BY DAVID BRADLEY, News + Record Staff
PITTSBORO — Soft music fills the atmosphere and a small motor hums as goldsmith Jenny McLaurin creates and perfects her original jewelry.
Well-worn tools and a torch round out the workshop in the back of McLaurin’s by-appointment-only business at 18 East Salisbury St. in Pittsboro.
It’s in this small work space that McLaurin creates her distinct pieces of jewelry, infusing in each one the natural forms and organic shapes characteristic of her work. The artist fabricates her designs with sheets of gold, wire and gemstones to create one-of-a kind jewelry for each customer. Her customers come because they’ve heard of the work that she does; some clients are sons of previous customers.
A Pittsboro native, McLaurin’s work is in such demand that she has an eight- to 10-week waiting list for custom rings. It may take longer, since her original works are getting more complex and require more time to build.
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There is no average price; McLaurin prices her work based on the amount of gold and platinum and gemstone weight in a piece. Most rings start at $1,500 to $2,000, but the price increases with complexity and the metals used. Her most expensive piece was a bracelet made with 18- and 22-karat gold, blue-flash moonstone, rubies and blue diamonds.
Employing a variety of influences, historical references and modern designs, McLaurin challenges the notion that jewelry should be a rubber-stamped copy of works seen in a mall or on the internet.
In the showroom of her business, McLaurin’s work is displayed in glass showcases. In her workshop, she uses the tangible and intangible in her concepts and custom creations.
After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill with bachelor of arts degrees in fine arts and geography, McLaurin spent some time in a sales job.
In fact, she jumped into a career in jewelry creation almost by accident.
In 1996, she took an art class at the Penland School in Spruce Pine, near Asheville, and it showed her what she didn’t like. But it also guided the emerging artist towards a new direction. The class showed the students how to make metal etchings for printmaking.
“I had no interest in that, whatsoever,” McLaurin said. “But there was a woman in that class that owned a bead store, and knew how to do some basic metal smithing. She taught me how to put the saw blade in the harp , and she taught me how to use some tools. I learned how to light the torch, so I kind of learned it from another student. Then, because of that, I did an apprenticeship with Dallas Pridgen — he’s in Hillsborough now — then I apprenticed with another jewelry store for a little while.”
Now, 22 years later, and having been in her own store in several locations in Pittsboro, McLaurin creates jewelry with gold and platinum customized to clients’ needs, or to her own ideas. She says that the work she does is not just a job, it’s who she is.
A lot of her work, she said, involves placing older gemstones onto new, custom settings. But she takes it beyond the jewelry you might find in a mall kiosk. Her hand-made work is more intense, more personal, and more free-flowing.
“I bezel set or flush set everything,” McLaurin said. “I custom fabricate jewelry. I don’t cast. I buy sheet, and wire, and literally build every piece every step of the way. I refer to it as organic. I mean that in the descriptive sense, because it has leaves and tendrils, it feels like nature inspired.”
Nature is but one source of inspiration for her work; other ideas come from historical jewelry styles and motifs. Through the centuries there have been many styles of creation of personal ornaments involving stones and metals, and the artist does have a favorite.
“When I look at jewelry in museums, I’m always drawn to the very, very old, and the medieval period,” she said. “I like the heavy metal, the cabochon stones. I like the 22- and 24-karat golds. I think that influences a lot of what I do, but I’m not sure if it falls neatly into any category. There’s a lot of metal in what I do. I like the strong color of 22-karat and the cleanness of platinum. It shows off the gemstones better than 14-karat, which can be a weaker color.”
In addition to the tangible metals — gold and platinum — she works with, along with the gemstones, there’s an additional, invisible element that McLaurin adds to the creation process.
“I try to fill my pieces up that I build with joy and positivity and make sure that I’m putting nothing into this piece but love,” she said. ”Because this world can be a kind of a hard place to live in, I really want what I make to bring people joy, and I want you to put it on and think, ’Ok, I’m good now.’”
What is the process for creation of jewelry for a customer? How do you meet their needs? McLaurin says she gets ideas from what is said, and what is not said, by her customers. In order to represent their desires, she picks up ideas about their needs through body language, other jewelry they’re wearing, and what they say to help the artist create a unique design. The desire for a custom creation is different with each person, and McLaurin sees a lot of her customers searching the internet for ideas. It may take some time to get beyond the ordinary, everyday rings that you see online.
“Some people, it happens all the time, people come in and they’ll say ‘I want this,’” she said. “It happened a couple of days ago. Someone brought me a picture on their phone and they found it online, and said I want you to make me this ring. And I said, OK, I can make something similar. It won’t be exact; it will be similar. Have you ever seen my work?”
McLaurin then takes the customer on a journey to find out what they are really wanting to say with their jewelry. If they aren’t limited to what they find on the internet, what would they really like to get? When she gets to make a piece of jewelry for them, and fulfill their needs, its a rewarding process, she said. She listens to the customer in order to discover what they are looking for. She wants the jewelry to fit the wearer.
“I want you to put on this piece of jewelry and never take it off,” McLaurin said. “I want to you to be so happy every time you see it, and I want it to bring you a tremendous amount of joy. I want it to represent you. When I make it, I’m not making it for me, I make it for you. I’m trying to pick up on what you are telling me in your body language, to what you are saying to try to help you design a piece of jewelry that is yours.”
Once the artist talks and listens to the customer’s needs and creates concepts that fulfill these ideas, she begins with a set of drawings with the ultimate goal of the customers joy in wearing the work. If it’s beyond the desire of the customer, she’s missed the mark.
“So, I’m not trying to make things that are so far out there that you can’t wear it; I want you to wear it every day,” McLaurin said. “I want you to never want to take it off.”
There are custom productions that she makes for her customers, and many different concepts realized in her art for sale in the showroom. But among the rare stones like alexandrite, the gold necklaces, and the platinum bracelets, she does have a favorite work for her art.
“Engagement rings,” McLaurin said. “Those are so much fun. There’s so much hope. It’s an exciting process to be involved with that!”
After all this time in the business, McLaurin finds new joy in her work every day.
“Sometimes I am surprised that this is what I do,” McLaurin said. “After 22 years, I still can’t wait to go to work.”