Master hand engraver Paul Piquette found his ‘labor of love’

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  • Master hand engraver and goldsmith Paul Piquette started in his trade in 1976. He is seen at his bench at MurDuff’s Jewelry in Florence on Jan. 12 and one of his engravings is shown below. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Master hand engraver and goldsmith Paul Piquette uses a hammer and chisel on a piece held in an engraving ball at his bench at MurDuff’s Jewelry in Florence on Jan. 12. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Detail of a silver bracelet made by master hand engraver and goldsmith Paul Piquette. Photographed at MurDuff's Jewelry in Florence on Jan. 12. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Master hand engraver and goldsmith Paul Piquette works on a piece at his bench at MurDuff's Jewelry in Florence on Jan. 12. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Paul Piquette uses a push tool during the restoration of a platinum ring.

  • Master hand engraver and goldsmith Paul Piquette works in many metals including stainless steel used in this simple tag. Photographed at his bench at MurDuff's Jewelry in Florence on Jan. 12. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Master hand engraver and goldsmith Paul Piquette works on a piece at his bench at MurDuff's Jewelry in Florence on Jan. 12. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Master hand engraver and goldsmith Paul Piquette holds a plate of silver with examples of his lettering to show customers. Photographed at his bench at MurDuff's Jewelry in Florence on Jan. 12. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Detail of master hand engraver and goldsmith Paul Piquette's bench at MurDuff's Jewelry in Florence on Jan. 12. Most of his tools are handmade. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 1/21/2021 3:33:56 PM

In 1976, Paul Piquette was a graphic arts student at Springfield Technical Community College, paying for his education through a job at the Springfield-based Smith & Wesson firearms manufacturing company while doing portraits on the side.

While the job was seemingly unrelated to his artistic interests, it became a jumping point for his nearly five-decades career as a master hand engraver.

Piquette has spent the last 20 years in this craft on the staff of Murduff’s Jewelry Store in Florence.

When Piquette took the job at Smith & Wesson, he did not realize the company had an engraving division. But when another employee offered him an apprenticeship, he saw it as a natural fit for his artistic interests.

“It’s the closest thing I can get to a paint brush,” Piquette said. “When I used to do oil painting and charcoal portraits, I felt that I was just trading it for carbon steel tools that I had to sharpen and cut into metal. It’s basically like sculpting.”

At Smith & Wesson, Piquette learned the craft in a four-year program, trained under the company’s master engraver and eventually worked on engravings for clients such as Clint Eastwood, Barry Manilow and Ronald Reagan.

Forty-five years later, Piquette is a master hand engraver, having worked on projects such as a historic plate for the Massachusetts State House’s time capsule, the Travelers Cup golf tournament trophy, and countless pieces of custom jewelry.

Piquette worked at Smith & Wesson for five years before making a shift to jewelry engraving, feeling that it was a more socially acceptable means to continue with the craft. In ways, jewelry making also seemed more meaningful.

“A lot of times when I would do custom firearms for people, it would be locked in a safe or put in a museum,” Piquette said. “It really wasn’t seen or talked about. But jewelry, you do something like that, and it’s worn, it’s shown, and I think it’s great that way.”

For a time, he worked independently with different jewelers while continuing with portraiture and holding a factory job at Springfield Wire.

“I was still in the arts, I didn’t stop doing those other things,” Piquette recalled of the time. “I wasn’t happy, but I was earning a living, and I guess paying the bills was important too.”

In 2001, Piquette’s engraving work brought him to Kurt Brazeau, owner and master goldsmith at Murduff’s. The one-off job grew into a full-time position when Brazeau asked him if he would be interested in joining the jewelry store as a staff engraver, and also offered to teach him goldsmithing. The two “got along famously,” Piquette said, and within a year, he took on the role full time.

Twenty years later, Piquette still works alongside Brazeau as Murduff’s master engraver, also doing goldsmithing.

Behind the display room at Murduff’s, Piquette’s desk is covered in handmade tools and pieces of jewelry in various stages of progress. Using a chisel and hammer one morning in January, Piquette tapped a scroll pattern into a sterling silver bracelet, which would eventually be inlaid with gemstones as well.

While the bracelet was intended for the jewelry store’s display room, many of Piquette’s engravings are custom works tailored to individual clients. The process starts with sketches Piquette draws based on the customer’s ideas, and eventually becomes an engraved piece of jewelry.

“When it’s all done, they feel like they’re part of it,” Piquette said. “We’re not just selling something to them — they’re involved in the experience.”

It’s an experience that can be hard for customers to find. Some see hand engraving as a lost art, with many jewelry makers turning to machines and production-oriented manufacturing, and master engravers retiring. Piquette says that he’s had some younger people approach him about learning the craft, but it did not hold a long-term appeal for them.

“It’s a lot of repetition,” Piquette said. “I guess they think there’s a get-rich-quick part of this, but there isn’t. It’s just a labor of love.”

When placed side by side, the difference between hand and machine engravings are immediately obvious, Piquette said.

“Hand engraving, you can do a lot more subtle cuts than you can with a machine,” he added. “It’s a high quality way to do things …. It really sets it apart.”

Having a hand engraver on staff has also become increasingly rare. Piquette’s sons have not expressed interest in learning the craft, he said, but he hopes that one day, his granddaughter may be interested in learning hand engraving.

But for now, Piquette has no plans to step down from hand engraving any time soon.

“They say it’s a dying art, and I guess it is,” he said, “but I think I can squeak out another 10 or 15 years.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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