How Jewelry Saved My Life
Halcyon Jewelry started humbly in an unheated tool shed but so much happened before then.
At the time, I was 25 years old, working at a small audio company that manufactured high-end turntables and stylus. I spent my days in a warehouse-esque room piled 20 feet high with a maze of cardboard boxes, working under a microscope, gluing the tiniest bits and pieces of metal and rubber together. To say it was incredibly unfulfilling, monotonous, tedious work would be an understatement.
There were many mornings I would pull into the parking lot and cry.
I fantasized about driving past the exit to work and driving until I hit Vermont or Maine. Other mornings I would pull in just to drive away; skipping work completely because I simply couldn’t that day. It was crushing my spirit.
I dropped out of college after one semester at Memphis College of Art — I was 19 and depressed. The truth was: my family didn’t have money to spare. I wasn’t interested in school and felt guilt indebting my parents for something I not only didn’t love but felt repulsed by. In hindsight, I wish I had finished college — perhaps somewhere else — but that’s life.
Six months after I quit college my dad died from a massive heart attack.
It was on the Winter Solstice, days before Christmas. I had just come back to New York after being away from home for six months — the longest I had ever been separated from my parents. I had travelled from NY to Missouri to NM to California, and finally Olympia, Washington where I had planned to go back to school. But everything changed after he passed and a few months later, I was on my own financially and very much alone in the world.
I was in the deepest, darkest despair. My dad was my spirit animal and he was gone. I’m not sure I felt sorry for myself — but I wondered, what happened to my life? Why was I robbed? Who will protect me? I felt I had fallen from grace and there was no one to catch me.
I developed toxic, abusive, dependent relationships with my subsequent boyfriends. I needed help but didn’t know how to ask anyone and suffered in anguish for years because of it.
My job opportunities were always limited to manual labor or menial work.
I was a potato picker in California. I was a long-term barista at the local coffee shop. I worked as a clerk at the library. I dog-sat. I grew vegetables on multiple farms. I glued things together under a microscope for $12/hour.
Growing up, my parents revered art and creating, almost above all else. I had always been encouraged to make whatever I wanted. I carved a guitar body out of mahogany in high school — polished my dad’s granite sculptures from age 13-17 — drew every day of my life, painted, made ceramics with my best friend’s mother in her clay studio. I was very much blessed to have a wonderful, weird, art-full life.
Flash forward to 2013:
I hadn’t made anything art-related since dropping out of school six years earlier. Extremely frustrated by my limitations, I was in crisis mode and gravely unhappy. I applied to jobs on Craigslist that were 45 minutes away in jewelry production that still only paid $12/hour.
No one would hire me.
I had zero experience on my resume except “can work on extremely small things”. The man who interviewed me wore a beautiful silver bracelet and all I wanted to know was how to make myself one. He nearly laughed me out of his office, expressing that I had wasted my time and his. That was fun. I cried in the car. I did a lot of crying in those days.
So I bought plumbing solder from Home Depot and attempted to solder silver with it using a tiny propane torch. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and became exponentially more frustrated. This went on for months until I found a Jewelry 101 class at Westchester Community College. I had taken random night classes there already and pre-qualified for FAFSA. The $2000+ tuition bill was about half covered and I paid the rest myself on my measly, bullshit, $12/hour pay.
Giving myself the gift of that first jewelry class liberated me from my own bondage.
For years I had wrapped myself so tightly in the belief that all was lost — six years were gone — I was a college dropout with nothing of importance on my resume and I would never be able to support myself. I would always sell myself to men who I could use as a crutch. That sad narrative ended when I sought my own education. In truth, I still don’t know how it all came together.
I was never the person in any classroom who was excited to be there — which could not have been further from the truth on the first day of Jewelry 101. I was freakishly enthusiastic. Was it because I knew this was the beginning of my new life? That this was the one thing I knew I could do well, if someone would just show me how to make solder flow? I was so ready.
A room full of flammable gas tanks definitely keeps you on edge. I remember the smell of acetylene consuming my work space as gas hissed out and I struggled over and over with the striker. Seconds ticked by and then a small explosion: POOF.
The torch lit, the solder flowed, my life changed.
Was it that simple? Kind of. Finally, I felt actual internal joy that maybe I hadn’t felt since childhood. I regained some grasp on my own destiny and identity. As corny as it sounds, the incredibly simple act of learning to solder was the key that unlocked the door to my new life. I was furthermore unstoppable.
After the first class, school was out for almost three weeks during spring break. Three weeks!, I thought, I can’t wait that long to finish this ring and start my damn life. So I used whatever money I had saved and bought myself a torch (I still use to this day), a file, a jeweler’s saw frame and blades, sandpaper, and the tiniest amount of silver and solder. I didn’t have money to buy a flex shaft so attempting to polish anything was comical. Plus, I still had no idea what I was doing.
Spring break I moved my new tools into the cedar shed. That’s a before and after and lots of cleaning in between…so romantic! I used an old rolling kitchen island as my first “bench”. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of that beauty.
I finally had a room of my own, thanks to my boyfriend at the time. I had had my own apartment briefly, which flooded a few months after I moved in during a hurricane. Other than that, I had always lived in other people’s spaces. One boyfriend in particular had a knack for cruelly reminding me that everything was his and he could kick me out whenever he wished.
All the firsts:
My first ring was made with turquoise, of course. Probably my second pair of earrings (ambitious!). A cuff that was commissioned by my aunt. The first Rendezvous style bracelet I made. It was a motley crue.
The shed was clearly nothing special — it was dirty, there were many, many spiders, the floor was stained with oil from whatever machinery that had been stored in it. It was uninsulated, which meant 100 degrees in the summer and freezing temperatures come November. But it was mine and that was what mattered. I would spend hours and hours in there after work, toiling into the night until my desk lamp attracted all the insects within a mile radius.
By the time the second class rolled around, I came in with my ring. Finished. My teacher was truly confused. I explained I bought all my own tools and did it myself. Whattt?, was really all she had to say. Then I asked her if I needed to use water to polish the ring on the buffing wheel (lol). Mmmmm no, she said.
And the rest is a long, knotty history for another day.
Funny enough, my mom had told me to think about jewelry design when I was applying to school. I was extremely sassy at 16 and basically laughed at her and said, “I like to wear jewelry, not make it”. Duh, mom. My eyes probably rolled out of my head when I said it, too.