Donald Friedlich: A Life of Stone, Gold, and Glass |
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Donald Friedlich: A Life of Stone, Gold, and Glass

It was a chance meeting on a ski run that first piqued Donald Friedlich’s interest in making jewelry. At the age of twenty, unsure of his direction, Friedlich spent a winter in Stowe, Vermont, skiing and contemplating his future.

One day on the slopes, as he recalls, “This little girl—I thought—passed me like a bat out of hell. We ended up going up the gondola together. Turns out she wasn’t a girl, but a small woman. June Mendell and I skied together and got to be friends. She was sort of a hippie jeweler.”

During a walk on a Martha’s Vineyard beach the following summer, Friedlich pocketed an oval beach stone, wondering if Mendell might make him a piece of jewelry from it. When he brought it back to Mendell’s studio in Vermont, she refused, offering him a greater gift instead: the challenge of trying his own hand at the jeweler's bench. 

“I took to it rather quickly,” Friedlich says modestly. “I made the stone into a silver pendant and wore it for many years. Over the next year from time to time I would go to her studio and make jewelry. It was a very casual arrangement.” 

Still, it took a few years before Friedlich considered pursuing jewelry seriously. “I had never thought of myself as an artist or creative in any way. I did like working with my hands and taking things apart and fixing them.” Although he’d done well in math and science in school and fantasized about becoming an inventor, college hadn’t held much appeal.

Eventually he enrolled at the University of Vermont. While working in Mendell’s studio had certainly sparked his interest, a few semesters passed before he found his way to the university’s art department and a jewelry class taught by Laurie Peters.

“That class changed my life. I ended up practically living in the jewelry studio, took a bunch of other art classes, and discovered a creative side that was completely dormant. It was very exciting.” 

Don Friedlich at his work bench. Photo by Judy Mitchell.

From that point on, Friedlich’s course was laid. He spent about a year working for the jeweler Timothy Grannis in nearby Burlington, and ventured to Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine for a metalsmithing workshop with the artist Arline Fisch. Friedlich transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he received his BFA in jewelry and metalsmithing in 1982. “I had a nine-year undergraduate career,” he notes wryly.

Then as now, RISD was known for its extraordinary faculty in craft media. Friedlich studied intensively with metalsmithing master John Prip, jeweler and sculptor Claus Bury, and even took a professional practices class with glassblower Dale Chihuly, all three heavyweights in their respective fields. His focus and dedication in the classroom paid off. Within a year of leaving RISD, Friedlich was showing his work in several prominent craft galleries, and his limited-production jewelry was getting notice from a national audience at craft shows directed at wholesale buyers and serious collectors.

After many years in Rhode Island, Friedlich and his wife Judith Mitchell moved on, first to Iowa City, and then to Madison in 1998, where Mitchell eventually settled into a position teaching creative writing in UW–Madison’s English Department. By this time Friedlich was already well established as an artist. He was showing internationally, serious collectors were seeking his one-of-a-kind pieces, and his limited production jewelry was selling consistently.

Not bad for a self-professed ski bum.

So what is it about Friedlich’s work that is so captivating to jewelry and art collectors alike?

In many ways, his work defies easy categorization. For one, he’s a jeweler whose primary material is glass: although a surprising number of jewelry artists have experimented with the medium, few have explored its potential with such depth and focus. An artist with a finely tuned sense of color and formal composition, he’s equally driven by technical challenges, constantly pushing himself to develop new skills. 

It is this fierce independent streak that drives Friedlich to continually explore unusual materials, new methods and tools, and the unique qualities that set jewelry apart from other art forms: its scale, its relationship to clothing and the human form, and the design challenge of attaching it to fabric or suspending it from the body. 

Throughout his career Friedlich has been drawn to nontraditional media, from that first beach stone to slate, semi-precious stones, clear optical glass, even ceramic tile. His most recent series are centered on new ways of working with glass, and even his most saleable pieces use precious metals and gems very sparingly.

Within the small, specialized world of studio jewelry, work in nontraditional media isn’t a new phenomenon. Artists have been moving away from precious gems and metals since the 1950s, celebrating and elevating everything from found objects to wood, resins, plastics, and eccentric metals like titanium and aluminum. At mid-century, the use of non-precious materials was often seen as a challenge to the conventional status of jewelry as trophies for the rich.

By the time Friedlich began focusing his attention on slate in the early 1980s, the gesture was innovative but not necessarily radical. Instead, his choice of materials reflected a profound appreciation of the stone’s natural beauty: its soft dark sheen, the way it absorbs light, and the layered, irregular edges revealed when it breaks. 

Friedlich treated slate as if it were a gemstone, cutting it with lapidary techniques and pairing it with gold. Since the slate was virtually free—a large stash of fragments from a broken chalkboard was enough to fuel years of work—Friedlich could afford to invert the traditional ratio of stone to precious metal.

(Left) Interference Series Brooch, 1994. Slate, 22k gold, sterling, 2¼ x 2¼ x 3⁄8 inches / (Right) Interference Series Brooch, 1995. Slate, sterling silver, 2¼ x 2¼ x 3⁄8 inches. Photos by Larry Sanders Rather than using gold to set, or frame, the slate, Friedlich employed it as a bright, warm accent against expanses of velvety matte black, punctuating the transitions between the stone’s varied shapes and textures. When he added diamonds or other gems, they were small and precisely spaced, like sparks of light peeking out from a darkened sky. These early pieces—typically brooches just two or three inches in diameter—create visual tension through the interplay of dark and light, smooth and abraded surfaces, and sharply cut and roughly broken edges. 

In the mid-1980s, inspired by the dramatic canyons and mesas of the American Southwest, Friedlich began a deeper exploration of texture, carving his work with a sandblaster to develop surfaces that echo the effects of wind and water on stone. The gentle, organic nature of these surfaces is held in check by the severe clarity of Friedlich’s favorite geometric shapes: triangles, rectangles, spheres, and off-kilter ovoids. Quiet and restrained, such simple forms create a perfect foil for his increasingly subtle explorations of texture, shadow, and light. His abraded marks were equally simple, most often X’s or rows of parallel lines.

Friedlich began to work with glass in 1990, carving and sandblasting it much as he did stone. He loved its color and translucence, and often backed his glass brooches with thin sheets of niobium—a metal that takes on brilliant colors through electrochemical oxidation—to generate an optical effect as the wearer shifts and moves.

As he became more familiar with the material, Friedlich was increasingly fascinated by what he calls the “site-adaptive” qualities of jewelry made with translucent glass: its ability to reveal (and sometimes magnify) the color and weave of clothing, and also to reflect or refract light in response to movement. But he felt his glass skills limited him to “cold-working:” carving, grinding, etching, and sandblasting.

In 2001, seeking to expand his technical abilities in glass, he started going to The Studio of the Corning Museum of Glass (CMOG) in upstate New York to take one- or two-week workshops. The CMOG is an international leader in the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge about the art, history, science, and technology of glass and glassmaking. The Studio is a well-equipped teaching facility adjacent to the museum.

(Left) Flower Petal Brooch, 2012. Blown glass, 14k gold, 5 x 17⁄8 x 3⁄8 inches. (Right) Flower Petal Brooch, 2012. Blown glass, 14k gold, 5 x 17⁄8 x 3⁄8 inches. This page photo credit: Larry SandersIn 2003 Friedlich was the first jeweler to be accepted into its extremely competitive residency program. Since then, he’s become a regular at The Studio, returning two to three times each year to teach or take classes. The fruit of this relationship has been a radical change in his approach, several new bodies of work, and fresh excitement about stretching his abilities and expanding his toolkit. “One of the best things about being an artist is that if you work it right, you can spend your life learning,” Friedlich asserts.

His current repertoire includes a wide range of techniques: working with glassblowers to create his own “raw materials,” hollow forms designed specifically to be cut and shaped into jewelry; casting chunks of glass into plaster molds in a kiln; press-molding hot, molten glass into carved graphite molds; and more. 

The carved graphite molds alone represent a tremendous learning curve. Designed with software and carved with computer-aided machining, the molds are also incredibly beautiful in themselves. Friedlich began exploring digital fabrication through visiting-artist sessions at Kendall School of Art in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where his colleague and friend Phil Renato has equipped a state-of-the-art studio.

“I spent half the time with the  students doing critiques, demonstrations, and lecturing, and half the time with Phil, playing with their very cool high-tech toys.”

(Left) Translucence Series Brooch, 2009. Blown glass, 22k gold, 18k gold, 14k gold, 2¾ x 2½ x ½ inches. /  (Right) Aqua Series Brooch, 2008. Glass, 22k gold, 18k gold,14k gold, 31⁄8 x 25⁄8 x 3⁄8 inches. Photos by James Beards.Not having a glass furnace of his own, Friedlich has reached out to local artists and businesses for help, collaborating with Madison glassblower Shayna Leib on the press-molded pieces and renting kiln space from a local stained-glass workshop to cast glass. Each of these techniques has opened up new avenues for his work, which now encompasses lyrical, curved, leaf-like shapes, subtle rounds that suggest cells or rippling water, and a delightful series of pieces cast directly from items in the produce department: celery stalks, apple slices, asparagus, and sections of squash. The tiny glass vegetables and fruits are crystalline in their perfection, so bright and clear they seem like something out of a fairy tale. 

Celery Brooches, 2013. Glass, 14k gold, (top) 6 x 1¼ x 1¾ inches; (bottom) 6 x 1¼ x 1¾ inchesThese organic forms, Friedlich confesses, are a far cry from the abstract geometric style he’s most comfortable with, but “the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. It would cross my mind, and I would think, ‘this is the silliest idea I’ve ever come up with.’ I kept pushing it aside, but it was so persistent. Finally I decided to try one celery brooch, and I liked the way it came out. The idea of wearing a stalk of celery as a brooch makes me smile.” 

Increasingly, collaboration and education (his own and others’) have become essential components of Friedlich’s work schedule. He has continued to cultivate a reputation as a talented and generous teacher, traveling widely to present workshops or share his experience as a visiting artist or lecturer. His informal teaching stints include the Canberra School of Art in Australia (2004), Tainan National University in Taiwan (2007), and California College of Arts and Crafts (2012), to name just a few. 

Today Friedlich has an international reputation, with work in important collections like London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and the Schmuckmuseum in Pforzheim, Germany, not to mention Wisconsin’s own Racine Art Museum.

Although he’s been all over the world, Friedlich has found a comfortable home here in Wisconsin. But comfortable doesn’t mean static, and you can bet Friedlich’s restless imagination will keep his work as an artist on the move. It’s important to note, too, that unlike most of his peers, Friedlich doesn't have the security of an academic post. An independent artist, he supports himself in large part through sales of limited-production jewelry.

Having established his own career during the economic boom of the 1980s, Friedlich was and is today particularly concerned about younger jewelers entering the field, noting how attendance at craft shows and the patronage of both dealers and collectors are declining rapidly.

“I feel the time after school is over is the most fragile time in an artists’ life,” he explains. “That’s when we lose so many talented people. When I started, galleries and stores were actively looking for new talent. The market was growing and robust, and craft shows offered a viable way to make a living. Now the shows have gone downhill.”

As president of the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) from 1999–2001, he became known as an outspoken advocate for independent studio artists and production jewelers, who operate without the support of an academic position. Friedlich feels that he and his contemporaries need to do more work to articulate the value of the craft to the public.

“If we can’t find a way to engage a younger audience, we are doomed to go the way of the buggy whip,” he says. “Most people have no idea that the field of contemporary jewelry and metalsmithing even exists. If we were an Olympic sport, it would be curling. We need to find a way to be ice-skating.”

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Jody Clowes is the director of the Academy's James Watrous Gallery and arts editor for Wisconsin People & Ideas magazine.

Donald Friedlich lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin.

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