Silversmith Michael Dunn will bring his jewelry to the Williamstown Elementary School’s Holiday Craft Fair on Sunday.
Silversmith Michael Dunn will bring his jewelry to the Williamstown Elementary School’s Holiday Craft Fair on Sunday. (Courtesy of Michael Dunn)

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Michael Dunn's career spans 40 years, but he can sum it up in five words: "I like to make things."

Dunn is a self-taught silversmith and jewelry maker who takes silver and turns it into wearable art -- with no formal training at all, at least not in jewelry. He graduated at "the dawn of the transistor" with a degree in electrical engineering and worked as an engineer, but hated it.

"I worked on missiles," he said. "It got me an exemption from going to Vietnam. But I was anti-war."

So he turned his energies to creation. He started with bronze, making and selling belt buckles and jewelry in Berkeley, Calif., in the mid-'70s. He created a wide variety of pieces back then.

"I was beachcombing and finding all kinds of things," he said, "using dead sea creatures, teeth and bones."

After 20 years in California, he and his wife moved back to New England around 1982. They bought land from family and built a house, and he worked full-time at jewelry. He still works in the same studio in Petersburgh, N.Y.; it's a short drive from his home in Williamstown, and "you can see Massachusetts and Vermont from the front door," he mused.

His artistic process is very organic, and although he uses seeds of ideas from throughout his career to guide his hand, every piece is one of a kind. It's a very physical process.

"Basically, I work with a hammer and some tools that I've made to shape metal," he said. "I bend it, pound it, hammer it, braze it."

He won't say that every piece is radically new -- he works with germs of ideas, seeds he's gathered throughout his life. But each piece is made from a different batch of metal, and he continually explores his own creative process, spontaneously reanalyzing where the piece is going.

"I just keep trying something new, something different. I like ideas I can follow," Dunn said. "I like to be surprised more than anybody."

"I'm always intrigued by the process of creativity," he added. "Everybody's process of creativity, whether it's cooking or raising kids -- it's all creative. I know what makes my heart tick, or my sense of aesthetics tick, and I'm curious to see what makes other people's tick."

Of course, there's more to jewelry than craft and creativity; it's a business, too. Dunn has been selling his pieces at craft shows from the beginning. It was a different time, he said: "In the glory years, going to a craft show or even just seeing handmade stuff was like going to a museum today."

He used to sell at 25 shows a year all over the Northeast, but now only gets to about 10 or a dozen. He still peddles his wares himself.

Wendy Penner shops with her daughter, Hannah Fein, at Wiliamstown Elementary School’s Holiday craft Fair, which will return on Sunday, Dec. 8.
Wendy Penner shops with her daughter, Hannah Fein, at Wiliamstown Elementary School’s Holiday craft Fair, which will return on Sunday, Dec. 8. (Eagle file)

"The customer really wants to know what's between your ears, or what's in your heart," he said.

The scene is a little different after 40 years. Bigger shows are now more like a business, he said: "It was easier, happier, younger times a decade or two decades ago."

The price of silver has gone up and down over the years, which has affected the kinds of pieces he could make -- and what customers can afford, too.

"The economy has been pretty rough for most people in the past 15 years, at least," Dunn said. "They have less disposable income. People are enjoying themselves less, and worrying a little bit more." Even the craft show circuit became "more competitive, more business-savvy oriented."

Dunn is working, at least on a local scale, to change that. He and fellow Williamstown resident Lisa Sheldon, who teaches nutrition as adjunct faculty at Greenfield Community College, resurrected the Williamstown Craft Fair in 2007.

"It was Michael's idea to revive the former Williams Faculty Club show, which had been running for about 20 years. ... We feel really positive about being able to raise money for the Williamstown Endowment Fund," Sheldon said. "We give them about $1,000 a year from the booth fees."

Another change over the last 40 years is the emergence of the online marketplace, which Dunn joined in 2009 with his Etsy store, Michael Dunn Jewelry.

"[Jewelry] has been my whole life, in terms of vocation," Dunn said. "And sometimes I walk down the street and I see somebody wearing something I made 30 years ago, and that sends a welcome rush through my pores and through my heartbeat.

"The things I make are unbreakable. That's my mark in the world."

If you go ...

What: Williamstown Holiday Fair -- artisans from silversmiths to jewelers to fiber artists and more: Ceramics, stained glass, silver jewelry, beaded jewelry, quilting, wood working, knitted items of all kinds. Sixth-graders hold Pancake breakfast, and lunch is available.

Where: Williamstown Elementary School, 115 Church St., Williamstown

When: Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Admission: Free