By John Shanahan
Technically speaking, if you have ever stapled two pieces of paper together, you have ventured into the realm of cold connections. To jeweler and metalsmith Tim McCreight of Brunswick, Maine, cold connections are everywhere. “I bet right now you’re wearing three or four,” he says. “If you’ve got jeans on, you’ve got rivets, you’ve got a zipper, you’ve got buttons. You’ve got lacing in your shoes and in the way your clothes are stitched together. They’re all cold connections.”
Sartorial considerations aside, what McCreight sees virtually everywhere are versions of the joining technique that he has elevated in many of his jewelry creations. From prong forms in the shape of arms to the simple utility of a rivet, he’s constantly looking for the next way to bring disparate materials together.
McCreight defines cold connections as one of three ways in which jewelry is joined, the other two being heat and chemicals. Cold connections are sometimes referred to as mechanical connections, but McCreight would rather not use that term. “I find the term mechanical throws people, so that’s where I use the word cold,” he says. “It makes sense, it’s the opposite of hot. So hot is anything that uses a torch or furnace, from low-temperature solder to silver brazing to welding. There’s chemical joining, like adhesives. And then there’s everything else that holds things together. For instance, when you thread a nut on a bolt, there’s no chemical involved, there’s no heat involved, and yet because of the action of the threads sliding along an inclined spiral, the nut will move closer to the head. Another example would be a staple. It’s a very broad and diverse range. Rivets, threaded connections, and many other ways in which one part grabs onto another.”
For McCreight, the real allure of working with cold connections is in how it lets him play with the concept of value. He often works in found and non-metal materials, using the technique to add value, meaning, and a sense of the special.
“I did a video with Rio Grande called Cold Connections: The Power of Found Objects,” he says. “To me, teaching cold connections isn’t about me showing you how to make a rivet. My introduction in the video says that one of the roles of jewelry is to make something special or more important. Think of a locket that holds a piece of a loved one’s hair. It’s just hair, right? But you put that in a locket and all of a sudden it becomes dear. It becomes special. It’s surrounded by gold or silver; it’s worn on the body, close to the heart. It’s the ennobling process of jewelry. It’s someone saying, this item is special not because it cost a lot of money; it’s special because of my unique relationship with it.”
Given that much of McCreight’s work involves these kinds of objects, whose makeup may not allow him to use a torch or chemical treatments, the low-impact and flexible nature of cold connections make it a perfect choice of technique.
“I remember studying medieval work, and a common object that was made then were ewers, a pitcher form, where the body was either a piece of antique ceramic or an egg, like an ostrich egg. It would be set on a gold or silver base with a rim around it, and the rim would have a hinged metal lid. You can’t solder that in place; it’s an eggshell. It’s going to burn away. So cold connections are useful technically because there are things you may want to connect that you can’t do otherwise. You can always set a diamond into a bezel using a hammering technique, but you’re not going to do that with an ostrich egg!”
McCreight has no preference of metals or materials. Whatever gets the job done is his first choice. “You can do this in any metal,” he says. That being said, the task at hand can dictate the type of metal that gets used. “A rivet, for example, needs to be made in a soft metal because you tap it and it flares out at the top and makes a head. So the softer the metal, the easier it is. If I’m teaching somebody to make a rivet, I’m going to start them on copper or silver rather than 10k gold because that metal is more malleable.”
Other jobs may call for something stiffer. “If you were making a claw setting, you’d want a metal that’s hard enough so that when you get it curled up to hold something in place, like a tab, you’d want that claw to be resistant to coming undone. So you’d pick platinum for high-end jewelry, or nickel silver for low end.”
What might make the technique even more alluring to the curious who haven’t dabbled in it is that it requires no special tools, and very minimal tools at that. “A small hammer, pliers, and a saw frame,” he says. “If you’ve got those, I can keep you working for a year. I hold week-long workshops using just those tools.”
When asked about the challenges of working in this technique, McCreight turns the usual definition of the word around. “Challenge, in a positive way,” he says. “Not a challenge to be overcome, but coming up with new variations. That’s where it’s exciting. In traditional metalwork, if you’re going to make a metal ring with something on it, you’re going to say, is it going to be a bezel or a prong? Is it a four-prong head or a six-prong? Thick bezel or thin bezel? These things are pretty established, and there’s nothing wrong with that. What I’m interested in is bringing in something new and creating a connection that’s relevant to it.”
By way of example, he brings up a piece he did years ago that started with a vinyl record album. “I cut out a disk about the size of a quarter. I wanted to set onto it a tiny portrait of Charles Mingus that appeared on a postage stamp featuring jazz musicians. I attached the stamp to the disk with a triangular silver frame. That frame is held on the same way a staple works: a resilient material passing through one or more layers and then being deformed so it can’t come out the way it went in. With this frame, I put pegs sticking out from the back side of the triangle. There were three holes in the disk. Those lined up with the pegs. The pegs went through and got bent over. It’s a staple.”
Listening to McCreight talk about cold connections can be infectious. The apparent and perhaps deceiving simplicity of the form, and the possibility of taking just about anything and raising it to art, has a strong appeal, and his love of the form shines. On top of that, McCreight will have you convinced in no time that you are literally a glance away from your next really good cold connection idea.
“Look around,” he says. “I say that quite seriously. Walk around your house, open your desk drawers, and start looking at the way things are connected. I bet you could find 50 things in the first hour, just the way things are attached. That’s a huge benefit. If you can find 50 examples of the way things go together, what a repertoire to build on!”