By John Shanahan
Earth Terra Erde Inc., Rio Rico, Arizona
First Place, Responsible Practices
The scene in Wolfgang Vaatz’s At the Creek pendant shows a shining river of silver winding between black trees crested with golden leaves. It’s a quiet, pastoral space, a visual representation of a beautiful spot not far from his home in Rio Rico, Arizona. It’s an image of serenity and harmony, and a reflection of Vaatz’s own commitment to the environmentally conscious techniques and ethical sourcing that landed him first place in the 2018 MJSA Vision Awards Responsible Practices category.
“There’s a small river that we live close by,” he says. “It runs through a little can-yon with cottonwood trees, and they turn a bright golden yellow in the fall. That’s where the inspiration came from.”
Coming to jewelry from a background as a painter, Vaatz brings the sense of brushwork to his pieces. He often looks to capture natural settings—particularly landscapes—and render them in precious metals. Always environmentally con-scious, he works exclusively in reclaimed or recycled metals. The base of the At the Creek pendant is made from Argentium silver. The metal is textured with various tools, including burs, modified hammers, concrete nails with modified tips, and more. “For the water, I use a small, highly polished chisel-like tip and hit at an angle to reflect the light,” he says.
What helps to further set this piece apart artistically is Vaatz’s use of placer gold, which he first found about five years ago. “We were walking around the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, and there was a gold dealer who was pointing out some of these little flakes to a customer,” Vaatz recalls.
Sustainably hand mined, and requiring little to no impact on the environment, placer gold is found in the alluvial runoff of streams and rivers. To a degree, if you picture old-time prospectors panning for gold, you’ve got an idea of how some placer gold is found. (It’s more sophisticated than that in larger scales, of course, but panning is a legitimate placer gold mining technique.) Luckily for Vaatz, it also has a certain distinct look that ties to his aesthetic. “It made me stop in my tracks and think, wow, they’re perfect for miniature leaves. I purchased a small amount of placer gold and I figured, I could do something with it. I experimented with using it for leaf patterns.” Clearly, it worked and since then he has used them in his landscape-based pieces in both flake and nugget forms.
And it’s not just the look that appeals to him. It’s something of a deeper mindset that is both personal and artistic. “I want to use a material where I have a direct connection to the sources, and know where it comes from,” he says. After making a connection with his first supplier, who was from California, Vaatz ended up getting in touch with the actual miners. “They are small operations, mainly individuals or small teams, and I really liked the low impact they made,” he says. “California has very strict regulations, and they’re just out there with a shovel and a pan and a back sluice. They really work hard, but when we left the site, we couldn’t see any impact.”
The fact that he intended to use the material “as is” both surprised and delighted the miners. “I told them that I didn’t want to smelt it, that I wanted to preserve and work with every individual flake,” he says. “They loved the idea that what they love to do, and what they retrieve out of the ground is preserved exactly on the piece.”
For a piece like At the Creek, Vaatz cuts the Argentium to roughly the shape he wants, then outlines where the gold will go. Because the placer gold is so small and delicate, soldering is impractical if not impossible. “I have to work with a microscope. There’s no way to solder it, so I had to find a way to apply the natural gold to the silver.”
Instead, he fuses the gold to the silver by torch. “I heat everything up with the torch to the point that the silver starts melting from the surface,” he says. “My time to decide if the piece is ‘ready’ is in fractions of seconds. Otherwise the gold will melt.”
The heat of the fusing process, he notes, also burns away impurities. “There are still minerals in there that melt away, come to the surface. There’s a lot going on that we don’t see with the naked eye.”
With the piece’s elements in place, Vaatz oxidizes it in its entirety using various sulfur-based products. The time to get it looking how he wants can vary. By sanding and polishing off some of the oxidation using sandpaper up to 2000 grit and rubber sanding wheels (“Making sure not to sand the gold away!” he cautions), he creates the deeper details and the three-dimensional world of his landscape. Often, more texturing is added to help the piece reflect light and create brightness. “This is my least favorite part,” he admits. “One mistake and it changes the appearance.”
The result is not just an award-winning glimpse into the burbling stream and lush trees that inspired the At the Creek pendant, but a lens into the artist’s connection with and care for the world around him as well.