Turning nature into wearable art
If you go ...
What: Elle Jay Jewelry, one of the vendors at the Minturn Winter Market.
Where: Downtown Minturn.
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.
More information: Visit ellejayjewelry.com to learn more. Elle Jay Jewelry can also be viewed in person at the Rocky Mountain Gem and Fine Jewelry shop at 7674 Grandview Ave. in Arvada.
Colorado jewelry artists Jennifer Buchanan and Lisa Bernal, of Elle Jay Natural Jewelry, recently had an experience that not very many just-starting-out artisans do — they saw their faces, several stories tall, broadcast across a billboard in Times Square in New York City.
“We are still shaking our heads,” Bernal said. “How did this happen?”
They had just started selling their jewelry online and at festivals. What started as a hobby had grown into a business plan and suddenly exploded into national exposure.
“Something is definitely working,” Buchanan said. “It’s been three months, and it’s just been incredible, the things that have been happening and the feedback we’ve been getting.”
How it happened
The two artists met each other about seven years ago in their “real world” jobs at a mental health clinic in Denver. Buchanan was a therapist and Bernal a manager. As they got to know each other, they discovered their mutual love of jewelry making and soon began creating new pieces together as gifts for friends and family.
When the clinic was bought out, both lost their jobs, which ended up giving them free time to dedicate to their art. Though now they’re both back working in their respective fields, they have worked to maintain time to set aside for jewelry making.
“It’s nice that we have that time to devote to it,” Buchanan said.
Now, Buchanan lives in Keystone, so she and Bernal commute between Summit County and Denver to get together for jewelry making.
From a friend, Buchanan learned about the Roots Retreat Festival taking place in Summit County in August. The two decided to use the music festival as a chance to sell some of their pieces in public.
“We liked the idea that it was small,” Buchanan said.
The festival offered them the opportunity to get their feet wet without diving headfirst into something too overwhelming.
The festival was a success. Not only did they sell a lot of jewelry — and turn down offers on their artistic booth setup — but they received enough positive feedback to give them the confidence to take the next step in their jewelry-making business.
“The word people kept saying is ‘unique’ because it is such unique art, everything is so one-of-a-kind,” Buchanan said. “That’s the sort of feedback we continually get … ‘Wow, what is that?’ (Then) people go in for a close-up (look) because it’s so different.”
The two created a website using Bernal’s design talents, and they quickly began receiving orders for the pieces they put up and requests for custom designs. They also began displaying their jewelry at Rocky Mountain Gem and Fine Jewelry in Arvada.
Their big break came when the women’s website, http://www.wix.com, went public on Nasdaq. It held a contest among its users, with a handful of winners to be placed in its Times Square advertisement. Bernal and Buchanan were elated when they learned they had made the cut.
“It’s just really cool,” Buchanan said.
Unique natural style
Buchanan and Bernal don’t work from molds. Every piece they design is unique, incorporating a varied collection of stones, sea glass, semi-precious stones and driftwood, connected by chain or, more often, straps of leather. They currently produce necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings, with plans for a men’s line coming soon.
“We like to work with as much natural material as we can,” Bernal said.
Recently, driftwood has become their main passion and focus. Both nurture a love for the sea — Bernal from childhood memories of visiting the Atlantic in Maryland and Buchanan from trips to the Texas gulf coastline. When they discovered driftwood could be a component of their artwork, they jumped at the chance and never looked back.
“We got it and an instant passion/love affair started happening,” said Bernal, who calls the beach “a little part of my heart.”
While Buchanan has made several trips out to the Pacific Coast, they get much of their driftwood pieces from a personal beachcomber, who sends them her beach finds. They also order pieces from shores as far off as England and Greece.
When starting a new piece of jewelry, they choose an element such as a piece of driftwood or stone and allow it to dictate its creation.
“It’s just a continual source of inspiration to pick up a piece of wood and sit with it and find out what it wants to be,” Bernal said.
The two artists do everything by hand, from wrapping their own wire to drilling holes through the driftwood, a practice that Bernal has unexpectedly found to be therapeutic. Both she and Buchanan enjoy the entire process of creating their jewelry — that’s what started the whole endeavor, after all. A single piece of jewelry can take up to several hours to design, depending on its size and intricacy. But rather than view it as a chore, the two artists thrive on the time they spend creating.
Bernal said, “There’s something about it where you’re taking it from something found to …”
“… this little unique piece of art,” Buchanan finished.
Art has been a lifelong passion for both women, grabbing them at an early age and never letting go. Bernal recalls begging her mother for a pair of jewelers’ pliers at age 11. She still uses that exact pair today. Rocks always fascinated Buchanan, and she often saved up her allowance money to buy geodes and split them open.