above: painting of Ruth in 1951
 by her sister Patsy Schirmer, given to her mother Olga Schirmer



an Uncommon Jeweler


by Marbeth Schon





Ruth Roach was an extraordinarily multitalented woman who made an improbable but significant impact on the art world during her relatively short career as an artist/ jeweler. She was also an avid collector and patron of the arts. 

She was born Ruth Schirmer  in Chisholm, a small mining town located in the center of the Mesabi Iron Range in Northeastern Minnesota, in 1913.  Her mother, Olga, was of Finnish heritage and her father, a tall handsome man of Prussian lineage, was a steamfitter by trade.

Ruth suffered from chronic lung problems that began early in her life; she was often ill as a little girl.  Her father purchased her a fur coat to keep her warm during the long Minnesota winters.  

The Schirmers moved from Chisholm to Chicago and later to Cedar Rapids Iowa. It was in Cedar Rapids in the early 1930s, that Ruth met the man she would marry, James L. Roach. They were both students at the University of Iowa. She was a tall, beautiful blue-eyed blond nursing student and his nurse when he was in the university hospital with a football injury.  



above:  Ruth and Jim Roach on their wedding day

above: Ruth's home in Plainfield, Iowa

Ruth and Jim Roach settled in the small rural Iowa community of Plainfield on the Cedar River.  Jim was a talented businessman who owned the largest independent grain elevator west of the Mississippi. 

above: Ruth's first pieces were aluminum bracelets marked with "RR" signature.


above: Ruth's first mark

below:  Ruth's later mark

Ruth first studied art in Chicago during the depression when her family moved there from Chisholm.  She took painting classes at the Chicago Art Institute and also studied with William Henry Watson. Much later, during 1946 and 1947, she went back to school at Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls with plans to become a potter.  Throughout her life, Ruth won several awards for her pottery and was capable of throwing very large pieces, her only limitation being the size of her kiln.  One of her works was a baptismal font for the Plainfield Methodist Church. Ruth produced a beautiful hand-thrown font of great size which the church installed within an iron frame placed against an inner wall where it still stands today.

In 1948, Ruth took her first jewelry course with Harriet Larkin and in 1954, inspired by classes with studio jeweler Robert von Neumann, decided to concentrate almost entirely on jewelry. 1Von Neumann took the creative spirit and sensitivity to good design she had developed in her early work and helped to expand and perfect her abilities by teaching  her the limitations and possibilities of working with silver, regard for scale necessary when working with the metal, and craftsmanship deserving of the metal and design.


above: Ruth made ingenious use of bird bones in this early three-dimensional sterling necklace.


 Ruth Roach in the early 1950s

above: "La Cucaracha" was an early brooch  c.1950s

above: Ruth's work was often  humorous as in these early figural sterling earrings.

 above: Early set of five sterling bracelets with garnets and amethysts.


Ruth's first one-woman show was in 1954 at the Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines Iowa.  Three years earlier, her jewelry won honorable mention at the third Annual Iowa Artists Show in Des Moines, but in 1954, still a newcomer to her craft, she decided to travel the 100 miles or so from Plainfield to Des Moines to visit the Des Moines Art Center museum and, if possible, show someone  her work.  Uncertain as to how to carry her jewelry, she used a basket  covered with a cloth napkin. It was about noon when she arrived at the museum and she sat down on a stone bench in front of a painting to rest--looking very charming in a Claire McCardle dress with hood (she later said that she felt she looked like Little Red Riding Hood with her basket)--where she caught the attention of a gentleman who sat down beside her, curious about what she had in her basket and perhaps thinking it held some fried chicken that she might be willing to share. Ruth told him that she was a jeweler from Plainfield and when she took her pieces out of the basket, he was so amazed and impressed by what he saw that he at once asked her if she would  like to have a one-woman show. He was the current museum director.

above:  "Pendant Pod"
sterling silver 

above: Early sterling silver bracelet with whimsical animal figure

In 1955, only a year after her first one-woman show,  Ruth's work  was accepted in  National Competitions at museums in Wichita, Kansas; New Orleans, Louisiana;  Huntington West, Virginia, and St. Paul, Minnesota. 

above: Ruth Roach in her studio, about 1963
Courtesy of Christopher Roach

above: Early sterling necklace


above: Sterling silver bracelet with granulation and moonstones 


Ruth also landed two more one-woman shows that same year-- one in Salem, Oregon and the other in Mason City, Iowa. Photographs of her work appeared in the May/June issue of Craft Horizons magazine and she was included in the very influential 2Third Annual Exhibit of Contemporary Jewelry at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Ruth had a vision problem that couldn't be corrected.  She always saw two images.  When asked how she functioned with that problem she said if she was driving she followed the line on the left.  In making jewelry she would of course pay attention to just one image.

 One of Ruth's interesting early pieces was a seven foot long sautoir, "Percussion" made of 99 tiny drums, each one different.


above: pendant is "Ruth" when she finished percussion," sterling silver


From 1956 through 1959  Ruth won many prizes for her jewelry including an award from American Jewelry, and Related Objects at the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, N.Y. (an exhibit circulated by the Smithsonian); an award for two pieces from the 10th Annual Iowa Artists Show, Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa; and an award from the  Midwest Designer Craftsmen, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska (also circulated by the Smithsonian).




Photographs of her jewelry appeared in Craft Horizons, Feb. 1957,  Art in America, Issue #2, 1959, and Jewelry Making, a text book by Murray Bovin.

Her work was shown in exhibits in Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Nebraska, and Missouri.

Sterling bracelet with moss agate


Ruth continued designing and making jewelry while raising three sons, playing hostess to her husbands many business contacts, and befriending other artists regularly visiting at the Roach home which was large enough to accommodate the children, house guests, and a jewelry studio and gallery.

Plainfield was a small town without a good restaurant at the time so it was easier for Ruth to entertain guests at home--she had a maid when the children were growing up to help with the cooking and cleaning.    



Ruth at home in her studio making jewelry

Ruth's studio was in the basement of her home.  She used part of the space for her workshop,  and the rest for a salesroom and gallery where she showed jewelry collected on travels to other countries and pieces by  American jewelers.

She was also a collector of fine art and pottery.  Her ceramic collection included work by Harvey Littleton, Clyde Burt, Clarence Alling, Toshiko Takaezu, the McKinnels, Gerald Williams, Secrest, the MacKenzies and many more.

Sterling hair piece, "Fire Dance"

By 1960,  Ruth had become a rising star within the Modern studio jewelry movement. On May 26th, her work appeared on national television on The Today Show with David Garroway.

The same year she exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York, and her jewelry was pictured in Design Quarterly, issues 45-46, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and in Craft Horizons July/August.

From 1961-1965, Ruth showed her jewelry in over forty-three exhibitions in twelve states from which she received ten awards.  She had a  one-woman show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and was featured on the cover and in an article in Cross Country Craftsman, Vol. 12, No. 8, and photographs of her work were included in Vol. 12, No. 11 of the same publication.

Ruth smoked a great deal using  a long cigarette holder. Here she is (above) acting "smart" (her own words) at a show of her work
 in Davenport, Iowa

above: One of Ruth's long sterling silver linked necklaces which were often hung on a cord such as she is wearing in the photograph above.

By the mid-1960s, Ruth's sons were grown and married.  The Roach house became a gathering place for her children and their spouses, grandchildren,  friends, and other artists with whom Ruth shared a common interest.  One of  Ruth's dearest friends was Minnesota studio jeweler Christian Schmidt. Chris would visit  Ruth in Plainfield and bring beets and other vegetables from his garden. Chris and Jim would go fishing together and Ruth and Chris would spend hours in the studio trading secrets about new techniques and tricks each had learned.3

below: Photograph taken by Christian Schmidt at the Roach living room in Plainfield in 1964.

above: Photograph left to right and top to bottom: David and Jo Hamilton (friends); Ruth's son Bill Roach and his wife Patsy; Ruth's son James Jay Roach and his wife Zelpha and daughter Kimberly; Ruth Roach; Ruth's son Tom Roach and his wife Sandy; Christian Schmidt's wife Janet Schmidt        

David Hamilton is a potter. He and his wife were living at Ruth's home when Christian Schmidt took the photo.  Ruth had a pottery studio in the basement which could be used by visiting artist friends.


left: Wedding gift for Ruth's daughter-in-law, Patsy, gold hair piece with rose quartz.  



right: "Patricia Bracelet" for Patsy, sterling silver with moonstones.  Patsy wore it in a car accident and it was damaged and later repaired by Ruth.  Ruth's bracelets were not cuffs as they were designed to be worn mid-arm and were made to fit her.

above:  Sterling pendant with rose quartz and garnet

Ruth worked both in sterling and gold using many semi-precious stones.  Each piece was well planned so that the clasps and chains become integral parts of her designs.  Many pieces had moveable parts so they could be worn in different ways.

Ruth's use of fused textures together with an inimitable sense of design sets her jewelry apart--it is said that she was thirty years ahead of her time!

      above: Gold brooch with granulation,
 two garnets and a pearl 

above:  Sterling earrings
"Trained Guppies" 

Ruth made very few pairs of earrings because she never wanted to make any two pieces alike.
Ruth often stayed up all night working on jewelry in her studio. While having her morning coffee and cigarettes, she would work out designs at the kitchen table on white typing paper making detailed drawings of the way the mechanisms of her jewelry would work, cutting shapes for her layered pieces and placing the shapes over each other to see how they would look when the designs were transcribed to metal. 


right:  Whimsical bracelet with
 applied  shapes and wire which
 won a purchase prize at a  Huntington,  West Virginia show
 in the 1950s

Her "Wait for Me" series (see below) was a one time project which Ruth did for fun.  She drew intersecting freeform lines across a piece of paper which resulted in interesting shapes being created between the lines. She then cut out the shapes and later used each one to make a separate piece of jewelry.  The shapes accidentally dictated the basic designs of the pieces and, when Ruth translated them to metal, they became mythical, humorous beings to which she would add texture and bits of wire.

above: Sterling "Napoleon IV" brooch from the "Wait for Me" series

above:  Sterling
 "Wait for Me" brooch

In 1966, Ruth had a retrospective exhibit at L'Atelier Galerie in Cedar Falls, Iowa.  She was also part of  Art of Personal Adornment, National Invitational, Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York City, and was featured in Pageant Magazine, Vol 22, No. 3.

above: "Sterling" 
sterling pendant with opals

By 1967, Ruth's work was part of permanent collections at Huntington Galleries, Huntington, West Virginia; Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, New York; Brooks Memorial Gallery of Art.  Memphis, Tennessee; and North Iowa State University, Cedar Falls, Iowa.  She was also given a "one man show" at Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota.


above: Sterling "Pocket Piece" pictured in "Techniques for Craftsmen" and "Jewelry Concepts and Technology"
  by Oppi Untracht   


In 1968, three photos of Ruth's jewelry were included in Metal Techniques for Craftsmen  by Oppi Untracht.                       

Three pieces of Ruth's work were also featured in Oppi Untracht's later book "Jewelry: Concepts and Technology," published in 1982. They were a 50" 14K gold chain with various motif links, "Pocket Piece" (see left), and a bracelet titled "Weeds."

1968 was also the year Ruth's husband Jim died.  In 1969, she moved from Iowa to Naples Florida where she opened a  gallery In the Landmark building on 5th Avenue.

above:  "Landmark building as it looks today in Naples, Florida

In 1969 Ruth had "one man show" at the Sheldon Art Gallery, University of Nebraska, in Lincoln. One of her pieces was purchased by the Sheldon for their permanent collection. She was also in OBJECTS USA , National Invitational, whose sponsor, the Johnson Wax Collection, purchased a work by Ruth titled "Amber Tea Party"  for their permanent collection.

above:  Gold pendant with pearl 

below: Ruth enjoyed working in gold. 
The Gold pendant with inner pearl was
 called "Grandmother to Granddaughter"
 and  was unsigned.  It was a Christmas 
present. for her daughter-in-law.

Ruth made very few rings during her career.  The rings below were made in the 1970s and the one with turquoise and chrysocolla is the only ring with stones she ever made.

above:  Sterling ring with turquoise and chrysocolla

above:  sterling "basket" ring

above:  Sterling "bonnet ring"

In 1970, Ruth took part in Dedication Exhibition, National Invitational, State University College, Plattsburgh, New York and Clay, Fiber, Glass, Metal, Prizewinning Florida Craftsmen, Invitational, at the Contemporary Gallery in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Photos of her Jewelry were included in the publication OBJECTS USA, by Lee Nordness.


Right: Gold "Hidden Opal" necklace
 with Ruth's "gismos" added to 
purchased chain.  The hidden opal
 is in the center behind the bow-shaped plaque.  The opal casts a reflection on the gold from underneath and the stone appears when the pendant is tilted.

above: "Hidden Opal necklace"
gold with opals

above: Sterling and blister pearl
 cigar poker

In 1971, Ruth participated in Designed for Men at Lee Nordness Galleries, New York, a National Invitational show.

above: Abstract sterling cufflinks

right: Sterling and agate key chain and fob
 made by Ruth for her son Bill Roach
 which he used until his death

right: Sterling & moss agate cufflinks

above: Necklace with millefiori beads made for Patsy--Christmas 1960.

Ruth lived her last 10 years in Naples. She died at the age of 66 after complications with emphysema.

"I make one-of-a-kind jewelry only, although there are similarities....for instance, while working on one piece, the idea for another invariably crops up.  This is the area in which my craft becomes exciting.  I enjoy using planned textures, either by fusing or soldering.  There seems to be no limit of possibilities." (Ruth Roach) 

Early long sterling sautoir


This article would not have been possible without the assistance of Ruth's son Tom Roach and her daughter-in-law, Patsy Roach.  I am especially grateful to Patsy for allowing me to photograph her amazing collection of Ruth Roach jewelry and for sharing her wonderful memories of Ruth, her work, and her family. 

Patsy Roach and her late husband Bill Roach were the designers and creators of Roach2 jewelry which has also won many awards and been included in numerous exhibitions. 

1"Fine Jewelry Craftsmanship Brings Honors", Joseph Ishikawa, The Iowan May, 1955
See:"The Wearable Art Movement Part II" by Marbeth Schon
3See: "The Wearable Art Movement Part II, Page 2" by Marbeth Schon


Marbeth Schon is the owner of M. Schon Modern at www.mschon.com
   She is Co-moderator of SilverForum
 and Co-editor of MODERN SILVER magazine
 email: mschonmodern@gmail.com


article by Marbeth Schon
photographs by Marbeth Schon and
courtesy of Patricia Roach,
 Ruth Roach brochure, and article by Joseph Ishikawa
Web design by Marbeth Schon
 Copyright 2002 Modern Silver Magazine

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