WASHINGTON – Bill and Sondra Bechhoefer buy a wedding ring every 10 years, but when the Bethesda couple saw the engagement band their son ordered for his fiancee from jewelry-maker Namu Cho, they fell in love again.
“When it was time for us to get our new wedding rings, we came to look at Namu’s work because we had seen what our son had bought from him,” said Sondra. “We quickly decided to buy from him, too.”
The Bechhoefers were two of several shoppers who came to the 29th Annual Smithsonian Craft Show Friday to ogle jewelry handcrafted by Cho, an award-winning, Bethesda-based artist who emigrated from Korea in the 1980s.
Cho, a recurring exhibitor at the show, said his earliest memories of creating from scratch track back to elementary school.
“Whenever I would see a small piece of wood, I would pick it up and start carving,” said Cho.
This enthusiasm has resonated with him through the years, he said, even keeping him up nights.
“The biggest thrill is creating new designs,” said Cho. “I don’t want to sleep. I just want to keep doing it until I finish it and see what it looks like.”
“Usually, at night time, if I get up and have a new idea, I just draw,” he said.
The husband and father of two works solo out of a studio in his Bethesda home, he said.
“Shade and movement have to be my vision,” he said. “If I asked someone else to help, I would create the same look but not the same feeling.”
Potential buyers meet Cho at exhibitions, get his contact information and make an appointment to peruse his creations.
Show attendee Nancy Marks, of Pennsylvania, complimented Cho’s ability to work with a difficult stone.
“I cut stones so I understand what it’s like to work with opal. To have the essence of it come through is difficult,” said Marks. “It’s hard to have the vision to do something like that.”
Cho crafts rings, earrings, brooches, necklaces, bracelets and rings using a method called Damascene — an inlay process in which metal is hammered into a steel surface. Crisscross lines are etched in, and gold or silver is “tapped” into the background to form patterns.
The jewelry adjusts with the light, Cho said.
“However you move, the pieces change color and dimension,” he said.
Cho gleans inspiration from nature, with several of his pieces featuring bird, tree and mountain shapes. Some even tell parables. It takes anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, he said, to complete most of his pieces.
And if you’re interested in purchasing one of them, prices range from $2,500 to $15,000.
Cho said his jewelry has been featured in several galleries, but business has slowed due to the economy.
“I used to have 50 galleries (feature my work),” he said. “But these days, it’s only about 10.”
Cho, 55, attended colleges in Korea before moving to the U.S. He earned a master of fine arts degree from Bowling Green State University in Ohio in 1986. He won the Smithsonian Craft Show’s Silver Award in 2004.
The Smithsonian has been holding this show for nearly three decades. This year’s show runs from April 14 to 17. Produced by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, the show is juried and includes a sale of the fine art showcased. Three jurors selected 120 artists, 54 of whom were first-time exhibitors.
Show volunteer Constance Rhind Robey said all the proceeds from an art raffle, booth rental and application fees go to the Smithsonian.
“The show is lovely and raises money,” said Robey, also a Bethesda resident.
The Smithsonian is far flung, she said, with branches in Boston and Panama. Robey applauded Cho’s work and the nature of the show.
“It’s wonderful to be able to support this kind find of fine craft in the arts in the United States,” she said. “It’s a very affordable thing for people to come to, and you can come and enjoy it as you would a museum.”
“I love that you can go up and talk to people and connect with the artists on a personal level.”