“I had this dream of going to West Africa, sitting down in a jeweler’s workshop, and watching these people do the amazing things they do; even with simple tools.” ACC Professor James Lynn
Armed with suitcases filled with pliers, saws, hand tools, and blades, ACC Jewelry Department chair and professor, James Lynn, walks into Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
“These are the tools of the trade,” explains Lynn.
He checks his bags and prepares to board. Lynn is flying out to Dakar, Senegal. There, he’ll join half-a-dozen jewelry makers with the Toolbox Initiative. Together, they’ll visit jewelry districts in West Africa to present the latest technologies in jewelry making. It’s a volunteer effort created by Matthieu Cheminée and Tim McCreight to help jewelers who have limited resources.
“I have always admired the West African jewelry tradition, and when I first heard about this opportunity I really wanted to get in on it,” says Lynn. “The intricate work they accomplish with primitive and simple tools is amazing. These jewelers produce pieces through immense ingenuity, skill, and devotion to their craft.”
Lynn knows devotion. He launched the Jewelry Department at ACC in 1990.
“The demand was there for students. I just had to get the word out. I actually paid a guy on roller-blades to put up posters around town. During registration, I would stand beside the lines with a sign.”
The department started in a converted drafting room at Riverside Campus, and operated nearly around-the-clock in that space for almost three decades. Since then, the program has grown. There are now nine professors in the department with 150 students enrolling each semester.
“The craft of jewelry making plays a huge role in human culture, and it’s very technical and artistic. I enjoy showing the students the technical side and watching what they can master artistically. I also make sure to teach beginners every semester, because it’s fun to give them a good start.”
Lynn says the key to becoming a successful jewelry maker is tenacity and patience. In the classroom, ACC students are afforded tools to expedite the transformation of metal, a luxury West African jewelers don’t have.
“The jewelers either use tools handed down from generations, or adapt tools used for other purposes. We take for granted simple things, like a soldering tweezer, but they don’t even have access to these types of tools.”
While in West Africa, Lynn and the Toolbox Initiative team will deliver a mix of everyday tools including one of Lynn’s personal favorites.
“My rolling mill has been with me for 40 years,” he explains. “This is a tool that can transform the lives of an entire village. Makers turn metal into wire and sheet with just a few cranks versus hours of hammering.“
Lynn plans to take his years of teaching over as well, showing others his unique jewelry techniques and methods, but he hopes to learn new skills himself as well.
“I want to sit in their shops for hours to watch how they work and how they manage with such simple tools. I have seen videos of them working, and their control is awe-inspiring.”
It’s something he plans to bring back to the classroom.
“When students are first starting out, they can’t afford a shop, so the tricks and techniques they use everyday in West Africa might benefit my students who are just starting out.”