Renato began practicing his craft 65 years ago. He designs and manufactures pendants and rings. No apprentice is studying beneath him to take over the shop when he retires.
Such is the reality for too many skilled trades today. Valuable skills are not being passed on to the next generation. In Renato's case, his own son found success in a different profession, and individuals that have worked under him either "quit after two weeks or leave too soon to open their own shop". This leads to low-quality work being done at newer stores and a master craftsman's skill disappearing from our culture.
- 1959 - Began practicing his craft in Italy
- 1963 - Finished apprenticeship
- 1965 - Immigrated to America, found work in trade shop in Baton Rouge
- 1970 - Worked for the Wilson Company
- 1979 - Opened his own jewelry manufacturing storefront
- 2012 - Still operating in the same location, with no goldsmith to pass the business onto.
While apprenticeship still has a place in many other countries, here the word itself sounds antiquated. The path Mr. Tommasini followed is unfortunately foreign to young workers today - yet the education and training obtained through apprenticeship must find its way to our young people or our culture will let those abilities disappear.
How did you get into your craft?
"In college I needed work during the summer. I found a part-time job at a jewelry manufacturer. First I did delivery, taking product from the manufacturing building to the store." In time he finished college, then served in the Army. When it was time to look for work, he knew the field he desired to learn.
"An apprenticeship was supposed to take 5 years but I finished in 3 1/2. Then I took the government test. They give you pure gold and tell you to make a ring. You melt it, pull into wire, hammer into sheets, and make your ring. If you do not make it perfectly, they say 'too bad, come take the test again next year'."
In opposition to this scenario, today's available training includes 1-2 weeks at a technical school, followed by work in a chain storefront where, as the aged craftsman so eloquently puts it, "they ruin everything they touch". It takes observation and practice to learn the torches, to learn not to melt everything they put under the flame. The skill, he said, "it comes by watching."
What do you look forward to the most in your work?
"Design. When a customer brings in a picture, and I make something from that idea into something they like." Repair is a necessary part of the work, the most common reason people come into the shop. Mr. Tommasini does it all - repair, setting diamonds, setting other stones, "A to Z". But when a customer who can afford a custom ring comes in, the opportunity to combine his goldsmith's skills with his enjoyment of creating a new design.
What would you say to a young person who wants to do what you do?
"Good luck," he says with the wryness of nearly sixty years on the workbench. "I would tell them take some technical schooling, then don't go right away to open a shop. Go to work for an expert. Get on the bench. Practice. Practice using sterling silver. Practice using gold fill. Learn not to melt everything you touch. Watch an expert melt and weld properly. Get on the bench and practice. Earn the trust to work with more valuable metals. Only then can you handle a customer's merchandise."