an interview with

Rio Plata cuff
Sterling silver

by Marbeth Schon  


Sam Patania, as the third generation of Patania artisans, has followed very much in the footsteps of his father and grandfather before him.  He began his apprenticeship at the Tucson Thunderbird Shop when he was a young teenager.  For the next decade, his after-school training would be a major part of his daily routine.  But Sam followed his own path, too, having sought instruction outside the traditions of the shop.  In his 1977-78 school year, Sam enrolled in a jewelry-making course at Catalina High School where he explored new approaches to his craft.  In 1979, he became a full-time employee of the Thunderbird Shop.  To feed his desire for knowledge, he attended the University of Arizona in 1988-89, where he met jewelry instructor Michael Croft.

Sam tries to keep within the traditions with which he was raised, honoring his father and grandfather, and other artisans as well, including well-known silver designer William Spratling. 

Samís personal philosophy as a jewelry artist reflects this aesthetic: ďA desire to learn drives my work,Ē he says. ďNew techniques, symmetry, asymmetry, materialsóall are areas which continue to drive my designs.  Color captures my eye and the thought of the beautiful women who will wear my work keeps me inspired.Ē

Samís talents shine like his one-of-a-kind creations, such as the one that is currently in the permanent jewelry collection of the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C..

Sam's studio is housed in the old Thunderbird Shop. He calls his company, ďPatania Sterling Silver OriginalsĒ to honor the creative spirit that has earmarked this familyís heritage for three generations. The strength and character of the Patania name and tradition show no sign of weakeningódoubtlessly, this is a family whose standard of excellence will survive and thrive well into the future.

(taken from "Patania: 70 Years of Excellence, Part II" by Shari Watson Miller,MODERN SILVER magazine, April - May, 2001)



Please see Marbeth's questions on the left and Sam's answers on the right
Marbeth Sam
There is something I would like to know first.  What is the correct pronunciation of your last name? The correct pronunciation is Patania with a soft ďAĒ (like Patahnia).
Do you have any siblings?  Are they interested in jewelry, too?

Sisters, but no brothers.  Two older sistersóan engineer and a PhD in public health

Did you always want to be a jeweler?


No, it basically started as a summer job; you know I didnít have to interview or anything.  And I just started that way and really enjoyed doing a good job but wasnít really in love with until after about 10 years.

Rio Plata cuff
Sterling silver and 18k gold
Is that what your father and grandfather wanted you to doówas it a natural progression?

My grandfather died when I was three so I didnít really know him. 

Iím sure that was a sad thing for you because he sounds like such a fascinating person.

Iíve gotten to know him second hand from and by all accounts he was a very generous and warm person.

Did your father think that you should follow in his footsteps?

My dad never pressured me. He really left it up to me.

Do you feel that your family has a gift of artistic genius, passed down?


Ah..I think ĖNo, I would never say that,  I think that we have the patience to let it develop, but you know I do accept that there is someóI really donít know how to describe it.  Because I figure anyone could do my job if they spent 30 years doing it.

Probably not though.   There is something to say about an innate eyeósome have it and have not. There is something to be said about that.

I donít disagree with that.  I mean you have to be sort of crazy to want to be an artist in the first place.

Being an engineer isnít easy either. 

Nothing is easy.  Art has never been the most financially gratifying thing to do.  I imagine that there is always a pull between your art and producing so you can make money.


Yes, commercial work.  Iím real fortunate because I get a lot of commissions from people who are very trusting and sometimes they just absolutely let me work and sometimes they have some ideas and sometimes they have very strong ideas. It runs the whole spectrum, but because I am so bad at drawing people often trust meóI have a good portfolio and they can see what Iíve done.

Necklace and bracelet
Sterling silver and 18k gold 

Do you like commissions?

Sure, I love working and I often take on the challenges of commissions just to be able to learn things. 
When I read about you, I could see that you are very open to new ideasóI am impressed by that.

 In general I try to let people see my portfolios so they can see what I do and I donít take in certain things and I have good referrals.

Does your father still work?




Yes. We do have separate studios and we are talking about getting together again, but we both have different requirements.  I need a place that the public can come into and he doesnít need that or want that, but we would love to work together again. Itís been a couple of years just due to circumstances, but we would love to share tools and we would love to have each other to talk to. There is obviously no one who understands each other better than the two of us.

What a great gift that is.

Oh yes, itís awesome!

How old is your Dad?

Heís 76.

So you can have a lot longer time together.


Has it been hard, because of the traditions of Patania jewelry, to establish your own identity and is that important to you?






 A lot of commission pieces are pieces that are either variations of or exact duplicates of the previous generationsí work.  Those are really  interesting because in my grandfatherís case I donít have anyone to talk to about it so I have to put myself in his shoes and try to think like he thought or how I think he thought.  I get to use a lot of the same tools. And in my dadís case, I can talk to him about how he made something and how to reproduce things. But in my own art I think it hasnít  been a conscious struggle, but I donít want to be my grandfather or my dad in design, I want to push that.  I think that is just the artistic bentówanting to do new things.  I think that is what distinguishes an artist and a craftsman. 
"Nadia Cuff"
Sterling silver and 18k gold

Do you have a son or daughter to whom you would like to pass down the tradition?

I have one of each and they are both sort of interested.

Is that an exciting thought that they would want to make jewelry, too?

Oh sure!

I am sure you are constantly aware of the Patania tradition of great craftsmanship and artóit is one to live up to. Oh yes, there is very little down side. Iíve inherited a lot of tools, a lot of materials Iíve inherited and the desire to ďPush itĒ.  I canít imagine not having all of that stuff. 

You feel lucky then.


Did your father agree with your choice to study elsewhere when you went to study with Michael Croft at the University? 

Oh yes, he completely understood and encouraged that kind of education.

How do you feel about computer generated jewelry like what they are doing at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia?

I would love to see art worked that way. Iím not sure that I have.  I see jewelry divided into at least three different sectionsóindustry, academia and art and I sort of straddle all three of them.   Obviously for industry that is a logical step because that is a largest part of the market and that is what industry serves so that to me is very market driven.  Art is sort of the opposite and I think it would be awesome to see some computer generated art works, but Iím not sure that I have.

 I find the computer generated jewelry fairly sterile.

In general, I donít thing Casting has the warmth that fabricating does anyway. Fabricated pieces just have a life to them that I donít think casting will ever achieve.
Do you see more interest in handcrafted vs. mass produced jewelry? Thatís the niche that I am trying to develop so I would like to think yes.
Do you think people are accepting jewelry as an art form more than they did before? I don't know. I think there are a lot of things going on as far as craft museums. The Tucson museum of art did a show for us.
Do you feel that there is a Native American influence in your jewelry?

Oh yes.  My grandfather came out west in the 1920s because of tuberculosis.  He was a trained platinum designer and smith in New York City as a very young man and I think he brought platinum designs into the Southwest and started utilizing silver and turquoise for those designs.  And then, my family always carried Native American crafts and we always employed Native American craftsmen so we were immersed in it.

Did you study gemology or did that simply come for your eye and the gift you have for color and design.






Well, I took GIA courses, I took the diamond grading course and the gem ID course, but I grew up with the gem and jewelry show in Tucson and every year that segment of my industry comes to me from all over the world so I have the advantage of being able to go or not go so I take it very easy and I go to many different venues and the color is just amazing.  One of my main addictions these days IS turquoise.  And it always has been. I just love turquoise and thereís never an end to learning about it and there is always something surprising about it. I hunt for turquoise at the show and the show is a big influence on me in using color.

Do you have some stones left over from your father and grandfather that are rare?

I am just a big old a turquoise nerd and it is sort of hard to market some of that because no one has heard of it.  It is a narrow interest.  I love having the connections that I have in the turquoise world.

"Nadia Cuff"
Sterling silver and 18k gold
What or who else influences your work?

I have been looking at books about modernist jewelers and  the Spratling book and a couple of months ago it occurred to me that those guys were not hung up on materials-- it was completely design driven stuff and that is what prompted those bracelets (see cuffs above and below).  I really want to chase that for a while now.

There is an endless supply of inspiration out there.

How important is wearability in your jewelry?





It is very important.  And that I think comes from the family business. The business has really influenced my work I think.  I want people to be able to wear it I want them to enjoy it. It has to feel good.  It has to have a weight to it. The edges canít be sharp.  Itís got to be functionalóI donít want belt buckles cutting into the leather.  Bracelets--I like to fit them to people. Because I just want the pieces to be wornóthat is why I made it.
Rio Plata cuff
sterling silver

Is your studio in your gallery?


I donít have a retail area necessarily.  I just have a small area for people to come in and look at my portfolio and a place for people to sit to discuss commission work.  

How do you feel about large, sculptural jewelry that is not necessarily made to wear?

I love jewelry that you canít wearóI love that stuffóit pushes everything.  Art or academia pushes everything.  And that is fantasticóI love that.  It is much more interesting to look at that than a trade catalogómuch more influential I think. 

Whether it is sculpture or jewelry, I donít care. I donít have a fight with it.

Have you ever thought of doing other things--like painting and sculpture?




I would love to have blacksmithing as a hobby if I had the space.  My dad and I are trying to put together sort of a family workshop with woodworking and blacksmithing tools.  And that is sort of slowly coming together. I would love to make furniture for myself. I love blacksmithing, but it is a lot of work.  Itís kind of a tough hobby.  When I do it all day long, I wouldnít want to do it on the weekends, but I think my furniture would be constructed rather than forged.

Is there much a difference between your cast pieces and your one-of-a-kind jewelry or do simply cast parts and incorporate them into your one-of-a-kind pieces so you are not really a production jeweler, right?


I could be. I developed sub contractors to be a production jeweler and I really thought thatís what I wanted to do, but then, my market doesnít really want that so I developed small scale production/fabrication and casting--you know they could put out a thousand pieces if I needed it, but I just have never needed it.  But I donít consider that my art work.

But you donít do much of it--it wasnít something that you got excited about later?


No, production.







I love designing for itóitís just an engineering challenge, especially in the fabrication. The casting is more predictable and I had really good people to talk to about that, but the small scale fabrication was a whole new area for me and thatís all built around my buying a new press and thatís why I put that in my resume.   I figured that it could produce handmade (I donít even know what to call it) cast pieces are often called hand crafted so I didnít really know what to call it, but I can make lots of five or ten pairs of earrings for instance and still be very personal because I worked on every one of them.

What is a Bonney Doon?



Itís a tool manufacturer.  Hydraulic press work.  I love it. Iíd say that my hydraulic press is my favorite tool.  It is strictly for silver.  I guess that Iíve done a little gold work with it, but not a whole lot because you need a lot of material to be able to work with it.
What is a doming set? 

Thatís part of the hydraulic press. They came out with a couple of different ways to form bracelets and Iíve made a series of bracelets that would be very difficult to produce without that tool and they are bracelets designs that Iíve had in my head for decades just waiting  for the proper tooling.

Tools drive me, domes drive me, metals drive me and now I want to drive all them with design.

What do you think gallery owners like me can do to try to promote contemporary jewelry?


I donít know.  Marketing is a relentless pursuit. I donítí get it. It is just not somethingóI always figure that you need a million dollars to do it and I never will have that. 

I know.

Iíll put my work out there and I will complain about my galleries, but I donít have an alternative.

I wouldnít want to set up my own shop and try it.  I closed a retail shop because it wasnít economically viable. 

Great things like your jewelry will always sell. 










I could worry about it, but it wouldn't make any difference. 

So I just really need to concentrate on work and doing what I love to do and it is either going to be bought or itís not. And it will be out there for longer than I am alive. It is the old dead artist thingóitís worth more when Iím dead, and thatís fine too, because I am doing alright. I have a lot of family help and I have good commissions coming in. Iím just in a wonderful position right now. I canít change the market, Iíve tried that and it doesnít work.  I donít know what the market is and it changes all the time. So I am not going to worry about it.

Enjoying what I am doing is key. 

It sounds like you come from a tradition of people who have enjoyed what they do

Yes, I think my grandfather just loved it.  My dad loves it. I just think about it all the time. I just love it. I sleep, eat, and breathe it.
Your kindness as a person, your openness, and the gratitude you have for what you have been given are truly special at this place in your life and I congratulate you.

Thank you. 

Maker's Mark for Sam Patania
back to the top
Contact Sam Patania at

Interview with Sam Patania by Marbeth Schon
Photographs by Marbeth Schon and Shirley Byrne

Web design by Marbeth Schon

 Copyright ©
2009 Modern Silver Magazine

Your comments are invited. 
  Feedback Form