Every so often you need a game-changer, a slight step out of the ordinary to freshen your thinking, anneal-soak the stresses out of your brain and slowly cool out some of the thermal shock of life.

A breather, I guess you’d call it. That’s what I’m doing this weekend, in Eugene: I’m taking a PMC class, and having a ball.

For the unfamiliar, PMC stands for “precious metal clay,” invented by Mitsubishi a decade or two ago. It’s essentially powdered metal in an organic binder. You sculpt it, embed glass and precious stones in it, dry it out on a hot plate, clean and carve and sand it into some final form.

Then you fire it in fine-mesh alumina hydrate until the organics burn out, leaving you with a little metal sculpture.

The stuff comes in bronze and copper, sterling silver, fine silver and–at a holy mackerel! price–gold. One of the major suppliers also happens to be one of my favorite jewelry making supply shops, Rio Grande.

My friend Susan gave me some PMC years ago that I never could figure out, and I always meant to take a course in it. Carolyn Scott Kent, our teacher, is a long-time goldsmith and jeweler who’s been doing PMC work for years. She’s also a PMC-certified instructor, so her course in Eugene this weekend seemed a good bet.

She gave each of us a little patty of fine silver PMC about an inch and a half across, maybe an eighth of an inch thick, along with a toolkit of things that make PMC work easier (yay–I’m always up for MORE tools). The patty’s enough to make a couple of pendants, maybe a pair of earrings.

And we spent the afternoon getting to know the clay. I gotta say, PMC and I didn’t exactly become the best of friends. So far, we’re more like possibly-I’d-recognize-you-in-a-lineup acquaintances.

Sculpting PMC, I’m finding, is about like sculpting silly putty. It even picks up ink marks like silly putty (remember using it to pull cartoons off the Sunday newspaper? kinda like that).

It makes surprisingly heavy, perfectly smooth, floppy sheets, and isn’t all that interested in being sculpted. It also goes from clay to goo with a drop too much water and sticks to EVERYTHING. Carolyn offered up a silicone release spray; others use olive or canola oil.

You easily wipe earthen clay off your fingers with a wet paper towel. With PMC, a paper towel won’t cut it. Anyway, that’s SILVER you’re wiping off; what you’re supposed to do is let the PMC dry on your fingers, carefully flake it off onto wax paper and put it in your slip jar with a little distilled water, to make the “glue” that attaches one piece to another.

pmc-facependantWhich brings up some interesting recycling possibilities. The people who work professionally in this stuff apparently gather up their aprons, gloves, paper towels and what-have-yous, and send them to the refinery to reclaim the silver and recoup some of their costs.

I started the class with ideas of sculpting a small silver face pendant, my signature jewelry piece. I was thinking of maybe a smaller version of this (right). But after an hour of mighty effort, my PMC pendant closely resembled The Incredible Hulk, or possibly a squashed banana.

I balled it up and started over. Apparently there’s a reason people do so much stamping and texturing of this stuff. I’d been faintly contemptuous of all the stamped-looking PMC jewelry out there, but I accepted Carolyn’s offer of texture mats and took the easy way out…

OK, so stamping’s not all THAT easy, either. Turns out PMC tends to resist the stamp until it’s fairly thick. It also sticks to the stamps if you forget to rub a little silicone on them, and you’ll pull out the texture trying to get it off the mat. I left about five bucks of silver stuck in little crevices.

Wishing mightily for the soft, buttery familiarity of my beloved Hanjiki porcelain, I balled up my remaining clay and tried again.

This time, I rolled out snakes of PMC and braided them together. (PMC makes quite nice snakes) I’d had thoughts of making a chain–and probably will do that when PMC and I are better friends–but for now I simply made braids, dried and trimmed them, readying them for the kiln.

With the leftover PMC I rolled flat sheets, and used my aspic cutters to make stars that I textured and stamped. I stacked them up and embedded a small cubic zirconia in one side, making a slightly forlorn little pendant.

You must be careful of the stones you use because some will fire like champs and others will turn to little crunchy lumps. Even different colors of CZ can give different results. Glass does well, but by the time I got around to the teacher-supplied glass cabochon, I was out of clay.

Day 2 will have us removing our fired PMC from the kiln and applying various finishes.

I can’t honestly say that I did much more than waste 40 bucks worth of silver today…but I learned a lot. I definitely want to get the measure of this stuff.

Stay tuned for Day 2.