My journey into jewelry making began when I was in elementary school. My grandparents ran a costume jewelry company in Rhode Island where my grandmother ran the office while my grandfather managed the workshop. I would get to pick out hair accessories and earrings and always came home to Vermont with little boxes of such cool stuff. In the shop, I sorted through pieces while my grandfather assembled the rings with ease. I remember watching his hands work the pliers. The company owner sometimes visited Taxco, Mexico, as he also carried a silver line.
My grandma would bring out these trays of silver, and that’s what I really loved looking at. She always wore real silver and gold and diamonds, and had jewelry and accessories to match every outfit. So put together! I always admired that about her.
From a young age, I knew that not only did I love art — I was good at creating it, too. I remember working on class projects from as early as second grade with my wonderful art teacher. She nurtured my talent and then steered me toward my next mentor: her friend, who taught art to older students. These two women are the reason I am an artist today! In high school, l was friends with lots of people but often felt like a black sheep. Sometimes, I struggled emotionally. The art room was my refuge, the safe home that helped me get through things. With the encouragement and support of my art teacher, I applied and was accepted to several college art programs.
“You get whatever accomplishment you are willing to declare.”
— Georgia O’Keeffe
While I studied art in high school, I also continued to learn about jewelry in the commercial world. I worked part time at a T.J.Maxx and, as luck would have it, the boss had me covering dinner breaks for the jewelry counter employee. I would sell so much jewelry during those breaks that the counter quickly became my spot.
While working there, I learned to identify gemstones and memorized their names from labels. I still remember the first time I saw labradorite. Back then, there was no internet, and I went to the library to look up and read about this gemstone. I was enamored! This was the definitive moment when my love of the gorgeous natural gems I get to work with began. The earth made this! WHAT?!?
During college at Castleton State, jewelry making slowly became the focus of my art education. I began with what most people do at first: stringing beads. It’s fairly easy and lots of fun. Once a friend showed me a few techniques with silver wire, I immediately started working in that medium. I used wire wraps to fix broken jewelry of mine, replacing weaker rings that had come apart.
Soon, I could make chains out of wire and beads. These lovely chains looked delicate but were strong because of all the wire work. I loved it! Even though I was in an intense painting study for college, I would bring jewelry projects into my critique studio class. Our professor encouraged us to go outside our media of study if we wanted, and so this was a free pass for me to do what I really liked doing and maybe get a little credit for it. Don’t get me wrong: I love painting and was proud of what I produced. But jewelry making lit a fire within me.
I spent my last semester of college in London, England. I am so grateful for that time. I was 24 years old and a “super senior,” but I still had so much to learn about myself while I explored the city with my sketchbook and sometimes an easel. I visited the National Gallery and the Tate Modern. I frequented free curator talks and just soaked it all in. I helped the teacher from our college teach the museums class but did much of my work as independent study.
Simultaneously, my experience grew my love of people and culture and taught me to enjoy my own company. Oh, I am definitely a people person! But for the first time in my life, I felt free. I was not in Rutland, Vermont, anymore. It was an amazing time of growth for me.
When I graduated — cum laude with a bachelor of arts, with a painting concentration and a minor in art history — my plan was to apply to grad schools and become an educator. Teaching seemed like a safe way to make a living in the art world. I worked as a waitress while I prepared for the GRE and got my applications together.
But one night, a friend set me on a new path. She saw my jewelry work and offered to set me up as a seller at the farmers market her mother managed. This was unfamiliar territory for me, but it was an appealing idea. I knew that if I sold my jewelry, I would have more money to buy the beads and silver I needed to create more. So, I did it! One day at a small market table turned into a summer of sales.
I lived alone in a small apartment with my cat, and I waitressed and made jewelry in my living room. After my bills were paid, whatever I could spare went into this business. Eventually, I made it official and started Designs By Melanie in 2007.
From the start, my jewelry has been a product of place: Growing up in Vermont, and hiking and playing in its beautiful forests, gave me a love and appreciation for the earth. I see everything I get to create — the silver, the unique and gorgeous gemstones — as a gift.
“The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul.”
— Dieter F. Uchtdorf
That grounding is part of why it felt like such a leap when, in 2009, I left my home state of 29 years and moved to Virginia. It was a risk but ended up being the best thing I ever did for my life. I’ve come to love the natural beauty here just as I did Vermont’s. And my business has thrived in Virginia. The economy and our proximity to the nation’s capital means that there are people with income to spend on jewelry. In the 14 years since I moved, I have vended at farmers markets, art shows and a variety of festivals.
Virginia is also where I met my husband and, alongside him, eventually created an incredible workshop. After crossing paths at the farmers market in town, we became engaged in 2009 and eloped a couple months later. I moved to the family farm he’d recently purchased from his parents.
It’s a special place: Our home was built circa 1787, constructed with hand-hewn log walls that have since been covered by plaster and siding. It stands beside a spring house cabin that was long in disrepair when I moved to the farm. The Spring House held the waterworks for our home and badly needed fixing. In 2015, we dove into renovating the building.
It was no small project. There were so many rotted logs and flooring. A bad roof. Crumbling mortar in every nook and cranny. We — OK, mostly my husband and father-in-law! — did the work ourselves, and it stretched out for five years. Dad had a personal investment in the renovations: He was born in our house and farmed our land for years before retiring from farming and general contracting.
There are many unique problems and challenges when it comes to renovating a building so old. Our biggest by far was procuring the hand-hewn oak logs needed for the top of each wall so we could rebuild the roof. After a year of searching and going through wanted ads, we finally found what we needed from a local barn someone was dismantling.
In the summer of 2020, all our hard work paid off. The updated Spring House became my workshop and led to huge breakthroughs in my creative flow. Early on in my jewelry journey, I knew I wanted to silversmith. But the thought of trying to set up torches and tanks in an apartment is daunting. In Virginia, my sweet husband helped me get going by buying me a jeweler’s torch and building me a tiny soldering studio in the old milking parlor. But my soldering felt removed from the rest of my work, which I did in my in-home studio.
Now, everything comes together in the Spring House. Some days it is still a work in progress, but I know that I am right where I need to be.
“Creativity takes courage.” — Henri Matisse
I absolutely love making jewelry and also love working for myself. I am so grateful for this passion and drive I have to create. My biggest struggle currently is that I am not fully satisfied with my creations. I am always seeking creative growth, still chasing new ideas. I don’t know if I’ll ever be completely content with my creations, but I am OK with this. It is a driving force to teach myself new techniques, to take a class or to invest in tools to set myself up for what I’d like to try next. I can make jewelry forever!
I have only scratched the surface and am so excited for what is yet to come.