Sunday, June 2, 2013

Making Abalone Jewelry

 It's hard to remember when I first used abalone pieces in jewelry but I think it must have been in the early 1970's. I remember buying some polished small cabochons at a bead store somewhere in downtown Los Angeles at about that time. And at the same time some that were called Korean abalone. They were pretty interesting although I think now that they were probably dyed. They were darker than ordinary abalone and had a lot of purple. I think the first time I ever saw abalone shell it was inlaid in some wooden boxes that my dad brought back from Korea where he was stationed in the army in the late 1940's. So anyway, sometime in the early 70's I started setting abalone cabochons in simple jewelry designs. I have never stopped doing that. What has changed is that now, for the most part, I only use abalone pieces that I have found here at the ocean around the Mendocino area where I live. In the picture to the right are two images of a typical haul from two different

 trips to the ocean to find pieces. After hunting for it up and down the coast, the most consistently productive place for  finding pieces that I want to use in jewelry is less than half a mile from downtown Mendocino on the headlands. I never go there without finding a double handful of useful pieces that have been tumbled, shaped and smoothed by the ocean waves and sand. Quite often I use them just as I find them, only polishing them to bring out the pattern and color. At other times I change them buy cutting them with a diamond saw and shaping them with diamond grinding and sanding wheels. Carlie uses many of the pieces that I cut and polish and sometimes cuts and polishes her own shapes.
 As you can see in the collages I created here using images of pieces that we've made over the last 30 years, we've used them in a lot of different design ways and I expect that will continue to the very end of our jewelry making life.

Sometimes I think to myself that by now I must have seen every possible variation of color and pattern of abalone but then, the next time I visit that special place at the ocean, I find something that is new, a variation I've not seen before.

If you ever decide to work with abalone, be careful if you grind or sand it. The dust can be very dangerous to get into your lungs. I only grind and sand it on wheels that get a constant stream of water to minimize dust, I do it outside my studio, I wear a good dust mask and I do it in moderation.
I've found that the best time to look is a little while after the tide has turned and is starting to come back in. Each time the waves rush in they expose new pieces of shell. I run back and forth with the waves trying, usually without success, not to get my shoes wet. Sometimes I'll be driving to Mendocino from where I live and I'll just have an intense urge to stop and look for abalone pieces. It's always a treat.
I'll pick up a lot of pieces and bring them all home and put them in a big pan of water so I can really see how they will looked when polished. After several days of evaluating, I'll pick the ones that have jewelry potential and put the others in the paths that surround the house and lead back to our workshop. They look especially beautiful on rainy days when they sparkle.