John and Linda Whitney Have Been Making Handcrafted Jewelry for 50 Years
For more than five decades, Sarasotans John and Linda Whitney have been quietly making a name in the national craft jewelry industry.
Since the 1970s, the Whitneys have been creating affordable, handmade jewelry using traditional silversmithing techniques. It all began with sterling silver and 14K gold. Later, they expanded their collection to include red brass, copper and silver nickel, which allow for the oxidation that's not possible with traditional metals. They also uses polymer clay for lightweight pieces, some of which have motifs inspired by African textiles and Aboriginal art.
Today, in their Sarasota studio—which feels like a portal to the pre-Industrial Age—the Whitneys create pieces that are acquired by discerning museum and retail boutiques around the country, including the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Hildene (the summer home of Robert Todd Lincoln), the Kemper Art Museum, Montclair Art Museum, Ohio Craft Museum, Guilford Art Center and more.
Closer to home, you can find the Whitneys' work at The Exchange in Sarasota and at Florida CraftArt in St Petersburg, where you’ll see display cards that proudly say, “Made in Sarasota.”
We caught up with the pair to learn more about their expansive yet humble jewelry empire. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
You’ve been creating jewelry for more than 50 years. That's an impressive run. How did you get into it?
John WHITNEY: "I learned the craft from my father in the 1950s. He made jewelry for holiday presents and was the head of arts and crafts of the Works Progress Division in Kansas. It was a time when people developed hobbies and carried them out to a sophisticated level.
"My grandfather was an avid rock hound, and took me on trips out west to collect rock specimens. Afterward, to my delight, we would cut and polish the stones. My father also picked up this skill and added stones to his jewelry. So when I started school at the University of Kansas, I knew what I wanted to do, and I majored in silversmithing and sculpture.
"The '70s was a time when crafts blossomed, and we participated in craft fairs. We exhibited at the first American Crafts Council fair on a football field in Bennington, Vermont. As time went on, we made connections with shops and galleries at fairs and trade shows. Now we are primarily wholesale and have our work in several hundred galleries and shops throughout the United States and Canada."
How do you stay inspired?
Linda WHITNEY: "It's easy to remain inspired when you enjoy your work. Every day is fresh, there is always something new to explore and learn. Inspiration comes from all art forms and artists, present and past, whether it's music, textiles, painting, sculpture, dance, writing, jewelry or ceramics. They all interrelate.
"The challenge is to create a piece that involves the person viewing it. Sometimes a form in nature or a pattern in an African textile triggers a path of thought that evolves into a design that is unrelated to the original idea. There are surprises all along the way. Several of the series we are producing now have been inspired by Monet, Miro, Arp Hepworth and Calder."
Tell us about your silversmithing techniques.
JW: "Everything is created in our private Sarasota studio using hand tools from years past. We are like bakers making a cake from scratch. The metals are magic to work with because of their plasticity. They inspire us to make more than 100 new designs every year.
"The cut metal pieces are lovingly shaped formed with one of my 30 different hammers over silversmithing stakes and old tree stumps—ponderosa pine, oak and birch, each with a variety of concave indentations from forming the metal. Then the work is assembled with gas smoldering torches, silver solder and, in some cases, cold forming attachment techniques, like riveting and pinning.
"Finally, the pieces are cleaned and finished in a finishing tumbler and polished with buffs and satin wheels. Sometimes stones are added until the piece makes a statement that has to be listened to. That is when I know the work is finished."
What do you love about this work?
LW: "Making something with my hands that brings a smile to someone’s face is a tremendous reward. Also, it is always a surprise to create a complex piece using simple tools. It's a hoot to discover a new way to bend or texture the metal. There is always a new experience just around the corner in the studio.
JW: "The soul of making art keeps us going."
For more information about Whitney Designs, click here.