Within a couple years, Susan O'Brien went from a 28-year career as a secretary to creating jewelry as a full-time silversmith.
The jewelry of O'Brien, of Weedsport, is currently featured on the cover of the winter 2018 edition of Belle Armoire Jewelry magazine.
O'Brien, who has been working with metals for 15 years, said being chosen for the cover was "exciting and humbling." When the national magazine's editor, Kelly Kirchner, asked O'Brien in June to submit an application and mail three pieces to the magazine, she initially wondered if it was a scam. She questioned why her work would be selected from among thousands of artists. But after doing some research, she found the magazine was legitimate.
O'Brien was also asked to include a four-page article on her techniques. Her writing had never been published before, so she took the time to craft the material. To her surprise, she was told the magazine liked her work and changed little of her writing.
O'Brien received another surprise in October, when she was told that the pieces she made using kuem-boo, an ancient Korean technique, were going to make the cover of the magazine. Her husband, Thomas, had suggested such a thing could happen. He said she needed to be more confident in her work, O'Brien said, but she was still skeptical.
"When it happened he was kind of like, 'See, I told you,'" O'Brien said.
Kirchner said in an email that when she found O'Brien's work on Etsy, she was impressed by the precision and effort that went into the pieces. The editor said lavish, "loud" pieces are generally chosen for the magazine, but its staff found the "stunning simplicity" of O'Brien's work refreshing.
"When it came time to choose what would appear on our cover, the photograph with Susan's work was an immediate front-runner, and everyone agreed that it is one of our most eye-catching covers to date," Kirchner said. "Besides her clear skill and talent as a jewelry artist, Susan was an absolute pleasure to work with. She is one of the special artists I've worked with whose passion truly shines through in every piece she crafts."
O'Brien, who has a small studio in her home, has work showcased in Skaneateles Artisans and two other galleries. The work of O'Brien's father, Ralph Bruinsma, who did masonry contracting with the Rochester Historical Society, was an inspiration for her. She always considered her father an artist, she said, and respected the craftsmanship and attention to detail he put into the historical houses he worked on. Her love affair with working with metals began in 2002, when she paid $800 for a kiln along with costs for materials, despite the cries of people calling her crazy for it.
"I thought, 'I'm going to love this,' and I just jumped in," O'Brien said.
O'Brien enjoys starting off with an idea that exists in her head and eventually translating it into a solid object for someone else to buy and potentially adore. She said she is largely self-taught, though she has taken some classes in Rochester and learned from YouTube videos. She began with metal clay, a soft material created in Japan in the early 1990s, and received a certification in handling Precious Metal Clay, a specific brand of metal clay, in 2008.
After marrying Thomas in July 2015, O'Brien left her position as a legal secretary for the Rochester law firm Harter Seacrest & Emery to pursue silversmith work as a full-time job, with her husband's blessing. Though she originally wasn't sure if she could turn what she loved into a sustainable career, she said Thomas' support has helped immensely. O'Brien doesn't view silversmith work as a job she simply endures to get paid.
"Every day I'm just absorbed in new designs or calling in to figure out how I can get into the next gallery," O'Brien said.
O'Brien is looking to the future, as Thomas — who owns the shop O'Brien's Motorcycles — is working on constructing a two-story shop, with a sizable section serving as Susan's new, larger studio. She plans to run a jewelry-making class out of it and has been working on sketches for the area. She said the studio's opening is planned for 2019.
O'Brien has been happy to focus on what she loves. She is currently at work on new pieces for the galleries she works with, since her pieces sold well over the holidays.
"I really enjoy taking some raw materials and figuring out some kind of approach or design as to how to get the finished product," O'Brien said.