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SAM FERRARO: A BOZEMAN JEWELRY MAKER'S LEGACY

On a quiet side street just off Bozeman’s main drag, there is a little studio where the magic happens. The area feels like a great place for a dentist office or attorney, but, in fact, this is the workspace for Sam Ferraro, a local craftsman of fine jewelry for over 50 years.

My coworker, Chris and I, met at Sam’s studio on a cold and cloudy January morning with snow in the forecast. We walked past Sam’s old white pickup and walked in the door of the studio without knocking. Gabe, a wiggly spaniel wearing a little red harness, whose nub of a tail vibrated more than it wagged, greeted us as soon as we walked in.

Sam Ferraro emerged out of the back room, coat and black hat in his hands. He wore cowboy boots layered under Wrangler jeans, shirt tucked in. He hitched his outerwear on a hook by the door and we shook hands. This was our first time meeting.

I’ve been thinking about this conversation with Sam for a few weeks now. There’s not much to be found about his work or personal life. All I could learn in my research is that he has been crafting fine jewelry since the early 1970s. As a young artist myself, I had some questions. How does someone stay creative during a lifelong career like Sam has? What is it like to merge your creative passion with your livelihood? How do you strike a balance between being your own boss and being an artist?

Sam gave us the tour of his two room studio, which he likens to a miniature blacksmith shop. We could see why: hammers of various sizes waited on a handmade workbench with an array of pliers, dust masks and dental picks rested next to a small anvil bolted to a log round.

Standing in Sam’s studio, where he spends the majority of his waking hours crafting beautiful pendants, earrings, and custom wedding rings, I felt that we might gain some insights into one man’s exploration of a creative life.

Sam Ferraro is an archetypal character of the American West. Growing up on a ranch in Colorado, Sam’s father was a hardrock miner deep in the Rockies. Sam spent his summers mending fence and working the mines, thus beginning a lifelong relationship and passion for the west from the Rockies of Colorado up to the Yellowstone.

As I explore my own connection to the Greater Yellowstone, I recognize how deeply this landscape penetrates the hearts and minds of the people who choose to live here. Even the physical demeanor of Sam embodies this; his black brimmed hat and his old timey handlebar mustache would put him right at home in the subsistence mines in the high reaches of Emigrant Gulch 150 years ago.

It was around that time that Francis Harper finished laying bricks for his blacksmith shop on Main Street in Bozeman, which now hosts the downtown location of Montana Gift Corral. According to a Yellowstone tourists’ guidebook published in 1882, Harper offered farrier services, picks and shovels, sold and repaired wagon equipment, and helped outfit tourists with equipment on their way to enjoy the recently-established Yellowstone National Park.

Top photo: Downtown Bozeman in 1875. Bottom left: Frank Harper advertisement published in a Yellowstone tourists' guidebook published in 1882. Bottom right: Montana Gift Corral's flagship location in Harper's original blacksmith shop.

The main room of Sam’s studio has a fireplace, couch, and a wooden desk in the center of the room. On the wall hangs a large oil painting of a blacksmith wielding his hammer and anvil, his sleeves rolled up; it’s interesting to consider that Sam Ferraro uses many of the tools in his craft that blacksmiths have used for generations. While Frank Harper mainly worked with wagon equipment made of iron and steel, Sam Ferraro utilizes small hammers, a miniature anvil, and modified dental picks to achieve a finished look on each of his handmade pieces. While their trades vary by degrees of specialization, the two men are connected through time by the ancient process of melting and shaping metals.

Sam has been a vendor with Montana Gift Corral since the first years of the company, making him a Legacy Vendor. It seems fitting to me that one of our longest standing artist partnerships brought metalsmithing back to 237 E. Main Street during the first years of the company.

Sam’s childhood of growing up outdoors led to his study of biology in college. After he graduated, he went off to work the turquoise mines in Nevada. He explained to us that once you strike a vein of the fragile teal gems, heavy explosives and machinery cannot be used, as they would fracture and damage the minerals. Instead, the only way to handle turquoise veins is with a strong back and pick and shovel. Even at a young age, Sam managed to get his hands on some of the gems - turquoise, Yogo sapphire, diamond, ruby, the list is endless - that he would spend the greater part of his lifetime working with.

Such labor is young man’s work, and after his time at the mines he moved up to Bozeman in the 1960s, where he has called the Greater Yellowstone home ever since. It was during this chapter that Sam crafted his first piece of jewelry, a replacement wedding band for his father, cast in 18 karat gold. With his first project completed, Sam continued teaching himself the techniques used in fine metalworking: how to set gems in a ring, making molds and the logging the final hours of hand finishing each piece.

Talking with Sam, he noted that while there are specific processes and temperature settings for working with varying precious metals, the rest of the jewelry-making journey is an act of creativity.

“You can take classes on the processes, but there is no one who can teach you how to sculpt what is in your mind.”

While artists may use similar techniques and processes, it is the design of what you choose to make, and the actual act of following through with the making, that makes each Sam Ferraro piece a unique work of art.

Sam decided early on to aim for a more contemporary sculpting style, which shines clearly in his pendants. It's a style that makes his pieces stand out under the glass case at our downtown location - a style that says ‘this is a Sam Ferraro piece!’ Sam’s background in biology allows him to craft his wildlife pendants in this abstract style while still remaining recognizable as the creatures they represent.

While visiting with Sam in his studio that day, snow began to fall softly outside. I felt that we were able to witness a glimpse of one man’s answer to the questions of living a creative life. If you love what you do, you can do it forever. “I intend to continue this creative process as long as I can.”

We’re glad for that, Sam.

Story and Photos by Zach Altman

Film by Chris Wood and Zach Altman

Special thanks to Sam Ferraro for taking the time to visit with us, and for his commitment to Montana Gift Corral for nearly 25 years.

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