Rachel & Rocks
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
My Own Stone Story
I have worked intimately with stones, rocks, gems, fossils and such for way more than thirty years. I decided to reflect on my relationship to these natural objects. Do I know when it all started? Do I know how it became my career? Early childhood memories include creating environments for the toads we caught as kids. Sticks, rocks, dirt were the key elements. It felt like playing House to create a space for the creature. The next memory that surfaces is a family camping vacation near a shallow river. We spent hours choosing rocks to bring home and add to the garden. The rocks had to have a special meaning in order to be brought home (Mom’s way of reducing the load).
That idea resonated with me and I chose the “Slice of Bread” and the “Slice of Pizza” and the “Tornado” rocks as my contributions.
Geology per se did not speak to me, rather the beauty of nature, no matter what its scientific name. So even now, I cannot say if “Slice of Bread” is chert or sandstone, shale, limestone, dolomite or fireclay. I might guess that “Tornado” was a form of clay caught in a vortex before solidifying into its rock hard entity that I found in that river.
Memory forward to Sweet 16 and my parents gave me a 10k gold ring with a black star sapphire gemstone. My first real jewelry. In fact I do not have memories of jewelry adornment in childhood. Hmm. I have never thought about that fact. Entering university at age 18 with determination to study art, I dove into Crafts as a major. The University of Illinois had three craft disciplines: ceramics, glass and metals. I immediately gravitated to metals. The first piece I made was a 14k gold ring with an amethyst gemstone.
All the other students were making pieces out of brass or copper for budgetary reasons. I was not cash-exceptional, but what I had I spent as I chose: clothing from Salvation Army, gold from a pawn shop and a splurge on a gemstone from a jewelry store. This felt real to me. The gold wedding band from the pawn shop I cut open, flattened out and sawed up with a jeweler’s saw and formed the pieces and soldered them together to create a new ring.
The rest of my education in Urbana- Champaign, Illinois consisted of many projects, usually using silver and occasionally a gemstone. The studio off of Green Street or Springfield Avenue, I forget, would order a “pick box” from a lapidary(person who cuts gemstones) in Indiana. I was fascinated by the pick box, which I did not understand until I got the explanation: many gemstones in the box, each has a price, box gets sent back with the leftover gems and payments for gemstones purchased. I held myself back due to financial constraints, but I did pick one or two from each shipment. I picked them out of a feeling of love. I couldn’t leave my little favorite rocks in the box! A faceted garnet I made into a brooch for my grandmother, an agate of some sort became a ring that a friend admired, so I gifted it to her, a funky, conical cut hematite I made into a very cool bracelet for myself. These are the ones I can still conjure these 30+ years later.
I don’t think I knew that I was meeting the tip of the iceberg of my career at that point. I was just having fun making beautiful objets d’art. The post-college years consisted of working a social work job and two and a half years in West Africa serving in the Peace Corps. Beads! When I went to open air markets, I was utterly enthralled with the beads. Many strands of glass beads, plastic discs, agate gemstones, antique clay and the unaffordable on my Peace Corps salary, large amber beads. I purchased many beads, but interestingly, I didn’t make them into new objects. I cannot come up with a reason that I did not create something new from the strands except to say it wasn’t my genre.
I did find a gemstone at a market once. A rounded-corner rectangular agate. This piece felt like the true treasure among the objects I brought home from Africa.
When I began my career, making jewelry and hoping to be able to sell it, I set up an account with the jewelers’ supply company we had ordered from in school. I got a paper catalog as it was pre-internet time and I ordered silver in various forms of sheet and wire and then I perused the gemstone pages to see what I could afford. I heard from another jeweler at Woodland Art Fair in Lexington Kentucky, where I was showing my work, about a gem show up the road in Cincinnati. I couldn’t imagine what a gem show might be, but I was curious and so excited and scared. Scared? What if I fall in love with all the rocks and I cannot take them all with me? I mean to say that full-on passion emerges when I am presented with gemstones. I made a pact with myself: any rock purchased must be made into jewelry and sold at the next art fair. And so I did just that and the sales of pieces using carnelian, black onyx, hematite, mother of pearl, aventurine, paua shell, leopard jasper, snowflake obsidian, rose quartz and tiger eye were regularly shown in my booth at art fairs. As time went by, more pieces sold, I was able to step up my gem selection to include amber, boulder opal from Australia, larimar from Dominican Republic and garnet, amethyst and ocean jasper from Madagascar. So my lessons in gemstone buying began. I had purchased a small group of 15 gemstones of ocean jasper, which piqued my curiosity, just to see how it would be received at the shows. I quickly sold several pieces and added it to my list for the next gem show. I couldn’t find it at any vendor’s booth. When I inquired I was told it was all sold out or mined out or impossible to find. I was heart broken. This happened to me again with China Picture Jasper and Moldavite and even amber. For years and years I have only seen amber in ready-made jewelry at gem shows. Finally the lesson has been integrated and I know now that if I love a “new rock” as I like to call them (new on the scen