Soldier On: A Salute to Jewelry-Making Veterans
Beginning their careers as young women in the United States Army, Military Police Officer Tara Hutchinson and Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technician Jenifer Bellefleur share a determination, commitment to service, and passion to bring joy and beauty to people that lead them both to what they believe is their true calling as jewelry artists.
ABOVE: Tara Hutchinson’s Bryn Open-Top Ring with fordite, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and silver; photo courtesy Tara Hutchinson
Tara Hutchinson • San Antonio, Texas
Tara Hutchinson did not set out to be a jewelry designer. Enlisting in the Army at age 23, she served as a Military Police Officer for nearly seven years, before her life changed forever on Valentine’s Day 2006. While on a mission in Baghdad, an Improvised Explosive Device blew up under her Humvee. Hutchinson lost her right leg, suffered from a movement disorder, traumatic brain injury, third degree burns, back injuries, and PTSD.
“Recovery from my injuries was a long, dark road,” she tells, “and I fell into severe depression. My occupational therapist suggested I find a hobby like beading to work my fine motor skills. In the beginning, my movement was so compromised that stringing a large wooden bead on a leather rope was near impossible.” But Hutchinson’s grit and tenacity kept her moving.
She learned everything she could about the craft while practicing every day. “Jewelry making became my light at the end of the tunnel. I made a deal with God that if He could fix what was wrong with my hands and head and get me out of depression and moving on, I’d share my jewelry and my story with women to help them feel good about themselves.”
Within a year, her movement disorder was almost undetectable. “It’s incredible! I remember the day when I couldn’t even hold a pencil. Now I can do things like this.” Hutchinson crafts modern, one-of-a-kind designs using precious metals — with an affinity for Argentium because of its versatility — and a variety of colorful gemstones like Peruvian opal, apatite, chrysoprase, morganite, and aquamarine.
When she designs, she has specific women in mind to help her visualize how the piece would fit into the owner’s life. “I think about her back story, family, and career choices, even hobbies and interests,” she describes of her creative process. “This gives my mind a way to solidify the existence of the piece, work out the snags, and adjust the design to fit its future owner.” She notes that, like life, most of her jewelry is not perfectly symmetrical or smooth.
Hutchinson started selling her jewelry on Etsy in 2012, which she says gave her a valuable platform to grow customers. But she felt the site took too much of her money in fees, so she opted for her own e-store at www.tarahutchjewelry. com. A serious goal for this year is to sell her jewelry in the Sundance Catalog. Moreover, she would like to exhibit at important trade shows to meet potential retail clients, with a good start last June at the American Craft Retailers Expo Las Vegas. But cash flow is her biggest challenge. “I’m a full-time goldsmith, so the resources to grow my business have to come from revenue created by my business.”
Designer Tip from Tara
“Do your homework, and start your business right. Before you take on needy customers and the expense of shows and other commitments, take the time to define your target customer.” To vets, she advocates they use disability/ retirement pay to their advantage to get the necessary education while they can, like attending GIA to become a certified gemologist. “Also, narrow your field of expertise before you get too involved in this business. There are so many different dimensions in the field of jewelry making.”
Jenifer Bellefleur • Minneapolis, Minnesota
Meant to serve, Jenifer Bellefleur has a diverse background that began as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technician in the United States Army and has led her to pursue a path as a jewelry artisan. Bellefleur joined the military at the age of 17. Determined to attend university and become economically self-sustaining, she saw the Army as a way to secure these things that weren’t otherwise available to her. On active duty from 1984 to 1988, she was trained to identify different types of explosive devices and neutralize the threats they posed. “Although we were in peacetime and primarily engaged in training exercises, I worked hard and in dangerous conditions in an extremely male-dominated and frankly harassing environment,” she tells, noting that fewer than 5% of EOD techs today are women — imagine when she started 32 years ago.
Succeeding in the Army has taught Bellefleur that she could do anything she commits to. “I experienced firsthand the responsibility that comes with strength. The servant leadership I learned, as much because of its absence as its intermittent presence, has informed everything I do.” After being honorably discharged, she went on to graduate from the University of Minnesota with a degree in law, criminology, and deviance. She also earned a master’s degree in leadership at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, and served in a variety of executive positions at for- and non-profits over the next two decades.
Bellefleur says she always engaged in artistic pursuits in her spare time, including painting, sculpture, photography, and experimenting with jewelry. “I had been making jewelry in my spare time when I was out for a summer walk and saw a ‘real’ jeweler at his bench through his studio window. He invited me in, and somehow all these wonderful opportunities to serve opened up for me.”
Inspired to go into jewelry as a service and an art form more than a business, Bellefleur wants to work in jewelry as an opportunity to serve people and express her art. She adores designing with beautiful gems including aquamarines, tourmalines, and sapphires. “I love the unique opportunity jewelry provides to create art from joy and beauty, and to help people acknowledge their loved ones and celebrate the most sacred milestones in their lives. What could feel better?”
To put herself out there, Bellefleur created an Etsy storefront, Sweet Tribe, in 2011. “I had no reason to believe I’d ever be able to sell anything to a stranger, but I set up an Etsy storefront anyhow, and suddenly a ruby set was chosen by the Star Tribune, our major newspaper, as pick of the week on the style page.” She says the storefront was just successful enough to keep her making jewelry.
While pursuing her Graduate Jeweler diploma from GIA — applying a Women’s Jewelry Association Female Veteran Scholarship grant she received last year to complete the last leg of its certified diamonds program — she is a designing jeweler and studio manager at Uniquely Yours Custom Jewelry. In addition to being informed by her own past as an artist and businesswoman, she says she has learned so much from the two master jewelers she works with in the studio — from consulting on repairs and restoration to designing custom engagement and wedding rings to educating on diamonds. Her goal is eventually to move to California and open her own studio.
“Looking at my resumé, one might think my military experience and jewelry art are merely bookends on a full, jumbled shelf,” she says. “But there has been a strong common thread through all my life, educational and work experiences of serving others with grace and integrity.”
Designer Tip from Jenifer
“For people leaving a somewhat dramatic life or employment experience like the military, it’s important to pursue something you feel good about and balance that against the need to be economically self-sustaining.” She advocates veterans and anyone interested in working in the jewelry industry find local resources and take classes, noting that Minneapolis has excellent jewelry art instruction resources. “Use the Internet and get out and see what’s going on at successful jewelry businesses to understand what it will take to succeed. Learning and networking help to create and find opportunities.” She hails WJA a great resource for grants, scholarships, and networking; and she applauds GIA’s on-campus and online educational opportunities.
Find Out More
Deborah Yonick has been writing about jewelry and fashion trends for more than 20 years for trade and consumer publications and online, and has loved both for much longer! With roots in New York, she presently lives and works in York, PA. “Soldier On” originally appeared in her Trends column in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist in July, 2016.
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