Thinking Like Gold

Front page of Chronicle Herald Cape Breton Star. December 24, 2015
Originally published in the Chronicle Herald – Cape Breton Star, December 24, 2015

It was a training injury that kept James Bowden from shipping out to Korea with his platoon. His son, Rob explains. “After that, he couldn’t re-muster so they offered to train him as either a barber or a hand engraver. So he was trained by a Dutch engraver, who had brought some goldsmithing equipment to Canada with him from Holland — but he didn’t know how to use it. So while my dad was learning to be an engraver, he taught himself to be a goldsmith, too.”

Rob Bowden shakes his head and laughs. “I don’t know how he did it. Eventually he became the best goldsmith, probably in the province.”

Rob was the only of James Bowden’s five children to show much interest in his father’s craft.

“I started in the backyard after school, with my dad, when I was 13. For the first six months all I did was polish stuff — on that machine, right there.”

He points to what looks like a well-used, black bench grinder. He offers to give my X-Ring a shine. While buffing away 20 years of tarnish and grime, he continues his story.

“Four hours a day — just polishing. Then Dad would take a look at what I’d done and make me re-do half of it because it wasn’t quite good enough. I wasn’t allowed to touch anything else for six months. And then I got to use the saw.”

Rob gives me back my ring. I hardly recognize it — new again. He reaches across his bench for a small hand saw. It has a fine blade that resembles a guitar string.

“I spent the next six months cutting up coins, cutting Bluenoses out of dimes, beavers out of nickels, caribou out of quarters. I went through hundreds of dollars in change learning to use the saw.

“learned everything from the bottom up, step by step. Then I learned to do few things that Dad never did — you know, the student surpasses the teacher. But even now he still checks my stuff. He’ll see something I put up on Facebook and give me his two cents, ‘you could have done this’ or ‘why did you do that?’ But he’s forever bragging me up, too. He’s my biggest fan for sure.”

Rob tells me he took a break from goldsmithing for several years to attend university, travel, and try his hand at a number of different things, but he says nothing he did ever gave him the sense of satisfaction that he got from goldsmithing.

“I watched my dad struggle in this business and I knew, 15 years ago, when I came back to it that I wasn’t going to get rich at it, but some things are more important than that — like being here, at home in Cape Breton, making people smile by doing what I love, and being able to put food on the table at the same time. It doesn’t get much better.

“I get to see people at their best. It’s rewarding when you see that you’ve made somebody really happy. I did a job for a widow who hadn’t worn her wedding set in 25 years because her hands are full of arthritis. I made it like new again, so it fit on her finger.

“She put it on and she cried — I get all weepy just thinking about it again. I lost my mom a couple of years ago, and ever since then, the older ladies, well, they remind me of her. There’s a lot more to it than just money. There are times when you have to fix things right, but you know you can’t always charge what you should. This isn’t Toronto. That’s the way my dad was. He didn’t make a million bucks, but he sure made a lot of people happy.”

As you would expect of someone bearing the title Master Goldsmith, Rob Bowden’s skill at restoring jewellery to its original condition is rivalled by few, but it’s in creating new, original pieces that Rob’s artistry is truly put to the test. Without a picture or any visual reference, he listens to his clients for clues.

“A lot of people when they come in, they don’t really know what they want. They have this old piece of jewellery, and it meant something to them, so they want something new made from it. I listen to their story, and I get a feel for who they are, and as I’m talking with them it’s coming together in my head — I can see it. I know what I have to work with, the number of stones and the amount of gold. I can usually sketch it out for them right there. Then my job is to figure out how I’m going to make it for them.”

Rob is adept at both hand-forging and casting gold. He compares hand-forging to what a blacksmith does with iron; heating, rolling, stretching, shaping, gradually working the gold into the desired form with heat and persuasion. Casting involves making a mould into which molten gold is poured.

There are pros and cons with both methods, Rob says, but hand-forging is his preferred technique because it produces subtle nuances that casting lacks.

“When I hand-forge something, it’s unique. No two pieces are the same. I can’t duplicate it, unless you make a mould and cast it. When I start out I can see in my head, how it’s going to look, but I don’t know exactly how I’m going to do it until it’s done.

“As my dad says, ‘Now you’re starting to think like gold.”

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