Friday, May 14, 2010

The Hygiene Monster

Tell me if this sounds at all familiar to you: I have a coworker whose bathroom ablutions seem, to me, a little bit OCD. First off, she washes her hands before and after using the toilet. Ok, I get it. I mean, I don't touch any part of my body when I'm doing my business, I let the toilet tissue do all the dirty work, but you never know, you could splash, or the paper could slip... whatever. It wouldn't bug me so much, but she also flushes before and after the business. Before? Really? Lucky we have so much water in this country. I've always found it sufficient to flush once (after the business is done) and wash once (ditto on the timing). But who am I to judge? It just seems that everywhere I look, people are going crazy trying to eliminate germs. Are we healthier because of it? I don't really think we are doing our immune systems any favours by slathering ourselves repeatedly with hand sanitizer and washing obsessively.

I bring this topic up because I've noticed in the Etsy forums there is usually a thread going about whether or not it's hygienic to model the jewellery you make. Most people seem to think that it's a horrible, nasty, and dirty thing to put an earring into your ear and then try to sell it. Let's look at that logic for a moment. People sell HANDMADE earrings on etsy. That means that they make them with their dirty, nasty, awful hands, which, as we are all taught, are filthy repositories for all the effluvia we come in contact with. How many times do we touch the earring posts or hooks during the creation of the piece? Well, if you're anything like me, and crafting the earrings completely by hand, (sometimes even alloying the metal and drawing the wire by hand), your hands are in contact with the metal throughout the whole process. Yet no one seems to even think about the necessary germ-ridden dirtiness of the whole crafting process. Put the earring in an ear to model it, though, and it's contaminated with god knows what.

Before my jewellery gets to a customer, it is put in an ultrasonic bath for 5 minutes, then polished one last time with a soft cloth. Regardless, I would still recommend wiping the hook or post with an alcohol swab before putting it in your ear - because I may have touched it before I packaged it, your friend touched it when she was admiring it, and you picked it up before you put it on. Wash your hands, use some alcohol to clean the part that's going in your ear, and stop freaking out that the artist had someone model the piece for a picture. You're not going to catch anything from my earrings.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

....but what's it FOR?

Few things in life are as utterly functionless as jewellery is. Purely decorative, the needs it satisfies are hard to quantify. Ego, status, beauty, self-esteem, self-expression... the list is long. I worry that these needs are perceived as shallow, vain, and self-serving, but at the same time I realize that when people decorate themselves, it is a means of communication. Self-adornment speaks of group affiliation or of individuality, it is an indication of wealth or taste or culture.

I was learning the fine craft of lacemaking, and I took my pillow and bobbins and pins into the park so that I could have some sun at the same time. Do you think people are unfriendly or untalkative? Try doing a craft in public! I didn't get as much work done as I thought I would, because so many people wanted to stop and ask questions about what I was doing. Everyone who stopped by that day seemed delighted by the ancient craft. The last comment I got before I packed up and went back inside made me think deeply about the reasons I enjoy my art, though. A couple of men, drawn in by the attention I was giving to the lace, stopped to ask several questions about the craft. I answered the first man's questions with all the enthusiasm I have for my art, and then his partner had only one question to add; "But why?" Hmmm. Why would I bother to learn a craft which has been almost completely taken over by machine in the last century? I suppose I could have told him that I was a jeweller, and that this particular craft supplemented my growing toolbox of techniques. I could have told him about how my teacher, in her enthusiasm, travelled all over Europe trying to glean pieces of the craft from anyone who would teach her and any book she could find, and how I found that enthusiasm infectious. I could have mentioned how relaxing and meditative it was to pore over the pillow. I might have tried to explain the great rush of satisfaction I get from creating something beautiful with my own two hands. But instead I just smiled. If he doesn't understand the why, he will never get it.

(Interested in learning more about bobbin lace? Visit - she taught me this exciting craft, and her art is breathtaking.)

Friday, April 30, 2010

In Praise of Synthetic Gems

When I was in art school, we spoke of synthetic gemstones in gemology class - how they are created in the laboratory and how to tell when a gem is a knock-off. But we were never encouraged to use them in our work. Deemed second best, these humble lab-grown gems were destined for "practice" stone setting, never to let their dazzle delight the senses of anyone with a refined sense of style.

I feel as though I have to stand up for the humble cubic zirconia, the disrespected laboratory corundum, the reconstituted "ambrelle" and hematite, the "black onyx" which is actually just a kind of quartz, the lovely copper coloured glass that we label "goldstone". These tiny pieces of beauty are a tribute to the innovation of humans. Nobody died for them. No land was destroyed to get them. Massive amounts of money and resources were saved in their creation. Add to these things the fact that these gems are more colourful, more dazzling to the eye, cleaner, clearer, and, in some cases, more durable, than their natural counterparts, and sell at a fraction of the price, and I would say that my choice is clear. I choose synthetic.

People want something rare, though - something that was suffered for and meticulously excavated. Princesses want their heros to fight dragons, not slave over an alchemist's tools. Even if it means that the end result is a dirty, included, foggy old emerald instead of a clear, forest green laboratory beryl? I find something flawed in that mentality. This point was driven home to me in gemology class as we learned about the Diavik diamond mine. An aerial photo shows an enormous open mine with a huge sea wall built around it. In the often harsh northern climate of the Northwest Territories, people must be flown in to work, fed, housed, and paid. Diamonds are beautiful, durable and (maybe not as) rare (as the industry would have us believe), but there is nothing in this photo of the Diavik mine that convinces me that spending this much energy and expending these resources (not to mention the casual pillage of the land) is worth it for the gem that will come out of that land. It's white (mostly), extremely hard, shows wonderful prismatic colours, returns a lot of light to the eye when it's cut properly, and should last forever. So does a moissanite or a cubic zirconia.

I always had a crush on that geeky alchemist. The hero was always just a little too full of himself.

top: Silver ring with synthetic ruby (lab corundum)
middle: The Diavik mine north of Yellowknife, NWT
left: earrings with goldstone navette gems (glass with copper dust inclusions) and reconstituted hematite cabochons.

Jewellery by Gracebourne. See listings on Etsy:


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It runs in my family

When my grandfather died, he didn't leave behind a lot of material goods. Notable to me were his lathe and several wooden rosaries. Hand turned wooden beads, put together with base metal wire or strung on a cotton cord. He was a jeweller of sorts, and I didn't know it. I thought I had nothing in common with him. I don't remember a single conversation between us - I only remember his disapproving looks and unsmiling face. When he died and this hobby that we both shared was revealed, I went to my parents' medicine cabinet where I'd stashed a small jewellery box that grampa had turned from the trunk of a young tree and painted, gifted to me one Christmas with a string of dollar store false pearl and gold tone beads. The ivory coloured paint still had a faint smell. I discarded the necklace and secreted the box away.

I started making jewellery the same way most young girls do - stringing beads, melting potato chip bags down into keychains, coiling pieces of plastic coloured electrical wire discarded by some SaskTel worker. Whatever I had on hand would do, and I still cherish the roots of that creative spirit in me, sending out feelers into the art world.

These small bracelets and keychains and neckaces were small beans compared to what my dad could do with a nickel, though. By some magical means, my dad was able to take a humble coin and hammer it into a simple ring. I remember asking him how it was done, but the answer seemed so esoteric - containing mystical machines and apparatus that I could only imagine. Metalwork was beyond the scope of my admittedly vast imagination at the time. My dad was handy with his tools - an auto body mechanic by trade, he is familiar with the way metals behave and concerned with the asthetic sense of an object, in tune with its lines and its symmetry. Why shouldn't this sense transfer to the objects which in daily life serve an exclusively decorative purpose; jewellery? My sister's grad ring was a handmade present from my dad, and I am the proud owner of a carved and polished sandstone pendant from his imagination and hands.

Last week I showed my dad some rings that I had been working on, and he inspected the workmanship and said, "well, you sure put my little nickel rings to shame, didn't you?" I remembered those days when making a nickel ring was just a fantasy, solely my dad's arcane intellectual property. I think back on the time I spent in art school learning to smith, and I wish I could have enjoyed those classes alongside my dad and grandfather.

I am always hungry for new techniques, skills and materials that will round out my artistry. Metalwork is, by far, my favourite and most rewarding technique, but I venture into woodwork, like my grandfather, and simple stone carving, like my dad. I don't have to look far for inspiration. It's in my blood.

****jewellery by Gracebourne. Click the photo to view the listing on etsy****