Paul Bartnik: Jewelry Designer

P
aul Bartnik is an expert custom jeweler of platinum, gold, diamonds—the whole nine yards. With his strong clientele you may think he would be full of himself, but he is actually refreshingly humble and approachable. Bartnik simply loves encouraging his clients to be part of the creative process—watching him work, and in turn, experiencing the process hands-on. Choosing one of Paul Bartnik’s custom designs means casting yourself into a process that will manifest much more than a material possession—it will create and inscribe memories that will last several lifetimes.

Talk about your early life—where you grew up, and what your childhood was like.

I grew up on a farm outside of Portland in Sherwood. Both my parents are teachers, both taught music. Lots of hard work, working all the time on the farm, and I did lots of sports. Really cool growing up on a farm out there, and they still have the place. It’s beautiful.

How many acres?

It’s about five acres that they have right now. We did custom farming, so my dad had all the farming equipment. We didn’t do a huge amount of farming in our land. We raised beef cattle. We would farm for other people that didn’t have the equipment.

How did you get into making jewelry?

My high school had a four-year jewelry program. I was fourteen years old when I made my first piece, so I’ve been making jewelry for 18 years. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for my high school art teacher Robert Douglas. Also during high school, I went to Oregon College of Art and Craft and PCC, taking metal classes there as well.

Was this to get an early start on college?

No, just on the side. I wanted to learn more about jewelry making. When I made my first piece of jewelry I remember saying, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I had this vision—jewelry is my hyper-focus; it takes me to a zen state.

Did you accelerate quickly into, ‘this is what I want to do, this is where I’m going to go,’ or was it more gradual?

Well, knowing at such a young age what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be was a huge step. I was just so lucky that I stumbled upon this craft and ability to do this. After I graduated high school I went to Revere Academy in San Francisco. As far as jewelry schools go, it’s ranked as one of the top in the world.

Do you still have that first piece you made?

I have it right here! It’s been sitting on my bench for 18 years. It’s just a silver flower and copper pedant. In high school I started working with silver I was just learning to fabricate and work with precious metals. Gold was amazing after working with silver—I never wanted to go back.

 Which metal do you enjoy working with the most?

Platinum! It’s the most amazing metal on the planet, and that’s my metal of choice. I’m one of very few platinum casters in the state.

 You have to get platinum pretty hot to melt it.

Platinum melts at almost 5,000 degrees. In order to melt platinum you have to have hydrogen. So I use hydrogen and oxygen as my torch fuel. Hydrogen is super powerful and extremely hot. Platinum is very sensitive to dirt, oils, grime. Most other gasses are fairly dirty, but hydrogen is so clean that it’s completely colorless. It’s the cleanest gas on our planet.

The crucible is used to be able to melt the platinum. You have to think about what can hold 5,000 degrees and actually support that heat. And so these crucibles that I use—the ceramic was designed by NASA. This is the same stuff that’s on the front of the space shuttle. The re-entry for the space shuttle gets close to about 5,000 degrees as well.

That’s pretty epic, to have something made by NASA.

Well, they make the ceramic, you know, not the actual crucible. Platinum is also three times brighter than the sun when it melts, so you have to wear these crazy welding goggles. That’s what I work on mostly, and especially now that the gold market is so high. Gold is sitting at $1800 an ounce right now, and people can’t afford that. It’s more than platinum right now.

Really?! I had no idea that gold had become more expensive than platinum. Platinum lasts longer!

It lasts longer, feels better, weighs more—it’s just better in all realms. I still love gold, don’t get me wrong. I just love the challenge of platinum.

Where do you look for inspiration generally?

Well, I don’t have a line of jewelry that I make for people to buy. Every piece I make is custom to each person. There are a lot of jewelers out there that just design their design and it’s all the same. When you look at my website, each design is completely different.

To learn about your clients, do you interview them?

This is where I am totally different from any other jeweler. I bring the clients in, I talk with them about who they are and what they do, and we sit down and we draw their ring out. Not only am I designing the piece with them, they come here and are part of every process that I do.

Describe the process that you go through with each client.

Usually the guys come in and they want to get an engagement ring. We find the best stone, and put it in a super simple solitaire. Then he asks her, you know, the whole thing. Then he comes in with her, and designs the piece with her. She should have every say in what she’s wearing every day for the rest of her life. Do you know how many guys I get in here saying, “Oh, I know what she wants.”? She doesn’t really want that. She really knows what she wants.

It’s a whole amazing experience that I’m offering to the clients. They’re going to come in and they’re going to see how the wax is carved. Then, they’re going to actually help and be a part of the casting process. They get to see me set the stone. How special that is—it’s just amazing. It’s a wonderful beginning to this new part in their relationship as well. They’re building their rings together. You know, a lot of people do custom pieces at jewelry stores. They just say, this is what I want, I want it to look like this, and then three weeks later they come back and—boom. They got the piece, but they have no idea what went into it—how much work, how much love, how much labor is involved.

It’s a disconnected process.

Yeah, it’s totally disconnected. And having that connection in there is huge. All my clients just absolutely love it.

When someone sits down with you how do you talk price range, considering all the time you spend and intricate work you do?

When I sit down with a client, the budget is the very first thing we talk about. I’ll do the best design of their dreams within their budget. The client is paying for my design expertise, the cost of materials, and my time.

So the jewelry you make is actually going to appreciate in value over time.

Absolutely. I was head goldsmith and jewelry designer for a super high-end jewelry store here in Portland for 7 years. I had to wear a suit everyday. Then, I had all these other jewelry stores that wanted me to do their jewelry work, and so I went off on my own and started my own jewelry shop doing work for jewelry stores. At this point in time, I have received so much direct business that I don’t have time for other jewelry stores.

Talk about the different genres that your style encompasses.

I love the art deco, hand-engraved-filigree style, but then I like taking that and flipping it into the modern world and the modern design.

Can you explain what a filigree inlay is?

It’s adding scrollwork and cut out designs in windows and within the design—like really fine wirework and cut out patterns and spirals and swirls. Filigree has been around for forever, but the peak of filigree was in the art deco period of time—art deco and art nouveau. And these pieces are timeless, too.

Talk about the pattern work you do.

There’s a lot of chemistry and math in all of jewelry. It’s pretty mind-boggling. M.C. Escher has been a huge influence to me in my life, ever since I was a kid. His work was on the cover of my math textbook in middle school. Come to find out, M. C. Escher hand engraved all these pieces into wood and metal. He was a mathematician. To get all the tessellations, and the math involved with all the patterns is very intriguing to me and I love it. It comes pretty easy to me when I’m hand engraving. I can easily visualize the pattern that I’m doing.

 How often do you use a microscope for this work?

Everything I do is under the microscope. The detail work that I do is so fine and so precise that it has to be done under a microscope—everything.

You really focus on the idea of something that is permanent and lasting. What’s your philosophy behind creating heirlooms?

I want to make the piece that is going to be for their children’s children’s children. That’s where platinum is really important to me. Platinum doesn’t ever wear away. It’s here forever. You know, I’m a very committed person. My tattoos are forever. And I feel jewelry should be the same. Once you make a piece, it’s not going to go away. You can tear this all apart—which is the other amazing thing about jewelry—and make something totally different and new with the same materials.

Do people do that very often?

Absolutely. I push for people to ask their families so that they can have family heirlooms, like their grandma’s diamonds, become parts of the ring as well.

After you went to school in San Francisco, why did you choose Portland as the place where you would reside and build your business?

Well, my whole family lives here. My girlfriend at the time was finishing school, so I came back. We were married for nine years, we were together for 15 years, and she was the business side of my business. We got a divorce three-and-a-half years ago and I had to all of a sudden do the business side. It was the realization—I don’t know what I’m doing at all! So, I struggled for a couple years after that. It was really hard.

When I was starting out here, I was new, fresh from the school, and I had 9 offers in the first week of looking for a job. I had jewelry stores offer me big money at the time. I went for a choice of less pay for what I felt was going to be better in the long run as far as learning. I chose that place, and within the first year I became the head goldsmith and designer at this super high-end jewelry store, and I was being thrown jobs that challenged my skill level at the time. And that was another huge key to my success in life.

What’s your favorite thing about making jewelry?

What I love about making jewelry is the fact that it’s new—every time. Nothing is impossible. And having my clients here and involved in this process, it’s really awesome and really intense. It’s so neat to be able to share that experience with the people who are going to wear the piece, and have a close relationship with them. I get to know the person. When I was working at the jewelry store I was making all these pieces, but I never had the full experience of being with the customer I was actually making the piece for. I’ve made thousands of pieces in my years, literally thousands. My website is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the stuff I’ve done. But, I wanted to know more about the people. That’s why I chose to do direct custom work one-on-one. Or for that matter,
one-on-two!

Do you think you’re going to stay here in Portland?

I have a huge clientele here. Eventually, I want to die in Canada (laughs). My best friends live up in Canada and I go up there every year. I love the people. I love being up there and the wilderness. Sometimes I want be out in the middle of nowhere, but no, I do love Portland!

 paulbartnikdesigns.com

About The Author: Jenn Dawson