PMC Timeline — the Backstory and the Products

Edited from an article in the Introduction of PMC by Tim McCreight

In August of 1994, Ron Pearson met with two men from Japan to discuss a new art material. He invited me to sit in, and the next day, two business executives laid out on his kitchen table several trays of silver jewelry that they said was made from something called Precious Metal Plasticene. They showed us a clear plastic box that held a beige-colored lump wrapped in plastic, and said that the jewelry on the table was made from this stuff.

Yeah, right.

Well, of course, now we know what they were talking about. It took about two years to bring Precious Metal Clay (yes, there was a name change) to the US market, and since then the metal clay community has seen a lot of changes. For one, a decade ago there was no such thing as a “metal clay community.” In fact, most of us remember when saying “PMC” brought only puzzled looks, and the term metal clay was nothing more than an oxymoron. Now metal clay has established a beachhead in the jewelry world, with about (check facts-two million dollars worth sold in the US last year). Jewelers, potters, and artists from many other disciplines have found in PMC a welcome companion to their other work, and a legitimate form of metalwork that provides easy access. A search on Google for “Precious Metal Clay, PMC” turns up (check facts) —750,000 entries—not bad for something that didn’t exist before 1991. Across the country and around the world, professional jewelers, craftsmen, hobbyists, and students are finding new ways to make PMC their own.

Product TimeLine

Because it is such a new material, PMC offers a unique opportunity to observe the growth of the field, a bit like the pencil lines in the doorway that mark our children’s growth. (At the back of this book, you’ll find a timeline that marks the key moments of the history of PMC. For the record, let’s go back to the beginning.)

On July 12, 1994, Mitsubishi Materials Corporation of Japan was awarded a patent number 5,328,775 for a product called “a moldable mixture for use in the manufacturing of precious metal articles.” The material had been introduced a year earlier in Toronto at a meeting of the International Precious Metals Institute. Here is an excerpt from the paper presented there:
Precious Metal Plasticene (PMP) seems to be just a simple mixture of metal powder and binder, but it promises to be an innovative and epoch-making material with capabilities not possible with traditional cast alloys. By using PMC, various shapes of precious metals can be made easily by hand forming, just as with porcelain or potter’s clay.

Perhaps the most frequently asked question from newcomers learning about PMC is, “What did they have in mind?” In the early 1990s, Mitsubishi Materials built a state-of-the-art factory in Sanda, Japan to increase their production of highly refined gold for use in microchips. Once the production lines were up and running, Dr. Morikawa, the director of the plant, let his mind stretch to the other possibilities of this remarkable facility. “What if we could alter silver and gold—two materials that everyone knows require great skill to work—to create a material that is as easy to form as children’s modeling clay?” That was the motivation to create PMC—just to see if it could be done.

After a few false starts, the marketing division of Mitsubishi Materials discovered that their real market lay with individuals who wanted to make silver and gold jewelry but did not have the time to pursue a traditional course of study. PMC offered a radical new way to work with precious metals; a freedom and immediate gratification that was unknown in the 5000-year history of metalsmithing.

After a few months of sales in Japan, the marketing team at Mitsubishi turned its eyes to the US, which brings us back to the meeting at Ron Pearson’s house. The immediate result was to sponsor a research retreat at the Haystack Mountain School in Maine. In May of 1995, fifteen metalsmiths gathered to experiment with PMC. This was followed by a contract with a US distributor, several articles in national magazines, and some early workshops.

The chronology (that starts on page 231 from the article, Introduction to PMC) gives some idea of what happened next... and next... and next. It is a rare opportunity to have the full provenance of a significant artistic development. We are young enough as a community to look over our shoulder and still see the trails that brought us to where we are today. But while the history is interesting, far more important than that is the artwork featured here. In these pages you will see what happens when creative artists encounter a material that is free of preconceptions and established practices.

(For this book, I have collected what I consider to be some of the most exciting work currently being made with metal clay. The selection is personal, biased, and fleeting—a snapshot of a crowded street. I am confident of two related but opposing facts: First, that in a not too distant future, designers will look back on this work as seminal, and, paradoxically, that the work created in the second decade of Precious Metal Clay will dramatically surpass the work we admire today. That, thank God, is the nature of art.)

Let me close with a story: The first samples of PMC to be shipped to the United States were in three large boxes sent to supply the 1995 research project. Customs officials called, seeking clarification about the mysterious contents of those boxes. The stuff looked like clay, but the uncommon weight and the high value didn’t make sense. The label said “silver,” but any fool could see there was no silver in those beige-colored lumps wrapped in plastic. The paperwork said “metal clay,” which they figured must be a typo. Who ever heard of such a contradictory thing as metal clay?

Precious Metal Clay was first introduced to the American market about a decade ago. Now that the medium of metal clay has had time to mature, this is an appropriate moment to look back at its evolution, to review the current state of its use, and to judge metal clay alongside the history of contemporary jewelry and metalsmithing as well as the concurrent history of ceramics.

In reviewing metal clay, we must first recognize that in all art it is not the material itself, but the depth of the exploration and finally the quality of what is done with the material that counts most. At the same time, the choice of material is a critical element in any work of art. If that choice proves inappropriate, superficial, or otherwise poorly considered, the artistic vision can be compromised. Each time a new art material such as metal clay is introduced, the quality and nature of the work done in the material goes through familiar evolutionary stages. When looking at the evolution of metal clay, it is instructive to first look at the history and the development of another material, reactive metals, for both its similarities to, and differences from, metal clay.

Almost immediately after the reactive metals niobium and titanium were introduced to the United States in the late 1970s, the color palette of blue, purple, pink and green seemed to be everywhere. Many jewelers were seduced by the ease of bringing color into their work and soon these metals became the flavor of the month. Regrettably, the great majority of this work was gaudy, flat, and overly reliant on the process for its impact. Artists like British jeweler Edward de Large, who used the materials to communicate a distinctive artistic vision, were few and far between. The use of reactive metals was pervasive for the next five years or so, and then, for the most part, it burned itself out. While some artists continue to work with reactive metals today, its use has declined dramatically from its heyday.

While the proliferation of artists working with metal clay may be reminiscent of the growth of reactive metals, efforts to guide development along a much broader path have engaged a larger audience. This bodes well for the longevity of metal clay and it does not appear likely that metal clay will flame out the way reactive metals did. In fact, it is already clear that metal clay is not a mere trend or flash in the pan. Rather, metal clay has its own sustainable subculture that is likely to continue to grow for many years to come.