Forging Past Fifty
For a half century, Ross Coppelman has been crafting jewelry for the ages.
What does a life’s passion look like? For those who are fortunate enough to create, it can manifest itself in a variety of forms, and like any valuable journey, the evolution of process, and growth, can be recognized in the outcome. For goldsmith Ross Coppelman (a man who paradoxically sees chapters of his life and work as being fitful and tumultuous, in comparison with those who would easily anoint him as a master of his craft), the journey to the present day was never one he expected. Despite, or perhaps because of, his own self-deprecation, Coppelman is able to celebrate 50 years of conceiving, crafting and creating fine jewelry. And like so many who are self-critical, Coppelman is surrounded and supported by family, friends and protégés who clearly see the hard work and unique focus that has resulted in a body of work that is considered truly exceptional.
Sir Erik Christopher Zeeman, an acclaimed British mathematician said, “Technical skill is mastery of complexity, while creativity is master of simplicity.” Coppelman’s work appears to have manifested at an intersection of both those thoughts. The early days started with a love affair that also celebrates a half century this year: the union of Susan and Ross Coppelman. Susan recalls an occasion early in their relationship, “While I was in college, Ross came to visit me and sat in on my art class. We were making collages, and we had been working on projects for six weeks. The instructor gave Ross (who had never taken an art class and didn’t consider himself creative) materials and asked him to participate along with the rest of us. At the end of the class, the instructor held up Ross’ collage and said, ‘Look, this guy hasn’t been here and already gets it!’ It was a surprising hint of his visual creativity.”
After college, Ross and Susan moved to the Cape and Ross, who studied English at Harvard, said his brain was tired and for the meantime, he wanted to work with his hands. That pursuit led him to a local silversmith Bernie Kelly, where he was paid $1.50 an hour, and told to craft simple rings from silver wire for the upcoming holiday season, after which, Coppelman was promptly laid off. “It definitely wasn’t a career path, and I still had a plan to go to grad school to study psychology, but I enjoyed the work I had been doing. So, I bought some tools and materials and just kept making simple designs that people were interested in during the seventies,” Coppelman recalls.
Susan reiterates the discovery of that important path 50 years ago when she says, “He puttered and designed for months, realizing how much he enjoyed what he was doing. That spring he put a few rings (none retailing for more than five dollars) into a brown paper lunch bag and headed to Boston. The buyer in the first store he went into, a man who later described his experience of first seeing Ross as ‘seeing Huckleberry Finn walk in,’ placed an order for $500. He was in business.”
Next came the craft show circuit, or more accurately, the phenomenon of the seventies—mall shows. “They were great,” Ross says. “It was a time when ‘crafting’ something was considered cool. People wanted to talk to the person who made the things they bought, and we showed up for as many of these shows as we could.” Coppelman presents a simple picture of selling his trinkets. The truth reveals that his business, his family and his craft were all growing and evolving. The mall shows were replaced by prestigious juried events like the Smithsonian Craft Show, The Philadelphia Museum of Art Show and the Baltimore Winter Market sponsored by the American Craft Council. The jewelry was no longer silver wire, but rather 22 karat gold, finely crafted pieces inspired by old world antiquities. And, the Coppelman’s nest on Route 6A in Yarmouth Port had fledged two young boys.
Ben, the youngest, displays inherited creativity as evidenced by his extraordinary photography of his father’s artistry, including an annual catalogue that is greeted with excitement and anticipation by a loyal and lucky client base. He recalls his centuries old childhood home and the vibe of talent and imagination as Ross worked out his designs, “I remember this house, because I grew up there, weaving through the legs of my father as he hammered, soldered and sold his work. It was a home infused with the rhythm of creative spirit, and with the souls of two parents searching for the best versions of themselves.”
Adam, the Coppelman’s first born, puts the evolution of the business in perspective (from that first home in Yarmouth Port, to a retail space at Sunflower Marketplace just down the road and finally farther down the road still, to its current location, in East Dennis where it has been a fixture for the past 25 years) when he eloquently says, “It seems like more than a coincidence that each of these was on Cape Cod’s Route 6A, a road that meanders through history and culture, with a beauty that rewards observers both casual and discerning. It’s where the asymmetrical patterns of nature share a space with old-world craftsmanship.”
Recalling the challenges through the 50 years, he confesses, “I’m not a good leader, I’m more of a meanderer, and that is a problem when people are counting on you to manage them.”
“In our shop there is a certain lack of structure, that often leads to spontaneity, which can be good. We have all worked together long enough, and well enough, that we have learned what our respective strengths are. This staff I have makes my life so easy.” That team includes Jan McBride who has been at the bench, next to Ross, fabricating his signature elements for his designs since 1987. “Ross has taught me so much over the years,” McBride says. “I value his integrity to really listen to his customers, and I love the reaction of the customers when their work is complete.” Sarah Upton-Bergquist finishes the pieces, which means that Ross creates a design and hands it off to her in a fairly rough form. “I give Sarah something that is nice and she just makes it glow,” says Ross, beaming. She sands, polishes and refines the piece until it truly achieves fine jewelry status.
Bergquist acknowledges the entire process and day-to-day effort that contributes to the body of work the shop creates under Coppelman’s guidance. “In contrast with how fast Ross physically works with metal is the significant time he takes deliberating,” Bergquist says, “feeling out the way metal shapes and gemstones fit together on his bench; lingering in his garden finding the perfect rock for his signature rock-hammered finish. He trusts his process, and we trust it too.”
Donna Rubino, a patient and intuitive sales associate has been adroitly matching clients and jewelry for 20 years. “She is terrific with customers,” Ross explains. “She’ll spend two hours with a customer who doesn’t know what they want, making suggestions and almost always finding something they really like.” Beth Wolin, the showroom manager, is the new kid—part of the team for a mere five years. Ross says that despite the unfamiliar transition from her previous life’s work, Beth has seamlessly become part of the team, “She is so committed to her job, and to doing her job well.”
There is one member of the team who has been along since the beginning—Susan Coppelman. Listening to Ross as he humbly reveals his internal struggles that are offset by the simple beauty he creates, it becomes clear very quickly that this entire body of work would never have been possible without the tireless support and halcyon faith Susan added to the operation. Their life, and by proxy their business, became a recipe of necessity, topped with a lot of luck and a dash of ingenuity. Susan, who was forging ahead with a career in teaching, remembers when she made a life change, “Seeing the potential—and fun—of the unexpectedly growing business, we decided to work together, making and selling jewelry.” Susan joined Ross at the bench and in the showroom for seven years. Now, 40 years later, after pursuing other ventures she has returned and oversees the business and marketing arm of the operation.
As it is for most in life, the path has not been one that is straight, wide and un-encumbered, but rather at every turn the folly of fate thankfully has been generous to the Coppelmans. Ross reflects on the point when his jewelry designs shifted—the core of his successfully established brand. “Our showroom was where it is now in East Dennis,” he recalls. “It was beautiful; it felt like we had achieved what we had worked for. But, I was still anxious to get home everyday so I could look out at the marsh view from our new home. I would stare at the water, the sunsets, the wildlife. And one day, one of these curves I’ve been making for years, rolled in on itself like a wave. I looked at it and I thought, ‘What is this? I don’t do that.’ But, I had enough sense to get out of the way and see what happens. Since that day, everything I do now is inspired by nature. It is a complete turn around from something very stylized to something completely natural. Timing is everything, if we hadn’t moved I don’t know if it would have happened.”
Adam Coppelman sums things up pretty succinctly, “There’s a popular concept today called work/life integration, where your job is a seamless and organic extension of your life. The longer I’ve lived, the more unique and almost miraculous the story of my dad’s business seems. It’s his evergreen ability to imagine seemingly ancient designs and then summon them to life with precious metals and rare gems; it’s the warm friendly community of the shop; it’s the customers who come back year after year, decade after decade. Like his jewelry itself, this achievement is both inspiring and nearly impossible to replicate.”
For more of Ross’s jewelry, make sure to visit his website rosscoppelman.com
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