Jewelry Makers: A legacy of artisans inspired by Maine

Art or earrings? They are one and the same in the hands of Donna D'Aquino of Bethel.

Art or earrings? They are one and the same in the hands of Donna D’Aquino of Bethel. (Photo: Ralph Gabriner)

By Bob Keyes

AS A CHILD, Nisa Smiley traveled once a year from her home in Vermont to Deer Isle for a family vacation. The weeks and days leading up to packing the car and driving over the mountains to the Maine coast were filled with anticipation and excitement. “‘The Little Mermaid’ was my favorite story as a girl,” she said. “The sea has this magic in it, whether it’s a fairy-tale magic or the magic of the beauty of the life in the ocean. The shells, they speak to me on a core level.”

Now 38, Smiley lives year-round in Hancock County making handcrafted bracelets, rings, shawl pins and brooches that are inspired by the shells, feathers and other organic forms she finds on the beach. She often incorporates those natural objects, especially the shells, directly into her work. She learned her creativity on the sands of Deer Isle as a 10-year-old. “I never knew what I would find,” she remembered. “There was no guarantee I would find a sand dollar. My creativity was subject to whatever was delivered to my feet.”

Maine is home to an unusually large population of artisan jewelers, who draw on a tradition that’s rooted in New England small-scale manufacturing and Maine’s centuries old status as a place for arts and crafts and where people make beautiful things with their hands. Maine’s independent streak has something to do with it, too. Many of the older jewelers working in Maine today arrived with the back-to-the-land movement. For them, jewelry – its creation and its use as personal decoration – was and remains central to an independent lifestyle firmly rooted in rural living.

The contemporary jewelry scene also is informed by sensitivity toward sustainability, which has pushed artists to explore new practices and new aesthetic motifs. That sensitivity began with the hippies who came in the ’60s to get away from authority and is evidenced today with the use of ethically-sourced materials, reuse and recycling.

At work in her studio in Ellsworth, Nisa Smiley incorporates shells, feathers and other organic forms that wash up with the sea into her work.

At work in her studio in Ellsworth, Nisa Smiley incorporates shells, feathers and other organic forms that wash up with the sea into her work. (Photo: Jenny Nelson, Wylde Photography)

Smiley’s attraction to the natural world begins with ephemeral wonder, and is tied to spirituality. Tremendous energy goes into the creation of botanical, marine and organic life forms that disappear with the season and the sea. “Where that energy comes from to make those, God or Mother Nature, that is almost as much of interest to me as the actual piece – how we attribute it, why it’s important, why it happened.”

Smiley moved to Maine to study at Maine College of Art in Portland. She taught herself basic metalsmithing skills in high school in Vermont, and declined scholarships at other colleges to come to MECA because of Portland’s waterfront location. She graduated in 2000, and remained in Maine. She lives in Franklin, in Hancock County, and has a studio in Ellsworth.

Most of her jewelry originates with mussel or urchin shells and other limpid forms. She appreciates the quality of light as it moves through the soft shells. She makes impressions of botanicals with metal clay, and collects mother-of-pearl buttons – because she likes them, and also because they come from the sea. Other work involves gemstones.

Beyond using objects found in nature, Smiley practices sustainability by carefully consuming her metals and gemstones. She mostly uses recycled metals, and buys from sources with proven records of ethical environmental practices. In many cases she has a personal relationship with her vendors.

A nested bracelet by Portland designer Jen Burrall.

A nested bracelet by Portland designer Jen Burrall. (Photo: Convinced Photography, courtesy of JBD Designs)


“I have a lapidary in Utah who mines things himself, and cuts gems himself. When I buy gems from him, I know there was good energy that went into it. There were no people being forced to do it for a penny.” She feels compelled to use materials she finds in nature “because it’s easier and it’s also right here,” and because of the wondrous energy of their creation.

Jeweler Chaya Caron’s introduction to environmental sensitivity began as a child celebrating Earth Day. The idea of treating the planet well was ingrained early on. It carried into her work as a jeweler after she graduated from MECA in 1999.

Caron read an article about gold mining that examined the use of cyanide and other practices damaging to ecosystems and harmful to animals and people. As she learned more about dirty gold, she confronted the question, “Am I going to have to change my practice as an artist? Can I ethically live with myself now that I know where these materials are coming from?”

She joined Ethical Metalsmiths, an international organization that advocates for responsible mining and ethically sourced materials in jewelry making. She buys silver and gold from companies that sell recycled materials, and nearly all the work she produces at Chaya Studio Jewelry in South Portland includes recycled materials.

Caron also vets her vendors, asking questions about the source of their stones and researching the mines where they originate, labor practices associated with them and mining companies’ environmental records. She eliminated some gems from her work that came from mines she wasn’t comfortable supporting, and narrowed her network to vendors she knew and trusted. Three years ago, she began buying
Maine tourmaline from a cutter who collects and cuts local stones, and now incorporates Maine stones in her work.

The changes she made in her professional life mirror lifestyle choices Caron, 40, made long ago in her personal life – choices to support Maine farmers and buy goods and do business with local people whenever possible. Having both parts of her life align feels meaningful, and has been good for business, she said.

“That has been exciting for me, to take these patterns that I started in my personal life and drop them in to my professional experience,” she said. “Customers love it. I do a lot of weddings, and people are getting away from diamonds, or mixing colors in with the diamonds. Some people come to me from out of state, and they are looking for a Maine jeweler because they have a tie to this state. Offering a stone that has been mined and cut here has added sentimental value.”

Jen Burrall Portrait

An interest in repurposed materials, including heirloom jewelry, has boosted Jen Burrall’s custom-design work. (Photo: Convinced Photography, courtesy of JBD Designs).

Interest in repurposed materials has led to a surge in custom jewelry, sought by heirs who have inherited grandmother’s diamonds and are looking to use them in a contemporary way. That’s a different and perhaps subtle twist on sustainability in jewelry, but it speaks to a prevailing mindset among jewelers and people who buy Maine-made jewelry, said Jen Burrall, a custom jeweler from Portland.

She operates JBD Designs Jewelry on Munjoy Hill. Burrall, 44, keeps a studio in the back of a boutique that fronts a bustling block of Congress Street. The studio and shop are separated by rope braids that hang from the ceiling, creating an organic atmosphere. In addition to selling her own creations, she sells what she calls “a carefully curated” selection of natural-fiber women’s clothing, accessories, home décor and art that suit her tastes and the mood she wants for her retail space. Much of her retail line is locally sourced.

She opened the store on Munjoy Hill in 2014, and has been making jewelry in Portland since 2002. She grew up in Freeport, and apprenticed with a designer in Montana. She is mostly self-taught.

Her studio is small and neat, with tools, findings and materials of her trade at hand near her bench. Customers like seeing the jeweler at work, she says. She talks to people to find out what they like and what they’re passionate about. Customers care where their jewelry comes from, and being able to weave a narrative about the piece and the history of the material appeals to today’s savvy, discerning consumer who is looking for one-of-kind statement jewelry.

Like her contemporaries, Burrall only buys recycled, responsibly sourced materials. At least in Maine, that’s become the standard among artisan jewelers. It’s a commitment that suits both the maker and the person buying the jewelry, Burrall said.

“People are acting more environmentally conscious in all aspects of their lives, and that extends to the jewelry they buy,” she said. “They don’t want to support a dirty industry. They do not want to support new mining, and neither do I.”

Nisa Smiley 08 2

A bracelet by Nisa Smiley, who studied metalsmithing at Maine College of Art. (Photo: Robert Diamante)

In Bethel, designer Donna D’Aquino recently opened a gallery and working studio, Art @ 57 MAINe, featuring her custom jewelry using sterling silver, gold and steel, as well as sculpture and two-dimensional art by Lauren Head, founder and director of the blacksmithing program at Gould Academy. Enthused about the art scene in Bethel that is growing around the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum, she opened the gallery late in 2015. The museum is now partially open, and will fully open in 2017.

D’Aquino is offering studio classes at Art @ 57 MAINe, and hopes to transform the gallery into an arts center, with metalsmithing and handcrafted jewelry as the focus and where jewelry is transformed from adornment to fine art.

A designer by education and a maker for the past 20 years, D’Aquino is inspired by architecture and the act of drawing. She views her jewelry as wearable art and not something to be tucked away in a jewelry drawer. Others have described her as a sculptor who makes jewelry.

She treats the human body as a canvas and her metalwork as the painted mark. She makes her jewelry as a threedimensional drawing. “It can be on the body, but also meant to be looked at when not worn,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be just jewelry. It can be an object in and of itself.”


Bethel designer Donna D’Aquino is inspired by architecture and the act of drawing. She designs jewelry as sculpture, and believes it should be appreciated when worn on the body or displayed at home as a piece of art. (Photo: Ralph Gabriner)

D’Aquino has practiced her art with environmental awareness for as long as she can remember. Like the others, she does what she can: she uses recycled materials, and reliably sources her silver and gold. She also uses a lot of repurposed steel.

More directly, she consciously avoids using gemstones and diamonds, because of how they are sourced and because how diamonds are marketed in our culture. “My work has never been about a gemstone,” she said. “It’s about the design, the idea and the concept.”

The movement toward ethical environmental practices associated with jewelry is a generation old, and the widespread use of recycled materials has gained traction in the past decade, said Tim McCreight, a metalsmith, educator and publisher from Harpswell. It follows larger trends in society and is grounded in progressive thinking.

Just as many people will pay an extra 50 cents for a cup of fair-trade coffee or a little more for dolphin-free tuna, they’ll pay $10 or $20 more for a piece of jewelry they know comes from an artist who took the time to ensure the materials were ethically sourced, he said. “I think Mainers are good people. I think they care about doing the right thing and doing it well,” said McCreight, who taught at MECA 13 years and is cited as a mentor by many in the field.

There is wide debate in the industry whether the use of recycled materials has resulted in less metal being leached from the earth. But it has raised consumer consciousness, which has enabled the handcrafted jewelry industry to thrive.

For generations beginning in the 1800s, the American jewelry industry was based in Providence, R.I., and linked to the shoe industry. The same technology that produced eyelets for shoes was used to make findings in jewelry. Indeed, the term “findings” – referring to the clasps, ear wires and studs essential to the trade – originated in the shoe industry.

Chaya Caron buys silver and gold from companies that sell recycled materials, and nearly all the work she produces at Chaya Studio Jewelry in South Portland includes recycled materials.

Chaya Caron buys silver and gold from companies that sell recycled materials, and nearly all the work she produces at Chaya Studio Jewelry in South Portland includes recycled materials. (Photo courtesy of Chaya Studio Jewelry)

Providence has been eclipsed by New York and the world market, but New England’s jewelry legacy remains strong. It’s especially strong in Maine because of the influx of makers in the 1960s and ’70s and later, who established Maine’s contemporary jewelry scene. In many cases, those jewelers are still working today—people like Patty Daunis and Devta Doolan in Portland and Michael Good in Rockland. MECA and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle have attracted hundreds of students to Maine. Many—like Smiley and Caron—have stayed and sustained the scene.

In Maine, jewelers are spread across the state, from York County up the coast to Canada, north to the wilderness and west to the mountains. Maine appeals to jewelers for the same reasons it appeals to other artists: it’s affordable and beautiful, and appealing to people who live rurally or those who prefer living in an urban center like Portland.

Maine’s jewelry hubs are Portland and Deer Isle, because of MECA and Haystack, which serve as magnets for students and working artists. The educational centers support artists as instructors, keep the creative communities connected and provide training for new generations of makers. McCreight’s first Maine experience came in 1975, when he arrived to teach at a summer art institute for high school kids in central Maine. The program included a day trip to Haystack. “I saw Haystack, and I said, ‘I am coming back here.’”

He did, in 1988, to teach metalsmithing at what was then the Portland School of Art. His textbook, Complete Metalsmith, published by his Brunswick-based Brynmorgen Press, is the industry standard.

McCreight doesn’t detect an artistic aesthetic linking generations of Maine makers, but they are linked by tradition, a work ethic and a sense of place, he said. Maine jewelry “is a cultural marker” and has been for a long time. “If you ask people, ‘Give me 10 words associated with Maine,’ you’ll get the coast, lobsters and boats, and somewhere in there it’s conceived as a hip artistic community. Maine is known as this hip place where people go to make jewelry.”

Chaya Caron at work in her South Portland studio.

Chaya Caron at work in her South Portland studio. (Photo courtesy of Chaya Studio Jewelry)


COMING SOON:  Maine Mineral & Gem Museum

AT THE MAINE MINERAL & GEM Museum, visitors will be able to touch the moon and Mars and much more. The museum store in downtown Bethel is open now, with a small display area and gallery featuring jewelry made from Maine gemstones and materials.

But the museum will be much larger in 2017, when it fully opens with 7,000 square feet of display space, said Barbra Barrett, the museum’s director. It’s expected to be a major attraction in western Maine, celebrating Maine’s geological history and showcasing a rock collection cherished by generations of Mainers. The museum will offer educational and research opportunities, as well as excursions to local mines on gem-finding expeditions.

“We have meteorites that will knock people’s socks off,” Barrett said. “People will come to the museum to understand our rich mineral history in this state, and we will launch them out to the solar system and educate them about that, too.”

Lawrence Stifler and Mary McFadden are the museum founders. In 2005, they purchased the Bumpus Mine in nearby Albany Township, one of the most significant mines in Maine. In 2009, they acquired the Perham Collection, the largest collection of Maine minerals, which had been on roadside display in West Paris for generations before closing in 2009. Its acquisition transformed the idea for a small museum celebrating Maine mining into a large scale mineral and gem museum.

Maine jewelry designer Donna D’Aquino opened a gallery, Art @ 57 MAINe, near the museum because she thinks Bethel is poised for an arts explosion. In addition to the museum, the Gem Theater recently opened in downtown, with community art programming. “There are a lot of wonderful things happening here,” said D’Aquino, who has lived in Bethel five years. “The Maine Mineral and Gem Museum is going to be pretty spectacular. There’s a bit of buzz and excitement, and a nice collaborative spirit.”


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