For Dan Balk, creating jewelry for a living wasn’t his original path in life.
But, he’s glad it’s turned out that way.
Balk, who operates a jewelry studio from his home in Lutz, has been making jewelry since 2008—around the time the United States’ recession was in full swing.
With a background in athletic training and physical therapy, the New Jersey native spent 13 years working as an associate dean of education for a massage school in Tampa. Simultaneously, he worked as a massage therapist for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New York Yankees.
However, once the nation’s economy took a tailspin for the worse, Balk’s seemingly stable career was no more.
His massage school went bankrupt, and the Yankees, like many companies at the time, began laying off employees.
“Massage is very much a luxury for people, and people weren’t spending that type of money at that time,” Balk explained. “I must’ve sent 2,000 to 3,000 resumes in any one of the fields I was licensed to work in, and nothing was happening.”
With a wife and two children to support, Balk was at a crossroads — until his father-in-law, Roberto Vengoechea, suggested Balk make some “trinkets” to sell in the meantime.
Taking up Vengoechea’s suggestion, Balk served a 28-day apprenticeship under the guidance of his father-in-law, a master jeweler in Black Mountain, North Carolina.
Vengoechea’s tutelage turned out to be a “cathartic” and “powerful” experience for Balk.
It was like the planets began to align, he said.
“I really, really loved what I was watching him do, and what I was doing,” Balk said. “What a boon for us that I was able to learn from someone who was so well-versed in the trade.
“We haven’t looked back since,” he said. “This is was what I was made to do.”
The craft of making jewelry by hand is declining, Balk said, due in part to the proliferation of graphic design, 3D printing and overseas production.
“All of these things that were done by hand — in a couple generations, if we don’t teach other people, they’re lost,” Balk said. “As a craftsperson, you’re under an obligation to teach.”
Balk designs and fabricates every piece of jewelry from raw materials.
Typically, the process can involve as many as five or six different parties, from the time a piece is designed until it is sold, he said.
Balk handles the entire jewelry-making process—whether it’s a ring, a pendant, a necklace or a bracelet.
He leaves the “business side of things” to his wife, Nataly.
“I create all of my own (metal) sheets, I make all of my own (silver and gold) alloys, I design all of my own pieces, and I finish them; I set all of my own stones, and I select my stones. When I can cut and polish the stones myself, I do that myself,” Balk said. “That’s a premium — that the artist had direct contact with a piece all the way through to completion.”
Depending on the type of jewelry and its complexity, Balk may spend anywhere from a few days to a week on a piece.
While most of his jewelry designs are labeled as “modern and futuristic,” there’s essentially no limit as to what Balk can create based on a customer’s request.
From that standpoint, each piece of jewelry made by Balk is “one of a kind,” and not constrained to basic round rings and singular stones.
One customer, for instance, had rings and pendants made out of antique silverware. Another had a wedding band containing fossilized dinosaur bone. Others have had shark’s teeth and sea glass casted into their personalized pieces.
“If you have the idea, it probably can be made. Because I do it all myself, I’m not limited by just the components I can buy,” Balk explained. “Some (jewelers) say, ‘I do customer ordering — these are the settings you can choose, and these are the bands you can choose.’ We don’t do that; we can make anything you want to make.
“It’s not limited by a picture in the catalog.”
After operating the Singing Stone Gallery in Ybor City for six years, Balk has been working out of his home jewelry studio in Lutz since last August.
The change in work location logistically made more sense, especially for teaching jewelry classes, which he’s done since 2012.
Balk’s daily “five-step commute” to work allows him to both focus on his craft and teach hands-on, personalized classes in a relaxed setting.
“We’re really getting to know each person that comes in. It’s not a class of 17 or 18 people that leave after an hour,” Balk’s wife said. “He’s taking you into his studio and saying, ‘Let me tell you everything I know, and if you have any questions, please let me know.’ He starts very calmly and patiently, and explains everything.”
With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, men will often surprise their partner by taking them to one of Balk’s jewelry making classes — a unique experience compared to a typical dinner date.
“I’m not against a good meal, and they are memorable when they are good, but you have that night, you eat your food and the next day, you’re done. This kind of thing—you’re making a memory,” Balk said.
“It’s an experience as well as a timeless piece that you keep forever,” Nataly said.
Published February 3, 2016