Highland Spark, a retail jewel, attracts artisans from the region

They came from Princeton. They came from Bridgewater, from Hopewell, and from East Brunswick. From all these places, they came to Highland Park.

The four women gathered at Highland Spark, the area’s renowned handmade precious metals jewelry-making center. It is where they joined artisan and proprietor Lila Gutowski to practice their craft and apply their creative energies to crafting high-quality jewelry by hand. The women have been participating in an eight-week session of classes.

Located at 208 Raritan Ave., the rear of Highland Spark’s business is dedicated studio space with six work areas, and the tools and appliances that the artisans need. There is a kiln, for firing up the sterling or fine silver; a mixer, for refining semiprecious stones; a soldering torch, for joining together small pieces; a lathe, for smoothing the edges of roughly cut metal; and special tools for detail work in any number of mediums, from leather to silver.

“We work with all kinds of things that are tools of the trade,” said Ms. Gutowski. She first opened her door to students about five years ago, initially in a basement space on Raritan Avenue and then moving shortly afterwards to its current location.

“At the time I wasn’t selling any jewelry,” said Ms. Gutowski. “I was just doing workshops.”

The new location brought a higher profile on Raritan Avenue, within the Main Street corridor, but it also brought with it a retail responsibility. With the understanding that storefronts along Main Street are supposed to offer goods for sale, Ms. Gutowski dedicated the front of Highland Spark to selling jewelry. At the moment, items on display include original work by eight different students in her studio, and original work by six other artisans, sold on consignment.

“It has become a great retail asset for downtown Highland Park, drawing people from throughout Central New Jersey,” said Rebecca Hersh, executive director of Main Street Highland Park.

Eileen Wislar of Hopewell has been attending sessions at Highland Park for the past two-and-a-half years. On a recent Wednesday morning, her energies were focused on a pair of earrings she was crafting for a friend who had lost one of a pair that she particularly valued.

While making an exact duplicate of the remaining earring of the pair would be too difficult, she was engaged in creating a reasonable facsimile of the pair, using the remaining piece as a template. (“That took a lot of doing, finding the stones to match,” said Ms. Gutowski.)

The project involved a fair amount of work. Ms. Wislar had taken precious metal clay and fashioned it into three small pieces. One of these would hold the hooked ear wire that goes into an ear piercing. Another piece would serve as a bezel and hold an amber-colored stone, while the third piece would hold bright stone at the bottom of the ring.

These three metal pieces all would have to be joined together, the stones would need to be attached; and of course, the whole process had to be done twice, because there were two earrings to make.

Over at her workstation, Ann Russell of Princeton was working on a necklace. The medallion was one she made herself, starting with precious metal clay. This is a soft and pliable material, one that can be worked by hand. Once she had it in the final shape she wanted her for her pendant — a process she had completed at a previous class — Ms. Russell fired the pendant in the kiln.

The firing process burned away everything that wasn’t silver, and once it had cooled, Ms. Russell blackened the pendant, a step that highlighted the pendant’s contours and depth.

“Now I’m just simply making a chain for it, but it’s not going as easily as I thought it would be,” she said. “But there’s something really fun about the first time you create something — ‘I did that? Wow.’ ”

“And the best thing is happy accidents,” said Yelena Piatigorsky, a former art teacher originally from Russia who now lives in Bridgewater. “It just happens, and you think, ‘Oh, that’s good!’ ”

The pendant on which Ms. Piatigorsky worked was based on a drawing she made. Using an outside service, she had her drawing converted into a wax form that served as the basis for a mold into which the silver was poured. It was a more complicated, more involved process than her classmates were using, but the resultant detail had everyone inspired and in awe.

“Some of the pieces take a lot of work,” said Ms. Piatigorsky.

-By noon, Ms. Wislar was soldering the pieces of her earrings together. A soldering torch blew the blue flame while she and Ms. Gutowski tackled the project together. While one of them holds the pieces in place on a brick, the other brings the torch to bear until the pieces fuse properly.

“The soldering is the most intimidating because there’s fire involved,” Ms. Wislar said, explaining Ms. Gutowski’s assistance.

Once the earrings were welded, they quickly picked them up with a tool and dropped them in a nearby bowl of water, where the metal hissed quickly and cooled down.

A moment later, they retrieved the earring from the water and inspected their handiwork. The pieces were joined, but not as smoothly as they needed. The work had to be done again.

And again.

Like Ms. Wislar, Ida Cohen of East Brunswick was working on a pair of earrings. These were her own, though; and because she treasured them she was trying to repair rather than to replace them. She took the earrings to Lila and asked her advice.

“Should I stick a post back there? I can’t really solder because it’s not really gold,” she explained.

“What used to be here?” Ms. Gutowski asked after looking at the earring a moment. “Something fell off.”

The challenge was that the earring was designed for a clip-on attachment. Relying on a post or ear wire to hold the earring in place would be no good, Ms. Gutowski explained; with a different center of gravity, the earring would move from its accustomed place and no longer sit correctly on the ear. Complicating matters was that the main part of the earring itself had broken.

Ms. Gutowski recommended a couple simple modifications to make the earring behave the way it’s supposed to.

The women each expressed the enjoyment they get from the opportunity for artistic expression. There was a congenial and relaxed mood in the studio, and it was evident that this positive atmosphere is a major component of the workshop experience as well. Ms. Cohen has another pair of earrings, a pair she is creating, and she wants feedback from everyone else in the room on what would look best. That’s a big part of the appeal of the class.

“It’s a nice group of women,” said Ms. Wislar. “It’s fun to get ideas and we’re all telling her what we think of her earrings.”

Ms. Cohen agreed. “This type of artistic work attracts a lot of nice people.”

This session will end in five more weeks. Then, after a short break, the next session will begin in July. Students, mostly adults although there have been a few teens, work at their own pace on projects of their own choosing. The first eight-week class anyone takes is a class that focuses on the basic skills of the craft.

“Lila has certain skills she would like us to learn,” said Ms. Russell, as she busied herself with a jewelry saw. “That was an important skill, and then soldering is another important skill.”

First-time students pay $380 for their first eight-week session, a rate that drops to $285 for the second session and $200 after that.

“Money well-spent,” Ms. Wislar chimed in.

“I hope to do this the rest of my life,” said Ms. Russell. “I’ve been looking to do something creative for years. The first thing I tried was drawing, was painting, but I wasn’t happy…Now I am.”

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