By Keysha Drexel
Like most artists, Patrick Conway said he draws inspiration from many different sources to come up with ideas for his creations.
But what sets the 47-year-old apart from most other artists is the scale and complexity of his medium.
“A million different things inspire me–the repeating patterns in nature, the lines of an automobile, architecture–the whole world is a big playground of ideas,” Conway, said. “The challenging part comes when I have to take these ideas and turn them into tiny sculptures that are as structurally sound as they are aesthetically pleasing, which is how I think of jewelry.”
Judging from his latest accomplishments, the artist in residence at Barton-Clay Fine Jewelers in Mountain Brook has had no problem meeting that challenge.
Conway, who has been a jeweler at Barton-Clay for a little more than four years, recently won two awards from the Alabama Jewelers Association in its annual design competition.
Conway won first prize in Category II with his sterling silver and carved coral “Warrior-King” cufflinks and first prize in Category III with his 18-karat white gold, kunzite, aquamarine and diamond pendant.
Barton-Clay Fine Jewelers owner and chief executive officer Eric McClain said he is pleased with the achievement and recognition the awards give Conway and Barton-Clay Fine Jewelers, which carries an extensive line of Conway’s original pieces.
“We are so fortunate to have an artist of Patrick’s caliber on our team at Barton-Clay,” McClain said. “His vision and craftsmanship are unparalleled.”
Conway, a Huffman native who now lives in Oneonta, said he’s had a long time to hone his craft.
“My parents owned a company that imported gold chains from Italy. This was back when gold chains were all the rage in the jewelry business. My parents sold to stores all over the Southeast, so I guess you could say, in some respects, I grew up in the business.”
Conway said he was a creative child, always drawing and sketching.
“I grew up in a house that was very nurturing towards artistic endeavors. My parents encouraged me in all my artistic pursuits,” he said.
But it was a class his mother told him about when he was just 13 years old that set the stage for Conway to pursue his true calling.
“My mother asked me one summer if I would like to take a class to learn how to repair jewelry. It was at Holland’s School of Jewelry in Selma, and I thought it sounded like fun,” he said. “After the one-week class, I was hooked. I loved it.”
Shortly after completing the class, Conway made his first piece of jewelry.
“It was a gold nugget ring and looking back, it was a relatively easy piece to make,” he said. “The second piece I ever made was an amethyst ring for my grandmother. That ring has been passed down over the years to other family members, and it will always be special to me.”
After high school, Conway took a few classes at Jefferson State Community College and then landed an apprenticeship with Master Jeweler Philip Flenniken.
“He was my mentor for 20 years and taught me so much,” Conway said.
Conway has used the lessons he learned from Flenniken and through his own experiences to build a career around a craft that he said is still his ultimate passion.
“I guess I’m even surprised a little bit that I’m not burnt out on jewelry at this point, but it still fascinates me and holds my attention and there’s always something I want to try next, some story I want to tell through the pieces I make,” he said.
With his “Warrior-King” cufflinks, which feature carved coral skulls, Conway said he was aiming to tell a mythical story.
“Skulls can seem kind dark and a little too rock ‘n’ roll, so I wanted to try to use them to tell a historical, mythical kind of tale–something that makes you wonder what a warrior-king would have been like in the historical perspective,” he said.
Conway’s second award-winning piece in the AJA design competition was inspired by Tiffany jewelry designer Jean Schlumberger.
“The design, the colors, that was a hat-tip to Schlumberger, one of the many designers that have inspired me over the years,” he said.
Conway said while he still gets a kick out of watching his ideas become reality when a piece of jewelry is finished, he said the ultimate rewards for his efforts are the reactions he gets from his clients.
“The best part is seeing the client’s face the first time they see the finished piece and knowing that it’s exactly what they wanted,” he said. “I’ve had them tear up and I get a lot of hugs, and that’s the ultimate payoff and inspires me to do even better.”
Conway said he loves being at Barton-Clay despite the long commute every day.
“A long commute doesn’t bother you when you work in a place like this,” Conway said. “It’s an absolute pleasure to work with Eric and other people who really let you practice your craft.”
And while he has more than 30 years of practice under his belt, Conway said he still feels like there are new challenges awaiting him in the world of jewelry design.
“I’m not a master but a student of design and wearability,” Conway said.
While the accolades he has received for his work are wonderful, Conway said, his ultimate goal is to create pieces that are cherished and passed down from generation to generation.
“I like to think of it as creating future antiques,” he said.
To see more custom pieces by Conway, visit www.bartonclay.com/barton-clay-jewelry.