Growing up, Brian Beckham painted. He used oils and watercolors, and sketched with pen and ink. He made his own furniture and designed and decorated his bedroom, but he never imagined he could make money from art.
As he got older, he took a part-time job working on the bench at his mother’s jewelry store in Carthage, Mississippi. After repairing watches and resizing rings became routine, his interest grew in the processes occurring before the jewelry arrived at the shop. How was jewelry made? And, where do gems come from?
After traveling the world and finding answers to these questions (and others), he came back to Mississippi and opened a shop in Jackson, where he builds custom pieces from start to finish using both traditional methods and cutting edge technology. Beckham’s work combines a passion for art and design with a genuine desire to create designs that speak to and for his clients.
Every design is a challenge, and I love that aspect of it. I don’t get bored or burned out, because every client brings their own design ideas, and sometimes existing materials to be integrated into a piece. It’s usually something that has sentimental value but that they don’t find themselves wearing.
“Every design is a challenge, and I love that aspect of it,” Beckham says. “I don’t get bored or burned out, because every client brings their own design ideas, and sometimes existing materials to be integrated into a piece. It’s usually something that has sentimental value but that they don’t find themselves wearing.”
Beckham has extensive training. Following his time at his mother’s store, he studied in Memphis and in Macon (Georgia) before moving to California and attending Santa Monica’s Gemological Institute of America. He learned traditional methods of fabrication – hand carving designs from wax molds, as well as newer methods using CAD and 3d printing to design and build models. He also went into gem mines abroad where he saw gemstones being retrieved firsthand in dangerous and sometimes heart wrenching conditions. The combination of these experiences led him to the Virgin Islands, working with Diamonds International selling gems and opening new shops.
“I opened new stores on different islands and I sold diamonds,” Beckham says. “I thought I wanted to be a diamond dealer, but I eventually realized that wasn’t an artistic outlet for me. I found the connections between artistry and jewelry when I moved back to the United States and took a job selling antique jewelry in New Orleans.”
Beckham worked at Jack Sutton Fine Jewelry on Royal Street in the French Quarter, a part of the city known for blocks of antique shops dating back to before the turn of the 20th century. The history there appealed to him and inspired the design ethos he now practices. “These antique pieces were made by a jeweler from start to finish, and they’re all one of a kind,” Beckham says. “There aren’t a million of these, each made with a rubber stamp, and something unique is what ends up being the piece everyone fights over after you die.”
I’m sort of Type A, and I wanted to know that I could stand behind every step of the process, with everything done in house. I want quality pieces, and most things made today don’t last, and they aren’t made with that type of care.
Beckham realized he wanted to offer clients the sort of experience jewelers offered in the past, when no aspect of the design or production process was outsourced. “I’m sort of Type A, and I wanted to know that I could stand behind every step of the process, with everything done in house,” he says. “I want quality pieces, and most things made today don’t last, and they aren’t made with that type of care.”
Beckham created a storefront intended to showcase his in-house production methods, with a large exposed workspace where clients can see the design process in action. “I didn’t want a sterile environment like most jewelry stores,” he says. “I wanted people to see the mess, and the nuts and bolts, and jewelers at work.”
Beckham also built his own display cases, intended to mimic the setup of an art gallery, where the gallerist and potential client stand side by side and view works, but in this scenario the client looks at jewelry. Potential customers also have the option of previewing designs in CAD, or sometimes with hand-carved models Brian creates.
The design process varies widely depending on the desired finished product. “The process can take two to five weeks depending on the model,” he says. “And of course, sometimes we have to go back to the drawing board multiple times to get it right. So many things can also go wrong during fabrication. I liken it to the baking process. Every baker has had a lot of ruined soufflés.”
In the studio, Brian has assistants who complete different aspects of the production process. Jewelers skilled in every aspect of the trade are increasingly rare, meaning that Beckham often recruits new employees and trains them in one aspect of the process. “When I was learning there were three or four schools in Mississippi that taught casting, and now, I don’t think there’s a single one, so it’s a challenge just to find people with ability,” he says.
I want to make art that people can wear. At the end of the day, those are the pieces that will be for sale on Royal Street a hundreds years after I’m gone.
Beckham also attributes the dearth of skilled jewelers to the loss of career opportunities following outsourcing and increasing overseas manufacturing, something he hopes to combat with his custom, locally made products. “I want to make art that people can wear,” he says. “At the end of the day, those are the pieces that will be for sale on Royal Street a hundreds years after I’m gone.”