Save the Pieces: Recycled, Upcycled Found-Object Jewelry

jewelry making treasures upcycled recycled jewelry

Whenever something was dropped or broken at my maternal grandmother’s house, she’d call out, “Save the pieces!” I never knew what she did with the pieces, but her prudence stuck with me. I love creating recycled, upcycled jewelry with the “pieces,” using found objects and ornate little pieces of history crafted decades or even hundreds of years ago to make my own unique jewelry today.

Whether you have a soft spot for gentler times, are dedicated to saving the planet, or just appreciate beautiful things, making jewelry from found objects is fun and rewarding. My most recent passion is for the pierced, intricately engraved brass cocks (or balance cocks) from the interiors of late-1700s pocket watches, a perfect blend of beauty and history. I wear one on a necklace and have several smaller ones linked together as a bracelet. These little conversation starters are so detailed and impossibly pretty, I can hardly stop looking at them when I have one on.

Those wild and crazy Victorians were famous for making everything magnificent; every surface was enameled, bejeweled, gilded, pierced, or engraved. It’s gratifying to discover a remarkably beautiful object they worked their magic on and give it new life in personal, one-of-a-kind jewelry. Mixed with the right contemporary supplies, even Victorian beauties can become fashionable modern styles.

My Favorite Pretty Little Things

Crafters are notorious for collecting broken bits and found objects to use in later projects or taking something apart to upcycle it into something else. Steampunk artists have discovered the adventure of dismantling old pocket watches to give their curious contents new life in recycled jewelry. Most everyone has seen antique button bracelets and old silverware upcycled into jewelry.

You can take apart just about any kind of jewelry and–if you’re handy with jump rings or wire, have super adhesives, or know how to solder–reassemble a variety of the parts into something fresh and truly one of a kind. Beaders have been unstringing and restringing existing jewelry just as long as they’ve been stringing–or recycling large broken bead halves into cabochons. Single earrings, cufflinks, and shoe clips are given a second chance and a new purpose in upcycled jewelry.

Pierced bonbon scoops can make striking pendants, and miniature salt spoons wrap around a finger just right, becoming adorable little rings. Vintage compacts, chandelier crystals, bits of broken china, keys, and hotel souvenirs are all good fodder for jewelry inspiration. I like to pair a skeleton key with a small escutcheon plate (the decorative plate around a keyhole) for unique toggle clasps or lariat necklace ends, and elaborate pocket watch hands make pretty and uncommon dangle earrings.

Foreign coins can be recycled into exotic jewelry with an air of mystery and wanderlust–just think of all the hands those coins have passed through, all the purchases big or small they’ve been part of! Old computers, keyboards, typewriters, phones, and other electronics conceal potential pieces for found object jewelry with a contemporary edge. The possibilities are truly endless.

Treasure Hunting Tips

Thrift stores, antique stores, architectural salvage shops, flea markets, and estate sales are treasure troves of found objects for jewelry makers. Online, an eBay search for “antique mother-of-pearl” will return hundreds of pretty possibilities, like Chinese gaming counters and thread winders easily upcycled into distinctive pendants or focal beads. I’m giving away my secrets, but other great searches include “vintage engraved metal” or “antique pierced metal” (replace “metal” with brass, silver, or copper and you can get even more results).

Whether you hunt online or in stores, remember these tips when you’re considering a potential prize for making found-object jewelry:

  • Look for holes to pass cord or jump rings through, or determine if you can drill your own. If not, is it a good candidate for wire wrapping or being glued onto jewelry findings? How about enameling on it or embedding in resin? If it’s drawn to a magnet, it *probably* has enough iron for you to torch enamel it.
  • Think about the nitty-gritty details–especially the “gritty.” If it’s tarnished or rusted, can it be cleaned or finished so the jewelry won’t rub off on clothes and skin? Is it waterproof?
  • Is it too fragile to wear as jewelry? If so, can it be reinforced? Consider delicate items for necklaces or earrings rather than rings or bracelets, which are more prone to hard knocks. If you love it but it’s too delicate, can it be preserved in resin?
  • Be respectful of a found object’s history. If an item is sacred to or symbolic of a particular religion, race, or tragic event, it might be offensive to remake into casual jewelry.
  • If you make jewelry for resale, do the math. Using a dozen $10 trinkets on a charm bracelet makes a fairly expensive bracelet, but using one as a pendant can make for a reasonably priced necklace. Don’t forget the cost of additional supplies, gemstones, and findings necessary to complete the piece, plus your time!

Some of my favorite jewelry artists have been designing with found objects for decades, turning old metal bits into upcycled jewelry–plus adding a dash of sparkle here and there. Candie Cooper shares her tips and techniques for making found-object jewelry in Remixed Media: Transforming Metal Found Objects for Your Jewelry. Join the fun! Download the Remixed Media video workshop and learn to recycle just about anything into found-object jewelry.

P.S. When you start dismantling all your found objects, be careful with your tools. Don’t repeat my own heartbreaking mistake!

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