By Andy Jensen
Perhaps the Patrick McMillan story is better told by telling another story, the one that began on an autumn day in 1890 amid the industrial neighborhoods of Birmingham, England. With horse-drawn carriages clacking down the cobble stone street and the air carrying a hint of burning coal and soot, the president of the Birmingham Jewellery and Silversmiths Association cut a ribbon to open a new school at 84 Vittoria Street: The Birmingham City Institute of Jewellery.
Through 130 years of continuous operation, the Institute has amassed a trophy wall that rivals the most decorated Olympian. The Institute nabbed 16 prizes and the College Cup at the 2017 Goldsmiths’ Craft and Design Council Awards, just to cite one example. A steady stream of British royalty calls on the Institute for official state visits regularly. And the Institute’s graduates are part of the backbone at prestigious jewelry names: Tiffany’s, Tag Heuer, Cartier, De Beers, and others.
To study at the Institute, one does not simply register online or walk through the doors and start classes. Today, the Institute is part of the Birmingham City University umbrella and, like other higher institutes of education, one must apply for admission. Though the Institute accepts nearly 300 new students every year, the number applying is much higher.
Understanding the Institute—the royal visits and 130-year-old Oxford-style architecture—sets a scene of grand contrasts. Meet Patrick McMillan: American boy raised in the mid-south, where British royalty may never have cause to visit and the oldest building in town may be encroaching on 100 years.
Raised by parents who shared a passion for creativity (his father was an editorial cartoonist and his mother a travel agent with a love for arts and culture), Patrick was enrolled in a high school focused on the fine arts where he was introduced to sculpture. After high school, he studied at the Memphis College of Art and interned as a blacksmith. “My mother loved to travel, and she was very supportive of the idea to travel and study. Her high school years were spent in Belgium. She took me on a trip to Nova Scotia in the summer of 2000 where I discovered the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and later found out it was a part of MCA’s exchange program,” he recalls.
After enrolling, Patrick was introduced to jewelry by a friend. “I was sharing my frustrations with my friend, about not feeling quite satisfied with sculpture. And he said, ‘you should try jewelry and metalsmithing; it joins your interests in metal with your more creative side.’ I haven’t looked back since.”
After completing his undergraduate studies in Nova Scotia, Patrick’s talents were put to use by a startup jewelry company based in Memphis. He also freelanced, which allowed him to expand his skill set and explore. Now armed with the beginnings of an expanded portfolio, Patrick applied for admission to the Birmingham School of Jewellery in 2006 and was accepted into the Institute’s master’s program in Jewellery, Silversmithing and Related Products.
The Foundry of McMillan Metals
“London was a great experience,” Patrick reminisced. “After graduating I worked with a startup blacksmith while working the exhibition scene. It’s during that time that I really came to understand that I wasn’t one who is content to color inside the lines. I am more experimental. I have a rebellious style and I like to push the envelope, which keeps jewelry fresh.”
Seeing that his time in London was coming to an end, Patrick moved to Rhode Island to join friends. And in 2011 he started his own business, McMillan Metals, setting up shop in a home studio.
“Initially, my focus was on my craft, and creating my own line of production work to sell online and in local shops. Later, I started providing more custom work, including engagement and wedding bands, rings, bracelets—creating pieces that the customer could envision but could never find,” says Patrick. “I wanted to create art that spoke to the customer.”
Patrick’s focus on personalization is best illustrated in a wedding band he created for an architect. “He wanted certain symbols designed into the ring. For him the band needed to be very symbolic, and he’d never find what he was looking for in a retail shop. My customers also enjoy the experience of working with me to create exactly what they envision. The adage, ‘it’s not the destination but the journey,’ is very fitting.”
As all businesses do, the McMillan Metals’ business plan has changed over the years. He took on production work from other jewelers and was able to move and expand the studio to 1,250 square feet. He also started renting space to other independent jewelers and teaching different workshops through the Rhode Island education system.
How Technology Has Shaped His Craft
Along the way to growing his studio, Patrick discovered the Orion pulse arc micro welder from Sunstone. “A colleague had a competing brand in his studio that he demonstrated to show how he used it in his studio,” says Patrick. “I thought I understood the value, but as I was just starting my business, I was not prepared to invest in a welder.
“A few years later, at the annual Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) event, I walked past the Sunstone booth and the Orion welder caught my eye, because I kind of knew what it was. I spent a fair amount of time speaking to the folks at the booth to get a greater understanding of the possibilities of what their welder could do and saw how it would be beneficial in my studio practice. I was impressed.”
The Orion micro welder delivers a small weld in a precise location. How small? With an Orion micro welder, the weld spot can be as small as 0.2mm. And how precise? Microscopic optics are used to position the welder’s needle-like electrode in the right spot. Heat is not a worry. The weld is completed in milliseconds, which reduces the amount of energy transferred to surrounding materials. Unlike solder, micro welding poses significantly less risk to precious stones.
“Honestly, I mastered and understood the full capability of the micro welder in less than six months,” Patrick says. “I’ve not soldered a jump ring in five years and probably never will solder a jump ring ever again. With the micro welder, I can accomplish the job in a fraction of the time it would take me to do it with solder. Patrick uses his Orion micro welder to tack the different parts of a piece together first. “After I tack things together, I may go back and solder,” he says. “For assembly and production work, the Orion is invaluable. My students get really excited when they understand what the welder can do for their craft, for production pieces, or for tasks they may do over and over again—they’ll love the welder for repetitive jobs.”
Giving Back to the Craft
In 2017 Patrick moved his business to a larger studio space where he launched his new business, The Bench Jewelry and Metalsmithing Studio. The studio layout is simple: One large worktable in the middle surrounded by various tools. Students surround the table and as a small group they learn the jewelry craft from Patrick and other local jewelers and metalsmiths. Jewelers also can rent out private benches to build up their new business and portfolio, have access to all the shared machines and tools, and have a professional area to meet clients.
“Prior to the pandemic the studio was seeing about 30-50 students every year,” Patrick explains. “Each class lasts about four to eight weeks and students can choose a daytime or evening class period. Lately, I’ve been working to develop virtual workshops and have launched a few over the past few months.”
When the pandemic ends, Patrick plans to expand his studio to accommodate more students and more subjects. “The space next to me just opened up and I’ve already inquired about it” he says. “Interest in the jewelry craft has grown significantly, stoked by 3D design technology and printing. It’s never been easier for an artist to design a ring and then, with one click of the mouse, print its various components.”
On this note, Patrick hesitates, contemplating the future of metalsmithing, perhaps. “Technology allows any person the ability to create a ring, pendant, or whatever. But I feel the craft is preserved in the artistry that goes into the design. Technology has not reduced the amount of time required to envision a truly stunning piece, though it has expanded the boundaries of creativity. And that’s truly exciting.”