best taken with a guide to show you how.

In my experience, nothing will make your customers happier and feel more connected to their pieces than to feel like they get to walk on that journey with you. So, make it fun for them and engage with them about what gets them excited. Remind them that it isn’t about us, it’s about them, and that they can have what they want, not just what’s trendy or in a magazine somewhere. With our skills, knowledge, resources and technology, the possibilities have never been more open to them. We’re making things that will hopefully last a lifetime and beyond. It should make them happy every time they see it, for the rest of their lives.

CAD Winner: Laurie Robinson

Laurie Robinson Designs | Acton, Massachusetts

laurie robinson battle of the benches

Before we jump into the details of your win, tell us a bit about yourself and your background in the jewelry industry.

I have always been drawn to jewelry making, it’s a compulsion! For the past 20 years I have spent my time hand fabricating, carving wax, bead stringing and using 3D modeling software to create jewelry for small shops as well as my own custom clients. Since 2020, I have worked exclusively as a freelance CAD designer, creating models for other jewelry makers.

What was your experience at Bench Jeweler Workshop?

I had a great time at the Bench Jeweler Workshop. I learned a lot and I made some new connections. I particularly enjoyed the facilities tour.

Tell us about your winning design? What was your inspiration and how did you approach the challenge?

The design brief described a customer that liked nature and gardening as well as asymmetry. Additionally, I knew the model would be judged on parametric design and manufacturability. I decided a good approach would be to create a simple and elegant parametric design based on the specific center stone and then to focus on adding some organic sculpted natural elements to satisfy the design brief. Luckily for me, I enjoy making flowers and leaves so that is something I have practiced a fair amount.

What advice would you give to young designers looking to improve their CAD skills and explore creative jewelry design?

Like any other bench skill, improving CAD skills takes a lot of practice and repetition. If you have access to 3D modeling software, read the online manuals, practice along with the YouTube videos, be curious and then read the manuals again. All the answers are out there.

Bench Jeweler Workshop brought together some of the most talented jewelers out there and Battle of the Benches truly put their skills to the test. Keep an eye on Stuller.com/Events for an announcement later this year about the dates for next year’s workshop. Take your chance to test your metal and become the next master of the bench.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Taylor Dizor

Staff Writer

Taylor holds degrees in Political Science and Communication from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette as well as multiple certifications from GIA. His years in the wedding industry and love of fashion trends helps him write content for the on-trend and creative jeweler.