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In 1983, Ruthie Cohen answered a challenge to create jewelry instead of wall hangings. Since she had essentially no jewelry skills to speak of, her first designs were miniature versions of architectural wall-hangings. It was not uncommon to see spirals of sterling silver or gold-filled wire strewn across the kitchen table, attached to a nail being held by a vacuum vise. Semi-precious beads and pearls were accents in earrings, pendants, and bracelets.
It was fun at the beginning, but Ruthie was frustrated by her lack of bench skills. Very few jewelers were willing to share techniques. However, through perseverance, a great deal of practice, and even some reinventing of the wheel, she acquired techniques from a few generous jewelers and built her own skills. At that point, Ruthie swore to herself that if someone came to her for help and was willing to work, she would never turn that person away. In 1987, Ruthie enrolled in a silver smithing workshop and found herself assisting the teacher with the other students after 2 classes.
In the early 90’s after moving from NY to the Asheville,NC area, Ruthie Cohen was one of the charter members to form a jewelry group that would serve to educate each other through open studio workshops. This group, the original Mountain Metalsmiths Association, demonstrated at the Southern Highlands Craft Guild’s first Metal Day at the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Mountain Metalsmiths Association also demonstrated on a regular basis at Grovewood Gallery, the birthplace of the jewelry group.
May 2003 was an auspicious month for Ruthie. Ed (Sarge) Alberts, the Continuing Education Jewelry Program instructor from Haywood Community College, Clyde NC challenged Ruthie to teach a jewelry workshop at the Wildacres Retreat in Little Switzerland, NC. He had been teaching lapidary at Wildacres and thought that Ruthie would enjoy the experience. What an understatement! Ruthie had brought along samples of her work as well as samples for class projects. At class signup time, people were fighting over getting into her classes. It was both exhilarating and also unnerving as this was her first teaching experience at Wildacres. Due to her not wanting to let anyone down, 12 people were enrolled for class instead of the usual maximum of 8. Ruthie survived, the students learned a lot, and she found out at the end of the week that bets had been laid against her making it through. She didn’t mind, it only encouraged her to teach again at Wildacres and Ruthie jumped at the opportunity to teach at the John C. Campbell Folk School when it was offered to her.
After 35 years of traveling to craft fairs all over the country, Ruthie decided that it was time to slow down and devote more energy into “paying it forward” by opening up a jewelry and lapidary school. The Mountain Metalsmiths School of Jewelry and Lapidary was opened in April 2006 to provide a location to teach those who wish to develop jewelry and lapidary skills in a non-competitive, supportive environment. Skill level is of no importance here. The school is geared towards the individual student, whether a raw beginner, a struggling apprentice, someone who needs to learn a particular skill or to try out a tool before purchasing, or even the rusty jeweler who hasn't created anything in 20 years.