Pat Pruitt is the founder of Custom Steel, a jewelry manufacturer based out of New Mexico. His company specializes in unique designs of surgical steel jewelry.

How long have you been making body jewelry?

I've been making body jewelry for about 10 years now.

Did you start out with Custom Steel or did you start with another manufacturer?

Custom Steel is a Native American Original, born and bred in Dallas, TX and three years ago moved the company to my home state of New Mexico. For the record, I have not worked with any other company but mine, definately learned on the fly.

What got you interested in manufacturing jewelry in the first place?

When I was younger, I apprenticed as a traditional silversmith under a local jeweller by the name of Greg Lewis. I found out that I really enjoyed it and to this day still do traditional work for people, but like to keep my traditional jewelry as a hobby. So you could say I had a good grasp of making jewelry when I got into the body jewelry manufacturing biz.

Give us some background on how Custom Steel started...

Custom Steel actually started off as a hobby for me in College. I was attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX in '91. That is when I personally got involved in the body modification scene. I quickly realized how expensive body jewelry was at the time, and living on a student's budget I couldn't afford much. Keep in mind, at that time 14 ga. captive bead rings were selling at about $40-$60 retail.

Having the background and equipment for making jewelry, I realized making the basic ring was no problem at all. I must give props to Allen Falkner of Obscurities Body Piercing in Dallas for helping me out with the right materials for body jewelry. At the same time, I was studying Mechanical Engineering and got involved in the engineering CO-OP program at SMU. I had the great opportunity to work in a prototype machine shop for Texas Instruments, where we built components for their LED Inspection Machines. I was fortunate to study under Geroge Sabolski, a master machinist. He gave me the background in the machining technologies that helped me later on.

So in the beginning, I only made stuff for myself and a handful of friends. I landed a couple of local shops in the Dallas area to sell jewelry to and this provided some extra cash for school. Word got around in the area and I soon had clients in San Antonio, Austin, Corpus Christi, and Houston. I quickly realized that this could actually become a business, so I took the dive, dropped out of school, maxed out the credit cards buying equipment, supplies, etc... and walah, I was in business.

From there, we grew slowly, offering just basics...captive bead rings, barbells, etc... It wasn't until '94 that we decided to go into the different styles of jewelry that we made. Starting off with the Neo Tribal Rings, from there, we just added to the list of products that we now offer. I always tried to make our jewelry extremely practical but unique enough to carry some flare. I don't know if we were the first but definately one of the first to offer your "non traditional" designs. Now we have gained the experience to create almost anything, and so we get a lot of requests for one off custom designs.

Give a quick run through of the jewelry making process and the type of equipment Custom Steel uses...

The type of equipment that we use varies depending on the particular piece of jewelry that is requested. With your standard items such as barbells, captive bead rings, circular barbells, curved, and basic stuff of that nature, simple had tools can accomplish the job. Since we do this at a production level, we have invested in the industrial versions of the dremel tool, polishers, and a manual milling machine.

For the more unique items, we use some industrial belt sanders to carve and grind the appropriate shape of the item. Since each item is hand ground there are slight variances in the product but they still retain their basic shape. The belts that we use are custom made for us, specifically for grinding stainless. We have tried other belts and they tend to wear out quickly and proved to be more of a hassle than anything else. In addition, we have built our own machines or modified others to produce equipment that give us the production capacity that we need.

We do have some automated equipment like a 3 axis CNC milling machine and a CNC Swiss Turning Machine. We use these for our high production items, like barbells and ball drilling/tapping. One of the advantages of having this equipment is that the capacity far exceeds what we use them for on a daily basis. Having taken the leap to produce more unique items, we have been able to create things like the Hot Rod Eyelets which are machined out of a solid piece of stainless (there is a how-to on the site). This in itself is a lot of work but the key is programming the machine to do what you want.

We are currently working on producing other items, but the uniqueness of them is going past our traditional methods of manufacturing. We are currently building machines and other jigs to produce these items, which is a challenge to say the least. Stainless Steel is a very unforgiving material and does not do what you want it to do half the time, especially at the larger gauges.

On the custom items, I pretty much do all the work on those. We have garnered the reputation that if we can't do it, it can't be done....which is pretty cool. So we work with the client, usually via email, to find out what they are looking for exactly. A lot of the time, there are limitations produced by the material itself, or the gauge / ball combination, plus additional factors. So, some of the time what is originally requested may not be possible and we have to work out an alternative solution. Challenging, most of the time but the client gets something that is practical and is useable.

There are some low grade jewelry producers out there, do you think there should be regulation on jewelry suppliers to ensure good, safe jewelry or should it be left up to the suppliers to be responsible?

What can you say about this, competition is what this country is founded on. There will always be crap manufacturers out there, and what supports them? Price, when a piercer/company is only concerned about price you will always have people supporting these companies, no matter what the quality is like. On the same note, when the consumer is only concerned about price the support continues.

As for regulation on manufacturers, that's a tough one. In my opinion, if regulation ever occurs it needs to occur at all levels, not just at the manufacturing level. Studios should be regulated, and sellers (non-piercing) should be regulated as well. Take for instance, if I were regulated on the materials Custom Steel uses, the manufactuing processies and what ever it takes for us to produce that particular piece of jewerly, would a studio be regulated to purchase that piece from us or another qualified manufacturer. If not, then they could purchase from someone that is not regulated, and probably for a much lower cost. So the regulation would be useless unless it flows down to all aspects of the industry.

Regulation for studios, I think the APP is doing a great job of informing the people that care about what to look for in jewelry manufacturers, but the APP only represents a very small percentage of professionals in the industry. The remaining individuals fall back on the price factor. So regulation at that level, if it ever happens is going to be a logistical nightmare, you have to imagine that there are thousands of studios that practice piercing in one form or another, not to mention all the piercings that occur in malls around the country. Plus the fact that large corporations have tons of dollars to support them in whatever comes around. I guarantee you if regulation ever hits this industry all the ear piercing stations in the malls will not be affected. Sad but true, so regulation is a tough question to answer considering all the factors.

On a final note, I believe that all the manufacturers that care self regulate what they use and how they use them in the manufacturing processies. They strive to bring a high quality product to market.

What advances do you see in store in the future for the body jewelry industry and what would you like to see?

As for advances I would see three types. The first being material. In England they passed a law that required all jewelry for initial piercing to be made out of a nickel free stainless alloy. You can find Wildcat's explanation of this here. If that law is carried over to the US you will find almost all the manufactures moving to this 100% nickel free material, Implantanium as it's know as. Although I don't see that happening any time soon, but you never know.

The second and third are closly related but for different markets. The first being the jewerly manufactured for the post-pubescent market for all the little girly girls wanting the next dolphin/teddy bear/strawberry shortcake/glow in the dark/blinking lights/whatever piece for their navel/tongue piercing to impress their little friends at school and raves. I cringe thinking of what is next for them.

The third market is geared for your hard core piercer/enthusiast that wants really cool but practical jewerly. That's where we come into play. We definately try to push the envelope with jewerly design but make it a practical piece of jewelry to wear as well. I would also give props to a company called Netherworld. I've seen some of his stuff and it's far out, really cool from a manufacturing point of view, tough shit to make but that's why it's hard to get stuff from him. Another person is Jesse Jarrell, cool titanium plugs/eyelets and such, there's an advancement that is a long time coming. All of his stuff is cast which makes the design process much easier. As for us, we are trying to develop more products for the extremely large gauge market, when you have a piercing that is 5/8 or larger you have limited options, namely organics, we are trying to develop more products that will cater to them in steel so they have a different option.

What I would like to see, I'll tell you. We are currently working on developing steel items that are similar in design to a lot of organic jewelry that is out there. Unique shapes, carved pieces, and intricated designs out of steel. We are just starting to develop this and it may be another year or or so before we bring this to market. People will flip if we are able to do this, just imagine a 1/2" Spiral out of 316L mouth waters just thinking about it.

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Example of the Hot Rod Eyelets