Nancy E. Oates
Not even metalsmiths can tell the difference between wrought iron and steel until they break a piece open and look for the century-old chunks of slag and a certain flakiness lacking in contemporary steel. Or, they look at the price tag.
Authentic wrought iron can be quite pricey, says Jason Bell, co-owner of B and B Metal Designs
in La Vergne, Tenn. “I’d have to look for something made about 150 years ago, like an old cemetery gate, and use that material to make something today.”
Because “wrought” can be defined as “worked,” he always clarifies with architects and designers whether they are looking for the authentic metal or hand-worked steel. Iron is an element mixed with other alloys to make steel, which results in a broad spectrum of strengths and textures. In working with clients, Bell first asks for some “inspirational images,” photos that illustrate the look or ambience the client wants. Next, he visits the space where the piece will go following with some rough sketches of shapes and objects for the client to consider. Clients will give feedback, such as, “I wish sketch 8 had a little of sketch 2.” From there, Bell refines the images and submits a full drawing of the piece to the client.
The number of people choosing metalsmith as a career is dwindling, and that makes the original pieces Bell creates all the more valuable. “Sometimes people see a fixture they like in a retail store and want me to create something similar,” he says, “and they’re surprised that my piece may cost double what the store charges. Every piece involves extensive design work, including making sure it operates properly and fits the space well. If I made a thousand of the same thing, the price would go down. If I design something for you, you’re the only person who has that.”