Talking with Matthieu Cheminee

Episode #186

Today’s guest is Matthieu Cheminee, a goldsmith, teacher and author. Matthieu has some interesting stories to share that you won’t want to miss.

Matthieu Cheminée Transcription

Alison Lee: Well, I am interviewing someone today. I’m very excited because this is really my roots, gold-smiting, love that. So I am talking today to Matthieu Cheminée. I can’t say that with a better French accent but I know he can. He is a goldsmith and a jeweler and he does have a book coming out I believe in 2014 we will hear about. Matthieu thank you so much for coming on today and talking about the love gold-smiting and jewellery making.

Matthieu Cheminée: Well thank you.

Alison: Now let’s do a little bit of your history because I think I love this part. I think it’s really fascinating. You moved I guess from France to New Mexico when you were 19? And started studying silver-smiting. Is that correct?

Matthieu: Yes, it is. I grew up in Paris and when I finished high school I moved to New Mexico to visit my aunt that [inaudible] with a painter there in Calles and just totally fell in love with the place. Gorgeous place and walking around town, well seeing all those beautiful pieces of Native American Indian jewellery in the windows, country belts and really loved it. So I started earning those techniques.

Alison: Now how did you do that? Alright so you see the jewellery and then did you say, "OK. I’m going to see if there's a school here where I could learn how to make that?" Or did you just show up on an Indian reservation and say "Hi! I’m here."

Matthieu: Pretty much like that. I met some silversmiths. It happened that some of them were working at the Pueblo [inaudible] and other outside the Pueblo. And first I watched for days and days, watched them scanting. I would do in day work and slowly try myself.

Alison: And now they were doing, what would you call now that you can look back at everything, the kind of techniques they were doing?

Matthieu: Well I think the main techniques they were doing at the time were a lot of scanting, scant work turquoise setting and in day work. That was the two main techniques I was seeing at first. And of course lapidary and yeah.

Alison: Oh cutting their own stones, Lapidary work

Matthieu: Yeah. Inlay

Alison: The Inlay. And did you, do you feel you really learned solid techniques there?

Matthieu: Oh definitely. I mean scanting is still what I’m doing today. So for me really the base of my jewellery education.

Alison: Came from that?

Matthieu: Yeah. I was suturing. Of course I was you know self-taught pretty much because it was from watching and then they did a [inaudible] there but I was missing some techniques that’s for sure. But I got a lot out of it.

Alison: And were they working traditionally at that point with what? An acetylene torch or was it primitive tools or did you have everything available?

Matthieu: No, it was acetylene torch for the suturing and quite nice tools already at that time.

Alison: OK. So then you go back to Paris and you do photography.

Matthieu: Yeah. I went back to Paris for a year and I worked as a photographer there.

Alison: What where you photographing?

Matthieu: Well I was actually working for a magazine on boats. So I went to boat shows and took pictures of boats and little things like that mostly.

Alison: Well that's a big switch. Different equipment. Different artistic endeavor.

Matthieu: Yeah. Been doing photography since, on and off and I always loved it so, yeah.

Alison: Alright. So now you spent your year in Paris and you're photographing. And are you doing any jewellery making?

Matthieu: No. Not much at all. I had this client that I was really doing photographing. I mean France was at the time I don’t know today really, but at the time was very difficult to be able to buy sever and to get the license. Everything is really on books. So you have to get declared and it was quite complicated.

Alison: OK. Well that could make it a little difficult then. So then what do you do?

Matthieu: Then I met my wife. When I went to Taos for just a short visit and she was moving to West Africa with her mom where she was studying so I decided to go visit her and went to stay for a few weeks and instead I stayed for a few years.

Alison: I like your traveling concept. You go visit and stay.

Matthieu: That's it. So I stayed with her and her mom and her brother and we all lived together for almost 3 years in Mali, West Africa in Bamako.

Alison: OK. And what made you fall in love beside your girlfriend, what made you fall in love with West Africa?

Matthieu: Oh it’s unbelievable. I mean Mali is one of my favorite countries. The culture is so rich; the people are wonderful. Just so nice.

Alison: Now when you say the culture is so rich, that peaks my interest for sure. The culture is so rich because of why? What appealed to you about the culture that spoke to you specifically?

Matthieu: The music, artwork and jewellery I mean, jewellery there is such a nice inventory of techniques and [inaudible], the [inaudible]. Just beautiful.

Alison: So the techniques in the jewellery making.

Matthieu: Yeah.

Alison: OK. So you go there, it’s beautiful. You love the music and the artwork and now you fall across how they are also making jewellery.
Matthieu: Yeah. I met a couple jewelers and it just reignited my passion for jewellery making and I spent days, I mean years walking the streets meeting new jewelers, sitting down with them learning techniques and working in the street.

Alison: Wow. OK. So what was the first thing you noticed that was totally new and different in jewellery techniques from when you were in Taos were you were like "Oh my! I hadn’t seen that before." Do you remember the first thing you saw?

Matthieu: I think the forge. For me that was it.

Alison: Forging?

Matthieu: Yes. On the street, in the middle, in charcoal [inaudible] transform that [inaudible] just with a hammer and an Anvil into beautiful bracelets in a few minutes.

Alison: Yeah. That's pretty magic.

Matthieu: Yeah. it is.

Alison: Now would you say that in West Africa then from what you just described it sounds like a very ancient gold-smiting approach. Is that true? Because it sounds like, what do you think?

Matthieu: It is. I think it’s still really related to blacksmithing. I mean you can really see that they are coming from the same family and actually over there they are from the same family, the blacksmith people and medal smith and goldsmith and silversmith.

Alison: Well now when you saw them on the street were they working in gold or were they working in silver? What was the prominent metal used?

Matthieu: Well at that time it was 17 years ago it was quite a lot of gold working. Today unfortunately there is very little gold work coming out. The price of gold went up and since that it changed. At the time it was I would say definitely over 30% of gold pieces.

Alison: And was it the high karat gold like working in 22, 24 karat gold?

Matthieu: Nope. Mostly 18.

Alison: 18. OK.

Matthieu: And they will do a lot of gold gelding to give the color of 22.

Alison: Right. Which is so gorgeous. That's addicting right there.

Matthieu: Yeah. It is definitely.

Alison: I mean Seeing gold work being done is very addicting. Now were they using torches or were they using fire? I mean how primitive were the tools they were working with?

Matthieu: Well I’ve seen both. A lot of [inaudible] jewelers would do severing on the fire with a little pipe and they could Sutter like teapot, anything just straight on the fire. Some people were using butane torches and gasoline torches.

Alison: I've personally have never seen that and I don’t understand how someone could use a little pipe and fire and do soldering or do any work, so. Or bellows.

Matthieu: Yeah. It’s just amazing to see. They get the whole piece ready with a little bit of borax and they solder where they want it and start heating it and if they need the flame to [inaudible] they just blow on it and push it towards the solder with the pipe.

Alison: That must take years of practice and skill sets.

Matthieu: Oh yeah. The jewelers they start at 8 years old, most of them and it’s a family trade so its passed down from father to son. And they always even before 8 they live in the workshop so the see it and learn from where they work.

Alison: Yeah. That makes sense because that kind of skill is in bred, I mean it’s just in you to be able to do that.

Matthieu: Oh Definitely.

Alison: If I tried to blow some solder with a pipe that wouldn’t go well at all, I’m just saying. So that must be amazing to see. Well now, it’s being taught over there then generation, generation not specifically going to a trade school. Is that how the skills are being passed on?

Matthieu: Yes. Yeah. I mean I think I've seen one trade school in Dakar during my last trip but except that I have never seen any in West Africa.

Alison: And were they open to teach you some of their family secrets and skills and trade?

Matthieu: Well I think that's one of the beauty of it is the generosity of sharing those techniques. You just sit down with them. And being a jeweler, you are part of a family. And so, of course once in a while they'll try you. They are like "See if you can do something with your hands." But as soon as they see it, right away they'll give you anything and show you anything without asking for anything in return. It’s just pure sharing. Just beautiful.

Alison: Yeah. That's very special because that, and people can be generous in the United States but sharing things like that, you don’t do that.

Matthieu: No. I rarely seen people keeping secrets. I’ve seen some but really rare where it’s their techniques and nobody needs to know. In contrary it’s like, you're just sharing. And that's how it works. When you are a young jeweler in Africa, if you want to learn a technique you find the person who is good at it and you sit with him and learn.

Alison: Right. Like old apprentice type of thing.

Matthieu: Yeah.

Alison: Yeah. Well I see now especially in this country, what’s so prominent is people getting upset when someone else does something techniques. Everyone wants to claim it as their own and that's, you know, that’s not a win-win situation. What you are saying is very interesting. So now is there a sense of competition then? Or how does that resolve then through, you know the whole process of different people making jewellery? You know how does that work? Because certainly someone can’t say. Like how does each artist distinguish themselves from the next if everyone is sharing the same techniques?

Matthieu: Yeah I think it’s a little bit, some are good at it. So they'll be nicer pieces and some are a little bit less good but all together the pieces can be very similar in that technique. So it seems to work. It’s just, if you look at a lot of artists in the states that share their techniques, Charles Lewton-Brain shares [inaudible] all the time and I think just the sharing is what’s important.

Alison: I do to. Oh I do to. And then you have to bring your own personal flavor to it. Now what about design? Is that taught design from strictly a design point of view? Or is it really techniques driven following classical design?

Matthieu: Yeah. Its techniques driven and there is the traditional design.

Alison: From like Roman times?

Matthieu: They have been doing the same for 100 years I would say. Yeah they keep the same design. Once in a while you will find a jeweler who would really get out of his way to be different and that’s great but always heard what they want. They actually want to learn a new design and try to get out of the mould of the same pattern. It’s a very difficult one because I think the design are great the way they are. They can change a little bit and make it better but if they change too much also its kind of losing a little bit part of the culture.

Alison: Yeah. Yeah. I hear you for sure. Well that's interesting. Alright, so now how is all of this influence? Describe your work and who you are as a jeweler.

Matthieu: Well my work is based on, most of the pieces I’m doing are stamped going back to the roots in New Mexico. And of course at [inaudible] there were a lot of stamp work so I can see why it’s also attached to that. The stamp work I'm doing is a bit different than what you can find in New Mexico. Instead of adding stamp to a piece I just stamp the whole sheet of metal so it really gives a texture to a sheet of metal and from that I work and make my piece.

Alison: And do you use your own stamps that you make or are you using old stamps? How do you start texturing the metal?

Matthieu: I have old stamp from New Mexico that I bought at [inaudible] or an old friend gave them to me. Since then I've made a lot of stamps also. I've got stamps from [inaudible] in Niger and [inaudible]. When I meet jewelers who do stamping they usually offer me a few stamps so I'm starting to have a nice collection. Yeah.

Alison: And the way you use stamps; does it look like its stamping or do you not know that’s what it is because you've textured it so?

Matthieu: If you look close and if you know stamping, you would definitely know that it is stamping. A lot of people think that its raw made, raw texture on but its deep, deep stamping. I hammer the stamp a few times in the same place.

Alison: And that's your texture and your background. And then tell me about, I saw online. I was looking that you had made jewellery from old moulds that you got from retiring jewelers?

Matthieu: Yeah, I got a collection of old moulds and I wanted to keep them to bring them to Africa when I'm opening a school there. So I was trying then to see what was there and I had lots of interesting pieces so I decided to create tons of pieces with all those waxes. And I made a necklace with only rings, old [inaudible] with the stone on and different pieces like that.

Alison: So where you recasting from these old moulds and then collaging them together as a new piece?

Matthieu: Yeah. Exactly.

Alison: Well that's fun. That's a way of bringing back.

Matthieu: It was a lot of fun. It’s a little bit like, they are all called heirlooms, that’s the name fairy. So I start showing that, I am part of a group of 14 jeweler of Quebec. And we are starting to do shows all around. Well, we are trying to do one city a year or even too. We did one in New York at [inaudible]

Alison: Oh yeah.

Matthieu: Gallery. So I was showing those pieces there.

Alison: I saw a picture and they are fascinating. Like a journey to look at a piece and seeing all the different elements that's in there creating. Yeah. It’s fabulous.

Matthieu: It’s a fun process.

Alison: Yeah. I bet. It’s a big puzzle there. So now you went and you opened a school in West Africa.

Matthieu: No. Not yet. I'm trying to open a school.

Alison: Oh you are? K.

Matthieu: Yeah. It’s been very difficult. I wanted to do one in Guinea and it was slowly on its way. They had couple coups since and so I'm waiting now for the place to be a bit more stable and yes. That's one of my dream to definitely open a school there.

Alison: And you would teach jewellery making from what point of view? Everything you combine?

Matthieu: Yeah. I would like the jewelers from there to be the teachers. So form good teachers to be able to give a little bit more techniques. Probably in February I'm going to Mali to teach some jewelers. And I don’t like the term teaching when I go there because I think they have more to teach me anyway. [inaudible] with them to maybe discover new techniques where they can use even in the traditional jewellery to make it a little bit more desirable to the west for a better market for them.

Alison: So you are adding some sort of marketing skills, squishing it into the design a little bit.

Matthieu: Yeah.

Alison: Outstanding. So now you reside in Quebec, correct?

Matthieu: Yes. I moved [inaudible] Mali and moved to Quebec and I did a jewellery school here to learn really more of the traditional part of the jewellery making. Stamp setting, etc. So I did a course of a year and a half and now I have been teaching there for 7 years.

Alison: Do you enjoy teaching?

Matthieu: I love teaching. I love sharing the techniques. I think it’s a great and I love seeing people [inaudible] in their work and getting better at really a great job.

Alison: And are these people who want to be professional jewelers? Are these hobbyists or a mixture? Who are you teaching?

Matthieu: They're a mixture of talent. A lot of them probably want to work for a company and at the bench.

Alison: OK. Bench jewelers?

Matthieu: Yeah.

Alison: So they want to learn techniques?

Matthieu: Yeah. Techniques. And I also teach.

Alison: Go ahead.

Matthieu: I also teach another school in Montreal where in that school I teach African techniques. When I go to Africa I see them, I study a technique like Filigree or forging and after I go and teach it and the revenue of that class, I share it with the jeweler I send over there.

Alison: Oh that's nice.

Matthieu: So it’s almost like I'm giving the class with him.

Alison: That's very nice. What was the first technique you said before forging? Silvery?

Filigree.

Alison: Oh wow. Well that's intense. That's very technique driven, correct.

Matthieu: Yes. Filigree, you have to be very patient. And the person I work with in Guinea is Brian [inaudible] is just amazing. He's just sitting all day doing is filigree [inaudible] blown away.

Alison: I think they are in the zen mode to be able to do that.

Matthieu: Yeah. Probably.

Alison: That's a very, you know. You have to be at one with your craft when you are doing that. Especially the intense work like that. And I would be surprised is that, what is the most popular skill that people want to learn now? See, what I have sort of noticed is that things like granulation or filigree or repose. The things that require a lot of patience are not as popular to want to be learned at this point. Is that your experience?

Matthieu: I agree. I think unfortunately people want to go fast. And so filigree is not a technique that you can go fast. There's actually more interest into a technique like granulation than filigree. There is more jeweler who does it [inaudible] who does great work with that. So you cannot like bring people to want to do it. Filigree is less work out there so maybe the interest is getting [inaudible]

Alison: Yeah. And so people want to learn, what would you say? What would be the trend of what people want to learn how to do?

Matthieu: Well I think the new [inaudible], something, a nice visual [inaudible], big interest. [Inaudible] anti plastic work. I think all those work is really in right now and people really like it. And I do too.

Alison: I do too. Yeah. It’s beautiful. But it all takes time. I don’t think anything in metalsmithing is fast. Buy someone else's work if you want it fast.

Matthieu: No, exactly. I think it’s, and the beauty of it is to try and to have fun.

Alison: Exactly. Exactly. And it takes some time.

Matthieu: Oh it takes a lot time and if you want to be good at it just spend hours and hours and hours.

Alison: To sell your work it takes a while. Do you feel? Like how long would you say, how long do you think it is before someone has their own unique voice in their work? What's your work on that?

Matthieu: Well I think it varies for the person. I think what I find is important I got lost for a long time I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. Jeweler really. And so I would do something and change and do something and change. And I find you get lost easy and somebody told me once you really have to concentrate on one thing at least for a year and just do that and nothing else. And that's how slowly I created my style and really stick to it. And I think that's a very important thing.

Alison: That's very good advice. Yeah. Because what you were saying before about being fast to say to someone concentrate a year on just that could freak someone out.

Matthieu: Yeah but that doesn’t mean you don’t [inaudible] but it’s important to stick to something and push it. Yeah I think so.

Alison: It is. Are you someone that when you are working on something there's a big pile of the one's that didn’t work before you have what you like?

Matthieu: Yeah there is. When I work on something in general I don’t like it when its finish.

Alison: I love that.

Matthieu: Yeah I give it everything during the process, I mean that’s not true sometimes. I do like it but most of the time I wanted to do maybe a little bit further so yeah its starting over.

Alison: How do you know when a piece is done?

Matthieu: If I like it. If I like it, it’s done.

Alison: Really?

Matthieu: Yeah.

Alison: And so you just have to all of a sudden say "I love this." Because everyone has a different point where you're, I call it like wrestling it to the grown to get it so you like it.

Yeah. I like it today. That means like, my wife would say you know it shine [inaudible] right away if they are a bad [inaudible] because it’s over. I like a piece like, the one I’m working today that’s the one I'm going to like just now and the rest is Ok, you know it today.

I think that's how they frankly, because you're in love with the process.

Matthieu: Exactly.

Alison: Yeah. So when it’s done, there is a note, you are not involved with it anymore.

Matthieu: No. It becomes an object.

Alison: Yeah. No I hear you. I have a rule when I would teach here and for myself, when you finish something at the end of the day and you are like "Uhh. I don’t know. I don’t like it. It’s done", you can’t melt it until the following morning. You have to come down with fresh eyes and a cup of coffee to relook. No melting at night.

Matthieu: No. But I do love melting pieces.

Alison: You do?

Matthieu: There is something in it where, you know, I would make something and it doesn’t [inaudible] for a while and to recycle it and to melt it, I don’t know there's something great about it.

Alison: I agree. Tell me why? What's great about it?

Matthieu: I find our job also allows us to return from the path what we are instead of always leaving it. So that's one part of it and being in Africa again its very rare to find old jewellery because it’s always re-melted. Somebody wants a new piece, they bring their old one and they transform it into new one.

Alison: Well that is what's so amazing certainty about gold and of course silver. But when you use metals, precious metals that’s one of the wonderful things.

Matthieu: Yeah. Definitely.

Alison: You know. I love how over in India all the women wear their gold because that’s what you do. because its value and you can always just redo it, re-melt it. It is a very cool thing. Now how much time do you spend creating at this point as a jewellery artist? How much time are you in the studio creating?

Matthieu: Well actually not much. No that’s a tricky time now. I have to find the balance between teaching and jewellery making and I think the teaching took over for a few years and now it’s time to switch it around.

Alison: Right. Are you the kind of artist that you go into your studio and you don’t come out until you've finished the process? Are you driven that way? Or can you actually say "Oh no. Its 5 o clock. Time to leave."?

Matthieu: No I need to finish what I'm doing. And usually for me the morning, if I go down to the workshop and have to forge from 8 to noon, I'll have a great day. That's very productive.

Alison: For creativity in the morning?

Matthieu: Yeah. Totally. but you know same thing in the last while, I'm writing a book I find its actually a lot of work and it took also a lot of time.

Alison: Yeah. Everything takes time. it all takes time.

Matthieu: Oh yeah.

Alison: So creatively what's on your mind? You are on your bench next? What’s something that you want to tackle that you are thinking about?

Matthieu: Well I'm going to work; through the year I've been picking up stones everywhere in Africa. Little rocks [inaudible] and I going to start making a series with those plain rock. So that's the next project.

Alison: That sounds interesting. That will take some time in the studio.

Matthieu: Oh yeah. That will be great.

Alison: That sounds good. Well I'll be excited to see that. Now just tell everyone do you know approximately when your book is going to be coming out?

Matthieu: Not 100%. Probably, I would imagine between end of the summer, around the fall somewhere.

Alison: Next year 2014?

Matthieu: Yeah.

Alison: And do you have a tentative title so people can be on the lookout?

Matthieu: We are not sure on that one yet. It’s definitely Jewellery Techniques of West Africa but the title will come up for sure.

Alison: Alright. Well we will be looking for it.

Matthieu: Yeah it’s going to be a Green Morgan Press.

Alison: Of course. Tim McCreight’s Publishing Company so you can always check there to find it. Because if it’s one of Tim's books I know it will be extra special.

Matthieu: Oh yeah. He is doing a great job.

Alison: Well thank you Matthieu for coming on and chatting with me today. We always love to hear from people doing work around the world.

Matthieu: Well thank you. My pleasure.

Alison: It's always great and we will be looking for your book.

Matthieu: Thank you.

Episode Notes: 

MUSIC
Enlightened Madness/The Train Knows Where to Go

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The Eye Has to Travel by Lisa Vreeland

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