Tom Herman’s third grade art teacher instilled in him the idea that piece of art should look as good from 1” away as from 1’ (or 10’.) It’s a standard to which he’s adhered his entire life. “To hold someone’s interest in a piece that’s 2” square is difficult. Just like in cooking, it’s all about the ingredients and what you do with them. If you overcook the green beans, the whole casserole will suffer.” Folksy wisdom from an artisan whose work has much of the ethereal sensibility of Lalique, the durable elegance of Tiffany, and the detail-intense craftsmanship of Van Cleef and Arpels.
Raised on Midwest farms, one of nine children, Tom was constantly taking machines apart to figure out how they worked. He also built things. “We didn’t get toys, so I made them… I made a fishing pole because it was easier than buying one.” Admittedly not a good student, he recalls, “The only exam I ever did well on was the Army Battery Test in Spatial Relationships.”
Art was a school requirement and held Tom’s interest. He dabbled in a wider variety of craft than generally available, but it didn’t occur to him to make his life as an artisan. “I’d never met one, so why would I think I could be one?” After brief matriculation at The University of Iowa, he built stainless steel ovens for the Hormel Meat Packing Plant, becoming a foreman at 20.“Everything depended on deadlines and responsibility.” Tom learned to gauge the amount of time something would take to be completed based not only on materials and labor, but also on the character of his crew. Again, he incorporated the skill into later life. Not only has experience taught him to be able to accurately judge the execution time of a custom piece, but he’s committed to making sure a client gets what he or she wants, not what they say they want. “People are not always articulate.” A real dialogue ensues before anything is developed. He still reads character.
Around 1979, Tom wandered into Hall Mall in Iowa City, which rented space to artists. The proprietor of The Emerald City Jewelry Shop was selling his lease. Rent was $27.50 a month; the business telephone was an installed pay phone. “I’d only made 15-20 pieces of jewelry, but lots of pottery, so I decided to use the shop to sell that.” A deal was struck. Tom opened with pottery, a little sculpture and a few pieces of jewelry. Because it had been known as a jewelry resource, however, customers continued to ask for things to be repaired or created. “…so I’d say, sure, I can do that.” He was able to use the Craft Center at Iowa State as a shop. Later, the facility sold him stones. Students and professors from what was “a huge Geology Department” would come hang out and talk. Tom had only a rudimentary lapidary machine then (stone cutter.) Everything was trial and error.
Four years later, he moved to San Francisco where one of his sisters had settled and got a job as a “maker” with the Van Craeynest Jewelry Company, established 1926. The company continues to be dedicated to training young artisans and passing on the traditions and the same jewelry making techniques which were used at the turn of the century. “It was like a college education.” Working mostly in platinum, gold and diamonds, Tom employed the evergreen form follows function. “Once you see the lines of efficiency, you can make something simple, secure, graceful, and functional. To take a solid block of gold and carve the setting for a $17,000 diamond – it seemed like a lot then – is really the same as making stainless steel ovens.”
Examining historical pieces at Butterfield’s Auction House was also invaluable.“There’s no better teacher than history. You can tell how a piece wore over time. Does the clasp work well 100 years later?” He also honed his sense of elegance. “There’s elegant work and inelegant work and price often doesn’t come into it. ‘Sometimes pieces survive because no one wore them. When these are sold at auction, they’re taken apart.”
Tom’s first craft show (he now does 6-8 annually) was at Lincoln Center in New York City around 1987. At the time, he was making sterling silver and dyed filament pieces ranging from $40.00-$90.00. In two days, he and his girlfriend/partner/now wife sold everything they’d brought netting $4500.00, “more money than I’d ever seen.” They returned to California and he quit his job. Staff was hired, multiples of 100 were produced, and the business went wholesale. Stone work took a back seat until 1990 when Ornament Magazine put his preferred work on its cover and the real atelier was born.
Seven Fingers Jewelers is named for Tom’s handprints after losing three digits in a childhood farm accident. It never slowed him down. Inspiration appears to be Edwardian, Belle Epoch, Art Nouveau and Mother Nature. Most of the work is custom, though occasionally the artist will manifest a vision such as ornamental “stands,” resembling a lapis egg (blue enameled sterling,) an ancient temple (turned, waxed wood ,) or a cylinder of whirling oak leaves (blackened sterling silver,) each circled by one of his exquisite bracelets. The jewelry is removable, of course, but together with its sculptural presenter creates a new object of beauty. (Tom went out in a storm to photograph the leaves.) Two of the three “stands” are hollow and contain matching earrings. Faberge would’ve loved them. The bracelets themselves are poems to delicacy without being insubstantial, to movement with grace. Hinges are integrated into the design. They respectively represent Hokusai waves, laurel leaves and oak leaves. Each is finessed with subtle diamonds.
Shows, shops and dealer’s wares are combed for stones that speak to the artist. Those that seem translucent are hollowed and backed with a domed sheet of brightly polished gold so light has optimum play. “Because the pieces are convex, you see a rolling color reflection creating a powerful illusion.” This is a Lalique technique. Then, there’s the rare find like this Bonda Agate (from India) which appears to be etched with trees and a lakefront but is, in fact, the complete handiwork of nature. “When you find stones like this, you have to honor them. Setting this one in a classic case fixes its place in time.”
The late Alastair Bradley Martin purchased over 100 Seven Fingers pieces for the famous Guennol Collection. Tom has international clients. He grows enthused when talking about the communication or, as he perceives it, collaboration necessary for commissions. He creates every work himself. Once a year he teaches somewhere “to give back.” In September he’ll be at The Denver School of Metal Arts. Whenever chasing (working with hammer and punches,) he works outside where the view includes a barn, a pond and a mountain. “The only place I’ll live is where I can see the weather coming.”
Tom Herman is a man doing exactly what he wants. He respects the natural qualities of his materials, demands excellence of his own artisanship, and strives for transcendence in his jewelry. Seven Fingers creates heirlooms.
All jewelry is individually designed and created. The final price of any piece depends on the design, materials used, and level of carving difficulty.