A Community of Jewelers That's by Design


Benches in one of the two Creative Side classrooms await the next class of students. The school often holds multiple classes and open studio sessions in a single day.
Courtney Gray works with a student in the Jewelry 201 class, which teaches a variety of advanced metalsmithing skills, including fabrication of a hollow-form ring and hinge construction.

Creative Side Jewelry Academy is a special place. Part of that could be because its hometown of Austin, Texas, is uniquely attractive to artists. The weather is good, the music and food scenes are superlative, and there’s a prevailing camaraderie that compels folks to look out for one another. A large number of fine jewelers have ended up in Austin and found themselves making a living there.

But, of course, it’s what’s inside that really counts. And as Creative Side founder and owner Courtney Gray says, “The energy that’s living inside Creative Side—it’s magnetic.” As far as anyone can tell, that feeling comes from the roughly 1,500 students and who dap, saw and solder at this jewelry education and open studio space each year. The pleasant buzz you feel is an alloy of all that creative juju.

“Everybody who steps foot through the door, everybody who jumps on an airplane and comes here to take a class—every person brings their part,” says Courtney. “It’s fueled this kind of meeting ground for makers and creative minds.” And that’s not by accident.

Courtney Gray opened Creative Side in 2006 in a funky little house in East Austin. She had been designing jewelry and metal art since her twenties. After working as a casting tech and bench jeweler for a local design company, she launched a custom jewelry business. Courtney saw Creative Side as an organic extension of her own studio—a space where a community of artists could share equipment, tools and creative thoughts.

“I really believe in combining efforts so that we can maintain this craft,” she says. “We can keep it alive. We can share it on a more broad scale.”

Today, her vision has grown to include more than 75 classes each semester. It also quickly outgrew that 1,200 square-foot house. Creative Side moved to a much larger education space once used by Argentium® Silver master Ronda Coryell. An additional metalsmithing studio is now available for welding and blacksmithing projects.

There’s something for every stage and skill level at Creative Side—including a Young Metalsmiths summer camp, a couple’s wedding ring workshop, and a series of master classes geared toward professional jewelers. “It’s so diverse,” Courtney says of her students. “We have ages 9 to 99 in here.” The school’s roster of 30 instructors reads like a who’s who of jewelry makers and designers. (Ronda Coryell is among them.)

Inside the school, there are tantalizing rows of well-stocked benches. Lining the walls are neatly arranged buffs, dies and other equipment, ripe for picking up and getting to work. The labeled, wall-mounted tools look like trophies from a jewelry-making safari. Which is basically what folks are signing up for at Creative Side.

“They walk in the door, and any of those little fears that people might have about turning on the torch for the first time, or picking up a tool, or failing—we get them sitting down at the bench and try to get them through those hurdles right away,” Courtney says. “They’re in a space where it’s OK to fail. Everybody’s in the same boat, no matter what skill set we have.”

Georgianne Valentine, a regular student at the school, says she’s blossomed as a jeweler thanks to Creative Side’s open and hands-on environment. “This is a judgement-free zone,” she says. “Everybody who is at Creative Side just gives and shares at every level. There are no secrets. And it just changes your whole expectation of what you can do and what you expect of yourself—it actually gives you the freedom to leap forward and become better at what you do every time you walk into Creative Side.” That sort of experience is no accident, either.

Creative Side’s pedagogy is a lot like the handmade jewelry that’s being crafted there. The school’s various curricula reflect a newer kind of approach, one that Courtney says is “custom-made here in Austin.” It’s not that they’ve come up with a new way to light a torch, she says; it’s that “you’re lighting the torch the first day—really, the first hour that you’re in here.” The Jewelry 101 course, for example, packs seven projects into eight days.

“I believe in efficiency and getting a lot for your money and a lot for your investment of time,” Courtney says. Part of the accelerated pace and intense focus stems from respecting that people have to step away from work and families to attend class.

But as rigorous as the coursework is, it’s backed by an equally high level of support from the school’s instructors and staff. “Yes, it’s a professional studio where we’re teaching real skills,” Courtney says. “But the main thing is that it’s a nurturing space.”

Courtney likens the experience at Creative Side to a “group apprenticeship,” where students work side-by-side with master bench jewelers, goldsmiths and enamelists. You might be coached by the likes of wax-carving macgyver Kate Wolf, enamelist Ricky Frank or 2017 Saul Bell Design Award winner Andy Cooperman.

“What can take somebody 10 years to learn, we can show them in 10 minutes because we’ve already been through it,” Courtney says. “It just allows for a faster learning process.”

Learning faster is an appealing benefit, but there’s more to Creative Side’s methods than that. The whole question of what and how aspiring jewelers learn is in flux. Courtney’s experience in a professional studio meant she was able to cast platinum, handle diamonds and do pavé work early on in her career. “I got access to a lot of techniques that, for a lot of people, it’s hard to find those opportunities,” Courtney explains.

On-the-job training exposes new jewelers to a world of materials, methods and equipment.  For centuries, that arrangement was made possible by the apprenticeship model. But the traditional apprenticeship is becoming a novelty, rather than a prerequisite, in the jewelry industry. Nowadays, novice jewelers don’t often work directly under accomplished ones—much less for years—before setting out on their own.

Visit Creative Side Jewelry Academy online.
Instructor and Creative Side Assistant Director Deanna Pastel demonstrates how to use a rolling mill to a class of Jewelry 201 students. The students practiced rolling bezel wire for a project that involved setting an irregular cabochon.
The second classroom at Creative Side (nicknamed Studio 54) can hold 14 students each working at their own fully equipped bench.

On the other end of the spectrum, educational opportunities offered by high schools and colleges are dwindling. Universities are shutting down their metals programs, Courtney says. And jewelers who do pursue a formal education are facing increasingly fragmented tracks.

“A lot of places are kind of going either totally art or totally industry,” says Creative Side Assistant Director Ryan Harmon, who received degrees from the University of North Texas and the Texas Institute of Jewelry Technology. You can learn color theory or how to set stones, but not both.

“The world of craft education is changing,” Ryan says, and there’s a real need for places that are easily accessible—both geographically and in terms of welcoming a diverse body of students. Local, independent, artist-run schools can truly make an effort to “meld craft with conceptual,” she says, which will ultimately play a role in driving the industry forward.

“I think these small schools popping up around the country right now are going to end up being a really big part of the future of education,” Courtney agrees, “of making sure people still have access to these techniques that have been around since forever.”

Because, at the end of the day, there’s something about jewelry and hand skills that will always attract new students. “And it could be because, yes, they love jewelry. But I kind of believe it’s a little bit bigger than that,” Courtney says. “It’s about personal challenge, and gratification, and empowerment, inspiration, and nurturing that creative side. It’s why we’re here.”