Art jewelry designer Jennifer Merchant is known for her innovative, layered acrylic technique, which gives her pieces a distinctive, colorful look. She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about her journey from metalwork to working with Lucite and acrylic, and how she hopes to combine the two in the future. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone, welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, my guest is Jennifer Merchant, an art jewelry designer who creates jewelry for the fashion-conscious, using a layered acrylic technique that makes her jewelry appear vibrant from one angle and transparent from another. She’ll tell us about her distinctive work as well as her jewelry journey on today’s podcast. Jennifer, thanks so much for being here.
Jennifer: Thank you so much for having me.
Sharon: So glad that we could work it out. Tell us about your jewelry journey. How and when did you get interested in jewelry, and is it something you knew you wanted to do from a young age?
Jennifer: I have always been in love with jewelry. I was always getting into my mother’s jewelry box, my grandma’s jewelry box. I was losing jewelry pieces at the age of two, because I was trying to wear things that were too big. I always wanted to get the jewelry in the toy aisle at the drug store. I put on all of my plastic bangles at once. I always wanted to be fancy and wear adult things and be beautiful and have all the sparkles. It’s not surprising that it’s something I do for a living now.
Sharon: How was it that you segued into Lucite or layered acrylic? How did you get to art jewelry from sparkles and pearls?
Jennifer: In high school, I actually thought I was going to college for fashion design. Then, I took a couple of jewelry classes my senior year and started learning metalsmithing, and I thought, “Wow, this is really cool, so scrap the whole fashion degree. Let’s go to school for jewelry.” I went to Savannah College of Art and Design and learned all the traditional metalsmithing techniques—what art jewelry actually was and that you could make things that weren’t just a stone on a chain. I learned you could do something really different and have a story with your pieces.
When I graduated from college and moved back to Minneapolis, I didn’t have a ton of tools and equipment to work in metal anymore, but I had always liked carving. I liked the lost-wax casting process, where you carve waxes. I had carved a little bit of Lucite when I was in school and incorporated it into metal pieces. So, I knew there were other materials that you could carve and not have to cast them into metal, and not have to have all of those tools and equipment. That’s when I started experimenting. I had a bunch of plexiglass sheets left over from a project and a bunch of fashion magazines, and I thought, “Well, I can carve plain acrylic, or maybe I can layer some pictures in there and make it more interesting, add some color.” The minute I started doing that, I was really struck by how interesting it was, that you would have these bright, colorful images from one side, and then you’d look at the piece straight on from the other side and it would just be see-through. The more you carved and manipulated the acrylic, the more the image underneath it also changed, and I thought that was just fascinating. I didn’t even think about doing metalwork anymore, and I started focusing more and more on this really interesting technique and how I could get that to work. It was inexpensive to do. I didn’t need a lot of tools and equipment at the time. So it was a transition out of necessity. I had to find a way to make art, to make something beautiful with what I had.
Sharon: Wow! I’ve seen a lot of your jewelry, which is really beautiful and colorful, but I’ve never thought about the fact that you’re carving the Lucite or the acrylic. How do you do that?
Jennifer: I use a combination of woodworking tools and traditional metalsmithing tools. One of the biggest tools I use is the flex shaft, which is a typical jewelry tool. It’s a hand piece with a motor that spins. You can use all different bits and burrs to carve in different shapes. That’s for more detailed finishing work. I use a scroll stock to actually cut my pieces out. I’ll design a template, maybe I’ll use CAD (computer-aided design) or a computer system to make the outline, but everything else is done by hand. I cut out the piece following the template that I print. Once I have the shape roughly cut out, then I can take it to my grinder. I use a disk sander and it has a table that can move at different angles. When I’m doing a faceted bracelet that has all these different planes, I can actually put that grinding table at different angles and get a 30° angle, then a 60° angle, etc. There’s a lot of hand sanding that happens after you actually carve and shape the piece so it’s smooth. Then I take it to a buffing miller and use a polishing compound, and that’s how I get it to be shiny and smooth and transparent again after all of the carving is done.
Sharon: Wow! I know all of your things are hand-done, but I think I’ll be looking at them more deeply going forward.
Jennifer: It’s kind of funny that when you make it very precise, even though you’re doing it by hand, people can look at it and think that it’s machined in some way because it’s exact. It’s sometimes funny to talk about the process with clients. They already enjoy the pieces, but then when they find out all of the work that goes into them and all the craftsmanship, it is an extra special thing.
Sharon: Yes, that’s a lot of work there.
Jennifer: Yeah, it is. That’s the unglamorous part. When I’m at shows and I’m seeing people like you, that’s when it’s fun. Everyone’s around and you have all your work out and it looks really glamorous. But the behind the scenes is definitely a different story.
Sharon: Every time I see you at a show or elsewhere, I’m always struck by the fact that you have a lot of friends and community around you, which always makes me smile. Can you tell us about your jewelry community and how that’s been important to you, or how it’s impacted your work?
Jennifer: The community is very important. The art jewelry community is quite small, so a lot of the artists, we all know each other. Once you start getting into the show circuit and your work with similar galleries, there are very few avenues to sell high-end art jewelry, so you do connect with everyone and have a relationship. Most of us spend our time working by ourselves and when you’re out at a show, it’s a completely opposite experience. We’re all so excited to be inspired by everyone and to say hello. You normally just see a few of their pieces online here and there, and you know they exist, but then you remember, “Oh well, I do know all of these people.” It’s great, because most times I’m just sitting in my studio alone staring at a machine. It’s nice to get out and to see people in person. I don’t get to do it as much as I used to, but it is fun. We do all get very excited to see each other and the cool, new work, because you can’t post everything online. I haven’t updated my website in a long time. There’s a lot of interesting things you can only see if you’re in person. So, it is nice to see what people are up to and get more ideas for your own work, and also to feel like there are other people out there doing this. They also struggle. It’s nice to be reminded that there is a community, and we are all trying to do it. If you really need some help or guidance, there are people to reach out to.
Sharon: That is very important. It’s like if you’re a writer or working from home. That could be very isolating. When I do see you, it’s like everybody is excited, and that’s really nice. Is there a message you want to communicate through your work, or is it more, “This is just something I’m creating and I love it?”
Jennifer: I think I’m more of a “I want to make pretty things” person, and as long as I’m interested in the process or something about it, it’ll inspire me to keep making things. I don’t think about narrative or a specific message. I do think that in making the pieces the way I do, there are messages in them that people can experience, but it’s not something I’m consciously putting out there. The biggest thing I’m trying to do through my work is to show people the material. A lot of people have this connection with jewelry that it must be precious—it’s diamonds and gold and that kind of thing. I really want to show that it doesn’t need to be about the material. You can use any material. It’s about transforming that material and being able to express yourself through your jewelry and accessories. You’re able to show what kind of person you are through the things you curate on the body. For me, it’s more about transforming the materials and speaking through those, and inspiring people that you can go beyond the gold and diamonds and try something fun and have something personal to you.
Sharon: It’s a good message. What trends are you seeing among your colleagues in the world of art jewelry and your clients? Are you seeing different trends from collectors? The art jewelry community is small, but are you seeing growth?
Jennifer: I think there’s definitely growth. I’m seeing fellow artists that are collaborating with really big fashion designers and things like that. I enjoy seeing that, because I think for art jewelry to really have staying power and to expand, it needs to be viewed by a wider audience. Whether or not those people become collectors is a different story, but if it gets out there more, that’s a trend I like seeing. I don’t think too much about trends because the more focus on a trend, the more you’re following something. I like to just be conscious of what’s happening around me. I’m a visual person, so I like to take all of it in, and it kind of muddles around in my brain, and then hopefully I’m producing something that’s different. I try to be more of a trendsetter than a trend follower. That’s my goal. Definitely, really big statement pieces are very popular. It’s nice to see people have more confidence in expressing themselves and wear larger, bolder pieces. Of my fellow artists that are doing really well, they’re getting themselves out there and making big, bold work that’s really interesting to look at.
Sharon: Bold is really coming to the forefront. Even when I’m watching newscasters on TV, they’re wearing these big necklaces, something they never would have done five or ten years ago because everybody was afraid. Now, everybody’s wearing dangling earrings and big pins and big necklaces, which is great to see, except sometimes I want to say, “Hey, I do that. I did that a long time ago.”
Jennifer: Trends are cyclical and there are ups and downs. We definitely went through a thing a few years ago where teeny, tiny, dainty jewelry was back in fashion. I see that kind of thing and I’m like, “That’s cute, but if you can’t see it from ten feet away, why bother?” That’s my philosophy.
Sharon: That’s interesting, and we could get into a much bigger discussion, but there are definitely markets where dainty jewelry is still the thing. I’m like, “You need to wear 20 of those necklaces at once.”
Jennifer: To see anything.
Sharon: Yes, I’m with you. Where do you want to go from here? Do you think you’ll continue in acrylic, or have you been thinking about other materials? What’s on your wish list?
Jennifer: At this point, I’m right in the thick of this process. I’m finally to a point where I’ve perfected it enough where it’s going pretty well, and I can get bolder with it and do it at a larger scale. So I’m definitely going to focus on the acrylic for a while longer. I’m sure at some point, I will have worked through enough things where I might move on or incorporate different materials. I do want to start incorporating more of my metalsmithing background. I’d like to make bigger statement pieces, ones that are more time-consuming. So far, I’ve been carving more simple forms because it’s less time-consuming, but I would like to start carving more complex forms. Because those forms are more complex, they’re more expensive. So, I want to treat them differently and fabricate more metal components to connect them together, and connect traditional jewelry with my more futuristic, modern jewelry aesthetic.
I’ve also been working on some sculptures recently. It’s very interesting to not have the constraint of wearability, especially with material that can get heavy as it gets larger. I would definitely like to explore the sculpture realm more as well and start playing more with scale and how to solve the problems of the layering process as it gets larger and larger. Those are the kinds of things I’m going to focus on for the next several months, and then who knows. Life is hopefully long and I’ll get to try a bunch of things, but for now, that’s what I’m most excited about.
Sharon: It sounds fabulous. When you talk about combining the metalsmithing with the Lucite and acrylic, I imagine you can do some really creative things. Not that you’re not doing them now, but that could be fabulous.
Jennifer: I was always really interested in mechanisms, clasps and fabricating components that worked and moved, so I’d also like to try to make collections where the pieces are convertible or they can do multiple things. You can have a big, dangly pair of earrings where part of it can be removed, and you have them for everyday wear or you can make them bigger. I really want to explore those types of things.
Sharon: That sounds great. I know it’s a challenge. You have to produce so you can have an income, but at the same time, I’m sure your mind is spinning in different directions.
Jennifer: Yeah, I try to use the opportunities I have. I was just invited to do an exhibition this summer with Pistachios gallery in Chicago. Every time I get invited to do a little feature or something, I try to push myself to create at least one or two things for that opportunity that go beyond what I’ve already been doing. I try to use those as an excuse to develop something new, and so far, it’s gone fairly well. Every time I do something bigger and bolder and crazier, there’s somebody that wants to buy it, thankfully. You do have to produce and you do have to pay your rent and keep it going, but I’m not one that wants to do the production line. I do a fair amount of quasi-production jewelry. Thankfully, because of my imagery, they’re all still one of a kind, which keeps it exciting for me. But yeah, I want to go in the direction of larger, bigger, crazier pieces versus churning out multiples of things.
Sharon: I can’t wait to see them. The larger, the crazier, the better. Jennifer, thank you so much.
To everyone listening, that wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts. We’ll have Jennifer’s website and contact information up in our show notes, and please rate us when you do go and subscribe. Ratings are what podcasts live on, so we really appreciate any ratings. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
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