The Power of Working with Metals

April 11, 2022
Suzanne Murdoch

Jewelry Making as a Catalyst for Change

Karen working at her bench wearing a We Wield the Hammer shirt
Karen working at her bench

Consider the nature of working with metal. It is unlike any other. As beautiful and tactile as it is, wood is relatively unforgiving. Once a cut is made, you can’t start over. When you are fashioning metal, there is infinite possibility for shaping and starting over. 

As part of our In the Making series, we recently sat down with Karen Smith, Founder and Executive Director of We Wield the Hammer. The genesis of her organization came from her experience apprenticing in Senegal, learning traditional methods of metalsmithing. But while there, she was surprised to discover a common saying: “In Senegal, women don’t wield the hammer.” So as Karen worked in a village shop alongside Senegalese men, what started as a journey of individual skill growth became the seed of cultural transformation. While the men viewed her as an “oddity,” Karen observed that “A lot of the women and girls who walked by were stunned.” One young girl was especially transfixed, coming every day to watch. In trying to engage the young woman, Karen revealed that “she viewed me as a ghost.” It was hard for this young observer to fathom a woman doing a vocation so foreign to her experience.

The knowledge that she could open up new worlds for other women metalworkers inspired Karen to found her non-profit, which aims to encourage women of African descent to take up the hammer and create beauty in metal. It’s all about creating space to foster an individual’s untapped creative spirit and ability.

For NBSS Jewelry Making & Repair Department Head and Instructor Ann Cahoon JM ’02, her initial interest in gemstones became a lifelong passion for metalworking. “At first I thought of metal as just holding gemstones. There was just something about the physicality and precision [of metalworking] that really spoke to me where I was, and took me into a whole new direction. For me at this point it’s all metals, all the time.”

Working at a jewelry making bench

For Karen, experiencing a divorce challenged her to explore her own power to create and become someone new. “I never wanted to do another thing unless it brought me joy and fed me creatively and spiritually.” And in fact, many students come to North Bennet Street School with their own transformative goals of reshaping their lives. We hear from them that they are not just looking to do something different, they are seeking profound change.

Sadly, our culture’s messaging steers many women away from science, math, and professions in the skilled trades. Through exploring disciplines such as working with metals, they find these are not weak areas, but competencies that can be explored and developed as they perfect their maker skills. Moreover, metal’s forgiving nature and responsiveness to the crafter’s creative vision make it a true representation of change. And, while malleable during the creation process, once formed, metal is strong and durable.

Working with metal can prove uniquely fulfilling and transformative. As Karen shared, “It’s empowering in so many ways.” 

Could learning a new creative discipline be your path to life transformation? Explore our Jewelry Making & Repair Program, and contact us to learn more.

Jewelry Making & Repair Program