Mixed-Media Jewelry: Using Found Objects in Handmade Jewelry

By Ronna Sarvas Weltman

I love mixed-media jewelry. I love that it flaunts any rules of what goes with what. Diamonds with Legos? Fair game. I love that it points out possibilities, showing us that this chipped game piece or that faded ribbon can take on new significance when crafted into adornment. I love that it often uses recycled components, which is a "green" approach to jewelry-making, opening up a dialogue about the importance of responsibility in the crafting of art. Mostly I love that it challenges notions about the significance of "preciousness" when evaluating a piece's artistic merit.

 

Linen Lock (bracelet): found padlock and chain segment, Irish waxed linen, and steel heishi.
By Brenda Schweder.

Brenda Schweder is the author of a book about using found objects in jewelry making. She has a sparkle in her eye and laughter in her voice that finds its way to her jewelry design as well.

"I started out as a 'stringer,'" she explains. "Like a lot of other people I'd use beads, gemstones-there's nothing I don't like-but I always gravitated to things that are odd or have a history of . . . " and here she pauses, ". . . not the norm," she confesses with a giggle. "There's definitely a difference between people who enjoy seeing it, a different mindset. It's almost a private joke, a bit of whimsy to it. It's kind of like 'Oh my gosh! It's now a ring and once it was a tin that held tobacco!'"

Schweder enjoys toying with the idea of preciousness. "I like resurrecting things," she explains. "The cheaper, the better. The idea of making jewelry from what is precious is great, but what about taking what people discard or don't think of as precious and putting it in a setting that calls attention to it or celebrates its history or what it once was? That elevates it."

She cites museum exhibits and the book Manufractured: The Conspicuous Transformation of Everyday Objects by Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov pointing the way to a thoughtful examination of the role of components in art and jewelry, and the exciting art jewelry of artists such as Marlene True, Harriete Estel Berman and Keith Lo Bue.

 

Faux bone bracelet by Melissa Cable.

"You can use a found object as it is, such as a key," she explains, "But a whole continuum of artists use found objects in different ways. You have to look for what that used to be. Keith Lo Bue will cut a key apart and use it as a connector for a clasp or bail. There is no right or wrong. It's just interesting to dissect it."

Schweder thoroughly enjoys the hunt for interesting materials and found objects. "Sometimes I'll go to a hardware store and look around for different ideas," she explains. Her hunt for a plastic that she could use to mold or change a shape led her to Plasti Dip by Performix, a multi-purpose rubber coating that Schweder is still exploring as another medium to use in her jewelry design.

Aside from hardware stores, she has plenty of other sources for objects and inspiration. "For me, it's flea markets and rummage sales and estate sales…basically it's just keeping your eye out for stuff on the ground when you're walking. It becomes an urban archeological dig. I barely ever get gas without looking to see what fell out of cars. Goofy little plastic things, pop tops, anything to me can end up in my jewelry."

Of course, mixed media includes a wide range of found and discarded objects. Years ago in a London antique store, I found a medieval-era thimble which was discovered at the bottom of the Thames River. I also came back from that trip with an iron finger guard from a long-ago warrior's armor and part of a frame that is all that is left of a purse from hundreds of years ago.

Although these pieces were arguably not particularly precious at one point in time, the fact of their survival has elevated them to precious as far as I'm concerned and therefore has made using them all the more challenging to me. I'm willing to drill a hole in an old Scrabble tile or a fifty-year-old rusty key, but pieces of genuine antiquity should be respected and valued, so I'm unwilling to alter them in any way.

 

Metal and faux bone rings by Melissa Cable.

And there's my conundrum; they're still tucked safely away, waiting to be used in a way that honors their heritage and is still a fun and fabulous piece of wearable art. In fact, I'm planning a trip with friends and students to Paris soon to haunt flea markets and shops for fun pieces to use in mixed-media jewelry, and I'm going to caution myself and my fellow travelers: Think about how you might use this or that piece in your art. You may find that its value and history add a resonance to your art that makes you treasure it all the more, or you may find that you're surprisingly reluctant to "repurpose" it. Either is fine, either is great, but it's a dialogue to have before deciding whether or not you want to buy it, if your aim is to use it to create wearable art.

Equally intriguing in the world of mixed-media jewelry is using non-traditional materials for fabrication into art jewelry.

Artist Melissa Cable has me fascinated with her use of faux bone, the remarkably versatile material developed by Robert Dancik. "What I like about faux bone," she explains, "is the ability to apply metalsmithing techniques to the materials while having this great flexibility and incorporating color into your work.

"On my desk I have dapping blocks and dies," she explains. "Plus my flex shaft with barrel sanders and drill bits, my belt sanders, a drill press, metal shears and metal hole punch pliers, metal stamps and texturing hammers. I use round-nose pliers a lot to form it, I use a heat gun with it, steel wool, a scouring pad…just about everything that I use on metals, I use on faux bone."

 

Dipt Necklace (detail): steel, Plasti-Dip formed, coated. By Brenda Schweder.

Faux bone comes in four different widths, and the different widths offer different possibilities that Cable enjoys exploring.

"That desire to want to shape the faux bone to whatever my heart wants gives me the ability to engineer, and I love to engineer without having to have big expensive equipment or processes or expensive metal mistakes," she explains. "I love color, so I love to be able to incorporate it using inks and pens and mixing my own colors. I love the freedom to shape it using just a heat gun and sometimes a toaster oven. I can shape it into anything."

Cable's experiments with faux bone and communication with Dancik led him to offer more pre-cut shapes. "I like that we've developed some approachable shapes and sizes for people to play with now," says Cable. "Strips, donuts, and washer shapes, so people don't have to saw anymore. I had them cut originally for me, and now they offer them to others. That inspires me to create even more. I'm excited to see what people start to do with faux bone strip!"

That is, in fact, what is so exciting about mixed-media jewelry in general. You never know what people are going to start to do. But you're probably going to see some really fun art. —RSW

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This article was republished from the August/September 2011 issue of Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry. For more from Ronna Sarvas Weltman or to learn more about wire, mixed-media, and other kinds of handcrafted jewelry, subscribe to Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry magazine!

Do you use found objects or transform everyday objects in your jewelry designs? It's my favorite kind of jewelry to make and I'd love to hear how you do it in the comments below. —Tammy Jones

Resources:
Brenda Schweder, brendaschweder.com
Melissa Cable, melissacable.com
Plasti Dip by Performix, plastidip.com
Faux bone: fauxbone.com.

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