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George Brown College graduates Gillian Lee, left, and Vanessa Wray, went from being mentored to being hired at Mindham Fine Jewellery in Toronto.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Craft Ontario's inaugural retail show in Toronto during the Thanksgiving weekend showcased the designs of 15 young jewellers, many of them with their own indie lines of handcrafted pieces made of precious metals.

Many of the participants in Emerging Makers were trained through the community college system, which recently has expanded its offering of jewellery programs to reflect the popularity of the craft.

Among them was Alex Kinsley, a 24-year-old recent graduate of George Brown College's three-year jewellery design program.

Originally from Hamilton, Mr. Kinsley moved to Toronto in the summer of 2010 to participate in the program. Founded in 1967, it is the longest running and most established program of its kind in Canada, according to the college.

"I choose the community college because it had a really good program for what I wanted, was affordable, and was located in a desirable city," Mr. Kinsley says.

But it was what he could do in the final year of the program that really sold him: "The ability to design and create something unique fascinated me," says Mr. Kinsley who now runs his own jewellery company, Kinsley Vey Designs.

Community colleges offering jewellery programs across the country provide training formerly covered by the manufacturing sector through apprenticeships.

When manufacturing in Canada began to decline 15 years ago, the schools enhanced their course offerings, adding design and emphasizing jewellery as not just a profession but as an art, a form of self-expression, according to George Brown.

It's a sea-change that has increased enrolment in community college jewellery programs across the board, says Paul McClure, a practising goldsmith who is a professor of jewellery studies within George Brown's Centre for Arts & Design.

"We've actually doubled our capacity over the past eight to 10 years in terms of enrolment," Mr. McClure says.

Mr. McClure says jewellery design is increasingly popular among students who aim to eventually establish their own independent jewellery lines once their training is finished.

Forty per cent of graduates, he adds, will go in this direction. The others will seek employment in the industry, finding work as bench jewellers, gemologists or in customer service.

It's a valuable education, says Erin Tracy, who 10 years ago launched her own business, Erin Tracy Bridal and Fine Jewellery, in Toronto after studying at the Ontario College of Art and Design (it had become a university by the time she graduated).

"Attending college to learn my trade was beneficial in giving me a realistic view of the working life of a jewellery designer," Ms. Tracy says.

"I spent our time in class using my hands and exploring the very same materials I use today in my work. I also have maintained relationships with many of the same suppliers I was introduced to during my time in college. Running my business has really been an extension of my time and work during my college years."

Other schools offering metalsmithing programs and attracting record numbers of students are Vancouver Community College, LaSalle College in Vancouver, Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, and Georgian College in Barrie, Ont.

Saskatchewan jeweller Jeanie Andronyk, a graduate of the Vancouver Metal Art School, believes jewellery design programs are gaining in popularity as more opportunities for graduates to sell their wares open up across Canada.

"The maker/entrepreneur movement has been building for years with the rise of [the e-commerce site] Etsy, along with craft and trade shows that exhibit handmade products, and a general appreciation for DIY culture," says Ms. Andronyk, whose Andronyk Jewelry brand is based in Shaunavon, Sask.

George Brown has 170 students enrolled full-time in its jewellery division. That number is growing.

"We are seeing our international student population rising," Mr. McClure says.

"We now have a 25-per-cent international student body, with students coming as far away as Britain, China, India and other points across east Asia."

Participants have a choice between a one-year certificate program, a two-year diploma or a three-year advanced degree. The latter involves hands-on experience with established professionals, such as the Toronto luxury jeweller Myles Mindham.

Mindham Fine Jewellery Inc. has mentored six George Brown students since it started working with the college three years ago.

The mentorship program invites third-year students to visit the company's production shop to review their final projects with regard to the practicality and feasibility of what they have designed. Some go on to be full-time employees, among them Gillian Lee and Vanessa Wray.

The aim, says Mr. Mindham, is to give students "a professional outside opinion of the direction they are taking."

The mentorship program has been so successful that George Brown is now in the process of developing an internship program that would continue to involve Mr. Mindham.

"It's no secret that the North American mass production jewellery industry is in contraction, with local manufacturing companies closing over the last decade due to offshore manufacturing's competitive edge," Mr. Mindham says.

"But the good news is that the higher-end, more skillfully crafted local goods market is still on the rise. As we have expanded, the need for well trained and skilled people has grown."

This is good news for Mr. Kinsley, who plans to build on what he learned in college to build his jewellery brand.

"My current status is as a jewellery artist/designer, which is exactly what I was hoping to get out of the program," he says.

"Going forward, I aim to attend more craft shows and begin a circuit I can do yearly and find more places to take my work, either on consignment or wholesale. I also want to apply to international contemporary craft galleries with my larger, one-of-a-kind pieces."

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