Jimmy Butts of Sissy’s Log Cabin in Pine Bluff could rightly be considered a gladiator with gold or a pugilist with palladium as the champion of a unique national competition for the nation’s top jewelers.
Butts was one of four competitors in The Bench Pressure All-Around Challenge held April 14-15 in Chicago in conjunction with The Smart Jewelery Show, sweeping the awards table with victories in each of three challenges and the overall title.
Butts explained that this was his second consecutive year as a contender in the prestigious competition.
“Last year I came in second overall,” Butts said during a recent conversation at Sissy’s. “Normally the winner of a competition is invited back the next year to defend his or her title but they actually chose me as the one to return for this year. They told me that my performance was one that showed promise and they wanted to see what I could do this year.”
Butts said one of the most important things a contestant can do going into the competition is bring enough equipment.
“The organizers supply some basic items but each contestant is required to bring their own equipment,” Butts said. “Y0u can never have too many burs, which are the drill attachments we use to shape and create our rings and settings.”
Butts said the format of the competition was built around both the technical expertise and the showmanship of the contestants. When asked if the environment was reminiscent of that found on television programs featuring food competitions, Butts answered in the affirmative.
“It’s like a biker build-off for jewelers,” Butts said. “We were given three tasks over a two-day period with two hours to complete each one. We had no idea what type of metal we were going to be working with until the start of the competition.”
Butts said the four contestants were tasked with a setting challenge, a palladium challenge and an engraving challenge.
“For the setting challenge we were given a man’s ring and 24 cubit zirconium stones,” Butts said. “We could use as many or as few of the stones as we wanted. We were told to come up with an original design and I used nine stones in a fishtail setting.”
The palladium challenge was difficult.
“Palladium is very hard to work with,” Butts said. “It’s related to platinum but it’s a lot softer. It’s very gummy, like working with lead. It wreaks havoc on our burs. During the competition one of the other guys ran out of burs and I gave him one of mine.
“The hand engraving challenge required us to create a design on the ring using as much or as little of the ring as you wanted,” Butts said. “I engraved the whole ring.”
Butts said a technically gifted jeweler was not necessarily the odds-on favorite in the competition.
“We had spectators and they were encouraged to ask us questions while we were competing,” Butts said. “At first it was a bit unnerving but I got used to it. Some of the contestants were great jewelers but they couldn’t handle the pressure of the competition. One poor guy didn’t complete a single challenge.”
Butts said effective storytelling is part of what makes a champion.
“We were given a real-world situation to start off each challenge,” Butts said. “For instance for the carving we were told that a woman who was going to get married brought in her grandmother’s wedding ring that had been handed down to her and she asked us to create a design. Then when we had finished our work we had to tell the story of how our project met the needs of the customer.”
Butts said the competition is meant to create excitement about a profession that has up to now largely been relegated to jewelry-shop back rooms.
“They are trying to bring attention to the back area and to what it actually entails to be a jeweler,” Butts said. “I have begun taking pictures of my projects from beginning to end and put them up on Facebook so that customers get to see their ring being created. It is helping us to build up a customer base. They eat that up.”
Butts, who has been in the business since 1987, said he became a jeweler thanks to a suggestion from his father.
“I ended up attending classes at several different jewelry programs,” Butts said. “I attended as many different programs as I could to get the training that I needed. In fact I’ll be traveling to Utrecht in the Netherlands in June for an advanced settings class.”