This week in some parts of the lampworking community there was a heated argument sparked by a recent interview with Carter Seibels in the summer 2008 issue of Belle Armoire Jewelry. The argument revolved around two statements in the article, one about presses and one about creativity and age. I'm going to respond to the "simpler" issue, presses, first; tomorrow I'll talk about my response to the negative link made in the article between increasing age and creativity.
In the article, "Carter Seibels," author Rice Freeman-Zachery wrote, "Many beadmakers have turned to press molds, where the beads are formed by pressing molten glass into a mold, rather than by forming unique beads one at a time, by hand, as Carter does" (22).
This statement is simply inaccurate. The author must have misunderstood Carter's words, for two reasons. One, the items in question are called presses, not molds, and the glass is not completely molten when it enters the press--in fact, it has "set up" a little and is rather firm. Using molten glass in the press will produce a badly-shaped, ugly bead with sharp edges. The more important inaccuracy is that presses are not mass production items. Beads made using presses are still made one at a time, by hand, as you can see in the first picture, which is a slim straight-sided lentil. As you can see, there is only one cavity in the press. It would be impossible to use this press for mass production. It was unfortunate that such inaccuracies were allowed to be printed in a major magazine article.
Some presses are simply nothing more than tools to aid the beadmaker in the making of repetitive shapes, with precise measurements; many jewelry designers want precise shapes and sizes, and the use of a press allows the beadmaker to achieve that goal. Lentil, nugget, heart, tab, oval, and other similar presses fit this category. They do not, however, necessarily save the beadmaker time. Some presses can be used more quickly than hand-shaping--after the beadmaker learns how, by trial and error--but others take more time no matter how practiced the lampworker.
Other presses allow the beadmaker to create shapes that could not be created easily--or at all--by hand. An example of the latter is the doughnut press or the faceted gem press. As made by Zoozii's, the press makes a bead that has eighteen facets--nearly impossible to craft by hand. No matter which category it is in, however, no press can simply be used to "stamp out" beads. Even the simplest press may require multiple pressings to get the shape perfect. I am a reasonably adept press user, and it never takes me fewer than three pressings to get the bead to my standards--and often it takes many more.
Perhaps most importantly, the press is usually not the final step in making a good, well-designed bead, or an innovative one. The basic bead shape, whether achieved by hand or a press, is no more than a canvas for the artist's eye and creativity. A beadmaker can keep the fundamental pressed shape, but range from the unique to the ordinary in terms of design and color choices. Or, as I did with this Taxco set, the press only provides the starting point for the finished bead. Some beadmakers add to the basic shape or distort the pressed bead, as I did with these tabs, which I raked to form rice-grain style pearlescent beads. Many of the amazing beads I have seen in terms of shape and design began as pressed beads.
Equally problematic, in my perspective, was another statement regarding press usage. " ... the difference between a molded [sic] bead and a hand-formed bead is the difference between an off-the-rack dress and couture. You can still wear it, and it will look nice; but the workmanship and artistry just aren't the same" (22).
Here we have moved into the realm of opinion -- whether a pressed bead holds the same workmanship and artistry as a completely hand-formed bead. And here opinion is divided. There are a number of lampworkers who would agree with the author's paraphrase of Ms. Seibel's opinion. To these artists, presses are a shortcut at best, and at worst a substitute for learning how to form the shapes without the press. From that perspective, pressed beads indeed lack artistry. And there definitely is something about the small size variations of hand-formed beads that give such beads a particular charm. Many lampworkers are so skilled that those size variations are almost imperceptible.
I will agree insofar that press usage should not ever be a substitute for craftspersonship, or for (where appropriate) knowing how to form a bead on one's own. I have seen any number of pressed beads with heavily ridged ends (caused by pressing the glass when it is too hot), poorly executed corners (too cool / not enough presses), and sharp ends (too hot / too large a footprint on the mandrel). Mine wind up in my wonky jar, and I either sell them to be broken up for mosaic pieces or put them in the wonky jar for people to use in hempen jewelry (where the ends matter less) or for kids to choose ... at $1 a bead, all proceeds going to the animal charity of mine and my business partner's choice.
However, I would disagree with the idea that presses somehow make a bead less artistic. Presses are tools, just as the marver on which one shapes a square bead is a tool. I can make a lentil with a marver, with the round ice tongs that used to be sold at Target, or with a lentil press. If I want to spend $40-65 on a press to make precise lentils, I am merely making a tool choice, just as the people who purchase Jim Moore's $200 precision bead press (for coring beads with sterling silver) rather than making do with a set of flaring tools, tube cutters, and chasing hammers from Harbor Freight are doing. I don't hear anyone saying that using Jim Moore's bead press makes the resulting sterling-lined beads "less artistic" than the method of doing it by hand, with all the attendant imperfections and individual quirks that result.
Furthermore, while presses help the beadmaker create beads that are precise in shape and size, they do not create uniform beads in decoration. Take a look at the following sets of mine -- all made with a nugget press, but save for the size, no bead in the sets is exactly alike any other bead in the set.
Are either the most creative bead out there? No, they aren't. But that is neither the fault of the press, nor my age (more tomorrow). It's what I chose to make at the time, in part because of what materials I had, what I thought might sell, what I had been asked to make, what my mood was, what my current skill level is ... not because they are pressed beads.
I'll continue this response to the Belle Armoire Jewelry article tomorrow, when I talk about creativity, age, and expression.