The Discipline of the Hand

A Discussion of the Benefits of Hand Work.

The Discipline of the Hand

Are Two Hands More Than Enough?

Gemstones are grown in laboratories. I don’t mean synthetic stones. I mean that emeralds, diamonds, rubies, and many other gemstones are actually lab-grown. These gemstones don’t just look like naturally created stones. Chemical and physical tests find the crystals grown in laboratories identical to the ones that formed in the earth’s crust over millions of years.

The main difference between lab-grown and natural stones is that the lab-grown gemstones are flawless. They are not subjected to the stresses of millions of years of shifting ground, temperatures, and other interferences. Those forces in addition to mining create imperfections in a naturally occurring stone. That’s why near-perfect gemstones are costly. They are rare.

So, why is it that a flawed naturally occurring stone costs far more than a flawless lab-grown one? Most people prefer and buy natural stones if they can afford them. Both stones are genuine. The only real difference is the process that created the stone. 


Maybe people just like the “idea” of a naturally-formed stone that takes millions of years to produce. Perhaps it is the rarity that appeals to people. Or perhaps it is the process, itself. Maybe it is presumed that something that is formed over a great length of time in a naturally evolving environment has some unmeasurable, unknown quality that the lab-grown twin does not possess. Perhaps there is some property that differentiates the two, but we are unable to observe or discern it.


People often state that it is the process rather than the result of that process that has importance. Is it true? The processes by which “things” are made today are increasingly “hands-off”, or, if handmade, it is typically in an environment and circumstance that is unwholesome. I don’t think most of us give a thought to the origins of our goods. We just plug it in or pull it on and use it.

So, if we are satisfied with the result does the process matter? I presume that it does in many ways, measurable and unmeasurable.


I am a proponent of handwork. In my experience the requirements of mastering hand skills, and the discipline that mastery requires grows the artist. I can describe an example of a discipline that I had to practice in order for me to do wax work for lost wax casting of jewelry pieces that I have made. 

There are two methods for creating a wax model for casting, additive and reductive. Reductive means that you start with a block of hard wax and carve it down into the form you want. Additive uses a softer wax, and in the case of jewelry making usually a heated instrument is used to liquify the wax. The molten wax is then applied to the wax model. After enough wax has been built up around  a gemstone it is then carved into its final form with dental tools, files, etc.

It's a simple process, but I couldn't do it. Every time I brought the bead of molten wax to within an inch of the wax model liquid wax leapt from the tool and splattered all over the model. It was like I had two magnets in my hands. Jewelry work is exacting, with very tight tolerances. It requires precise control of the materials that you are working. Wax exploding onto your model is not good control.

I was enrolled at the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts in San Francisco at the time. I demonstrated my wax-splattering problem to my wax working instructor. He had never seen it before and had no advice for me.

The splattering happened over and over again. And after every failed attempt I scraped and filed the splattered wax off the model and began again only to have the same phenomenon repeat itself. It was impossible to do the work.

The Discipline of the Breath

The splattered wax effect was more than annoying. It was interfering with my professional commitments, and I noticed that the more angry and frustrated I became the worse the splattering. Because of that I finally realized that I had to relax, let the tension go, and breathe. I changed my rhythm, my pattern. Before I brought the tool to the wax model I relaxed and breathed slowly and deeply, below my navel. Then I brought the tool to the model and, violà, it worked! No splattering. I had to learn the discipline of breathing and relaxing while I worked. Everybody knows you’re supposed to breathe. I was too lazy or distracted to remember to do it. Now, when I was at my jeweler’s bench, I didn’t have a choice.

So, the process of my handwork had life-positive results, but that’s not really why I love handwork. It’s a whole thing, and hard to describe. I have always delighted in the great artisans’ abilities to take raw materials, stone, wood, metal, etc. and transform them into marvels so fine and beautiful they stop your mind; that incredible process of transformation! It is magical! When I was very young I would wonder when I walked into a capitol building or old train station. There was so much detail and beauty in the structures; I could not fathom how they came to be. How did they happen?

Let's Give Technology a Hand

Of course, a digital artist is not prevented from practicing conscious breathing simply because he or she is seated at a keyboard. Anybody can practice conductivity anytime. And current technologies can be used to create gorgeous jewelry models that would be quite difficult to duplicate by hand. I don't really have any criticism of someone who has mastered the use of any technology, from a hammer to a drawing pad. Mastery is not nothing.

By the way, I should mention that in 1989 I embraced my Toshiba laptop with a vengeance. I have used contemporary technologies to my advantage ever since. I have been building my own systems and machines for years. I became certified by Microsoft in operating systems and networking. I have done quite a bit of image work, and some simple animation. Digital and other advanced technologies have been my friends, but I am little more than a hack. And I still work materials by hand…’cause it’s cool.

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