Episode 224 Part 2: How Jennifer Merchant Continues the Tradition of Op Art in her Jewelry

Episode 224

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • Jennifer’s unique process of layering acrylic and art images, and how she discovered her signature technique.
  • Why the most important thing a young artist can do is find their voice.
  • Why Jennifer rarely uses images her customers request in her jewelry.
  • How Jennifer’s work ties into the history of pop and op art.
  • Why Jennifer sees other art jewelers as inspiration, not competition.

About Jennifer Merchant:

Jennifer Merchant is a studio t based in Minneapolis, MN. She graduated with a BFA in Metals and Jewelry from the Savannah College of Art and Design. She is a full-time artist showcasing her work in galleries, museums and exhibitions. Her work has been published in several national magazines such as American Craft, Ornament and Delta Sky Magazine.

Merchant is best known for her innovative layered acrylic process in which images and prints are layered between solid acrylic. Her work is graphic with clean lines and modern aesthetic. Pieces confound viewers, appearing transparent from one angle of view while showcasing bold patterns and colors from another.


“Op Art Fancy Drops”

“Pop Art Fancy Triangle Drops”

“Op Art and Gold Chain Link Necklace with Rubber Cord”

“Pop Art Circles Hinge Bracelet” profile view

“Pop Art Circles Hinge Bracelet”

“Pop Art Dome Statement Necklace” front view

“Pop Art Dome Statement Necklace”

“Pop Art Double Gem Ring”

Additional resources:


Like the op and pop art that inspires it, Jennifer Merchant’s jewelry challenges your eye. Clear from some angles and bold and colorful from others, the jewelry is created by layering acrylic with images from art books. Jennifer joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how she developed her technique; how she chooses the images in her jewelry; and why art jewelers need to work together to push the discipline forward. Read the episode transcript here.

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. This is the second part of a two-part episode. If you haven’t heard part one, please head to TheJewelryJourney.com.

Today, my guest is Jennifer Merchant. Jennifer was also a guest several years ago. She thought she would be a metalsmith but segued to acrylic jewelry, which is what she has become known for: creative and innovative acrylic jewelry such as necklaces, bracelets, earrings and brooches. They have eye-catching graphics embedded in them. I was also surprised to learn that hand carving is sometimes involved. Welcome back.

When you left college, did you know you were going to have your own business?

Jennifer: Not right away. I think it took me about five years to really get the confidence together to start my own business. I definitely spent that first five years after graduation very lost and not really sure what in the heck I was going to do with my jewelry degree, especially because I went to school in Savannah, Georgia. That’s where I made all my art connections and jewelry connections. Moving back to Minneapolis, I was off on my own. I didn’t have a community at that point. It definitely was a number of years of wondering, “How am I going to end up using this degree that cost me so much money?”

I had been waiting tables and was increasingly unhappy because I knew I had something different to offer the world. I ended up getting fired from a job. I had been speaking with a friend at work who had another friend that was putting on an art show. She had told me about it because she knew I was an artist. I remember getting fired from the job and calling her up right away, like, “I think I want to do that art show because I need to try to make some money.” It went okay, and it inspired me to say, “Jewelry is something you can do and make a living with. Let’s give this a shot.”

I had to move back home with my mom for a couple of years and cut my expenses way down, because I wasn’t going to take out another loan to start a business. I built it very small, very scrappy. I had a second bedroom in my mom’s house where I had my workshop, and I started from there doing little local events. That’s where it all started.

Sharon: Wow. What’s the biggest piece of advice you can give to somebody who’s just starting out?

Jennifer: I would say when you’re just starting out, really try to find your voice.

Sharon: What do you do? What does one do when they find their voice? For instance, some people have found the voice, but they’re homemakers or they work in an office. What do you do when you find your voice?

Jennifer: I think once you know what you want to say, the next step is finding out who wants to hear it. And that is a very hard step, finding your niche and finding your people that resonate with your voice. I think the only way to really do that is to get yourself out there, get your work out there.

I think with the Internet now and how accessible online stuff is, it might be a little easier to get yourself out there through social media, through the Internet, than maybe it was years ago when you had to have a physical presence out in the world. People can start by getting their work out there online and hopefully seeing who is interested, who connects with it, and then finding places in the real, outside world to continue that process and eventually find your market.

Sharon: Do you have people who come to you with the image they want to include already?

Jennifer: Not very often. I’ve had people ask me about that, but I think ultimately, I have to be drawn to the image specifically in order to be able to incorporate it in a piece. I did have a client that had a specific art piece she wanted in a bracelet for her daughter. That I was able to do because I resonated with the work and it was something that worked well within the form of jewelry.

I’ve also had requests where someone wants family mementos or something encased in the acrylic. That’s a very cool, sentimental thing, but visually, it doesn’t really work with my aesthetic as well. I’m not going to do something just because I get asked for it. I also have to be drawn to it enough in order to go through with it, because it is a labor-intensive process and it is an art of passion. If I’m not super excited about the thing I’m making, it’s probably not going to turn out that great either.

I have tried to do things early on in my career specifically for a client that just didn’t quite work out. We weren’t on the same page. I think as you get more into it, you figure out the types of things you can push the boundaries on and the types of things that you can’t. When someone’s request is something that you can do and make them happy with, and when it’s just not something that’ll work out, you know.

Sharon: That’s interesting. So if somebody brought you their wedding photo, it depends on whether you like the wedding dress or something like that.

Jennifer: Or if it has enough visual interest. I think the thing that makes my work successful is the images that I do use are interesting within a small scale of jewelry, and not all images can do that. I work with a lot of op art and pop art, and there’s a lot of visual interest going on in a small space. With a photograph or something more sentimental, that’s not always the case. It just wouldn’t look as cool as they think it’s going to.

Sharon: I’ve seen comic books used in your work. How did you come to that?

Jennifer: All of the things in my work that look like comic books are actually Roy Lichtenstein pieces. His pop art was inspired by comics, and he reimagined them into huge canvases and paintings. My jewelry does something similar, where I take Roy Lichtenstein’s work and images and collect tons of books and rip out those pages and put that in my jewelry. It feels kind of meta. I’ve actually met some of his descendants and collectors and friends over the years, and a lot of them assure me that he would really appreciate what I’m doing with his work. It’s a very similar idea as to how he repurposed art and things that he saw into something new and different.

Sharon: That’s interesting. I didn’t know that. Did you study art history in college as you were studying jewelry and metal and all that?

Jennifer: Yeah, art history is definitely part of your Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. It wasn’t always my favorite class because the art history classes were about art that was ancient and a lot of religious art and that sort of thing. I think I had one class where it was modern art in the 20th century, which, of course, is the most interesting to me.

But that art history background definitely sparked some interest in different art movements and art periods. Art Deco is a very favorite design motif of mine. As I was talking about earlier, I’m very inspired by pop art and op art. I think art history plays a huge role. I never thought at the time when I was in school that I would end up studying more about art history and specific artists and doing that kind of research, but it is really important to my work now.

Sharon: Can you explain what the difference between pop art and op art is?

Jennifer: Sure. With pop art, everyone knows Roy Lichtenstein and Warhol. They took popular things or everyday objects like a soup can and made them stylized and put them in the context of fine art as this kind of ridiculous thing. Op art deals with optical properties. A lot of op art is very linear. It kind of tricks your eye. It looks like it’s moving, but it’s a static image.

Funny enough, when I started working with op art, I was actually collecting those optical illusions books for kids. There’d be very few usable images in there, but there’d be a few black and white, scintillating-looking, squiggly-lined spirals or something like that. That sparked my interest in optical art and looking it up outside of the context of those silly books for kids. I found out this is a whole art movement, and there are artists like Richard Anuszkiewicz and Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley that pioneered this in the 60s, when it really became a thing. I just find it so fascinating. But it’s kind of funny that my two art movements that I use a lot in my work are pop and op. Like, who knew?

Sharon: Do you ever use any other kind besides those? You say you like Art Deco. I don’t know what you’d use for an image, but I guess you could use an Art Deco image.

Jennifer: I think with Art Deco I am more inspired by the overall forms of pieces or the shapes. I like the ideas. I like the repetitive nature of Art Deco. They went from Art Nouveau, where it was all crazy and ornate, and then Art Deco kind of simplified things. It was a little more streamlined. I really like that. I think I carry those design principles through my work, not as much the direct visuals. Although if I could find great books with Art Deco prints of patterns or wallpapers or whatever, I’d love to use those. I just haven’t quite found the right image sources yet for that.

Finding pop art and op art books has been pretty easy for me, and the images are just so striking, so that’s why I’ve gravitated towards those. I’m open to other types of art and other artists. I just haven’t moved on yet from the things I am working on. I can only focus on so many things at a time, but I could see myself doing some collections using Rothko paintings or Gerhard Richter with those interesting images, Jackson Pollock with the splashes. Those kinds of things I could see being very interesting within the context of layered acrylic. It just depends on where my book collection takes me.

Sharon: So, if we’re looking at used books at a used bookstore, we should keep our eyes open for interesting things that could be used as interesting prints.

Jennifer: Yeah. I actually buy so many of my books online because physical shops only have so many things, and what I’m looking for is so specific. The art sections are usually kind of small, so I’ve ended up finding a lot of online retailers. I’ve gotten pretty good at being able to figure out whether a book is going to be visually interesting based on the online listing. I will even look at the size of the book, if they list dimensions, to give me ideas. If it seems like a good coffee table art book with lots of pictures, that’s what I’m trying to find. Something with lots of great images.

Sharon: It sounds like people would be very interested in your leftovers.

Jennifer: I have a whole shelf of these books that are like little skeletons. You can see the sections where I’ve really gone to town ripping pages out, and then other sections that are left. There’s plenty of things I leave in the book that I think are amazing, but they just aren’t going to work for jewelry. Yeah, I’ve got a lot of skeleton books on my shelf. I keep them. I can’t get rid of them.

Sharon: I like that, skeleton books. Once again, it’s a Herculean task, the whole thing of starting your own business. Would you say that there is somebody that inspired you and keeps inspiring you?

Jennifer: I wouldn’t say it’s a specific person. I think after that initial, tiny show that I did trying to sell my work, I think the most inspiring thing was seeing the other artists and seeing people that were making a living doing their work. I think that’s what’s really inspiring to me, finally meeting other people that were already doing what I wanted to do and realizing, “Wow, this is a viable career path.”

There’s not a lot of artists in my family, so no one really had any advice to give me back in the day. They weren’t necessarily unsupportive, but they didn’t really know how to encourage my art, either. It’s been very helpful getting out there and seeing people that are doing things and just being inspired. Different artists and different people inspire me for very different reasons. Some artists, their work is the thing that inspires you, and other artists have such a great work ethic or a really creative way of marketing. I try to keep my eyes and ears open all the time, and I let inspirations muddle around in my brain. And then one day some other thing will trigger an idea. You just never know. I try to always be open.

Sharon: I’m surprised; I usually see you at shows where there are a lot of other art jewelers, which is what I categorize you as. I see art jewelers, makers a lot. I’m thinking of New York City Jewelry Week, which is where I saw you once or twice. The last time I saw you, I wasn’t able to say hello. I would think you’d be more—well, maybe it’s the way I am, but I’d be more envious or competitive seeing all the other art jewelers, as opposed to finding inspiration.

Jennifer: I don’t know. I don’t think of it as a competition in any way. I think it helps me a lot because my work is so different from everyone else’s, so there isn’t a super direct comparison. I think maybe for some other types of jewelers it might be a little different because there is more of a direct comparison with their aesthetic or their materials. In that respect, there isn’t really competition.

I used to be a lot more of a competitive person, but as I’ve gotten older and been in the business long enough and met all different artists, you just see that it’s so much more about passion and drive. You can be successful doing just about anything if you’re willing to put the work in.

I’ve met so many different people with so many different types of jewelry and art, and they’re successful in radically different ways. Even if some other artist is successful in a way that will never work for me, I still love learning about what they’re doing. Even if it doesn’t directly apply to me, there’s something in that lesson, in listening to them and their story that might click something for me in an indirect manner. So, I really do try to be open and inspired by everyone, and I definitely don’t see it as competition.

I think it’s great seeing more and more art jewelers getting work out there, making things that are big and bold and wild and weird materials. The more of it that’s out there, the better for all of us, because then the consumer or the client is seeing more of it out in the world. Then when they come across my work, it might not seem as weird or as off putting. They might get it a little bit faster and a little bit easier because of all the other people that came before me and all the people that are alongside me. I think working together as a community, being inspired by each other, helping each other be successful, that can only help all of us.

Sharon: Do you think when people first see your art, they don’t think of it as jewelry because it doesn’t have diamonds or emeralds? Do they think of it as a throw away, in a way?

Jennifer: Oh, yeah. I’ve had the gamut of reactions to my work, and it really depends on the setting it’s in as well as how people respond to it. There are definitely people out there that, to them, jewelry is diamonds and gold, and that’s fine. I might not be able to change their mind. Other people see the work and, right away, think it looks cool. Maybe they didn’t even know it was a bracelet, but they were drawn to it. Then when they find out it’s an actual wearable piece, they’re even more blown away. You never know what kind of reaction you’re going to get from people.

I’ve definitely had to do a lot of educating on my process and the materials because when someone sees a plastic necklace that costs $2,000, they kind of scratch their heads, like, “What is going on here?” And then I tell them all about the process and all the different steps and all the different things that went into it. Sometimes you win people over, and sometimes they’re like, “Why bother?” I just try to pay more attention to the people that are won over and interested. If they’re not, that’s fine. I know my work is not for everyone, and I’m okay with that.

Sharon: That’s an interesting philosophy. You’ve given me a different perspective as well on your jewelry. Thank you for being here today, Jennifer.

Jennifer: Yes. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

We will have photos posted on the website. Please head to TheJewelryJourney.com to check them out.

Thank you again for listening. Please leave us a rating and review so we can help others start their own jewelry journey.

Sharon Berman