About Mountain Girl Silver
“You’re not a mountain girl, you live in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.”…
Ah yes, how many times have I heard that one?
I was born and raised in the central Sierra Nevadas of California. They say you may be able to take the girl out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl. My childhood was epic, the kind you read about in books. I grew up on a lake, surrounded by pines and firs. The kind of place that when it snowed 8 feet in one night, school was cancelled and you could walk in the middle of the forest and be deafened by the silence. It was the kind of place that when I came upon a bright red snow flower poking through the white snow, the whole world stopped. I searched for arrowheads and Indian beads, amethyst and treasures along the lakeshore. When I was old enough, I worked at the ski resort in the winter and on the docks at the lake in the summer. It was such an amazing place to grow up. Small towns can grow even smaller as you grow up, so immediately after I graduated high school, I enlisted in the United States Coast Guard. I knew there was a big wide world outside of my little small mountain town, and I was eager to explore it.
The Coast Guard took me to many places and I met a lot of amazing people, many who I still am in contact with today. When you’re out at sea, your shipmates are your lifeline. The friendships I made during that time in my life are the kind you don’t lose contact with. And oh my gosh, the sea stories I have…. maybe one day I will write a book. Being out at sea, with no land in sight from the flying bridge of a ship is the most amazing feeling. I felt so small, so insignificant. A lot of personal growth happens out at sea.
In 1998 I met my husband. I received orders to the Coast Guard Cutter Mellon out of Seattle Washington where he was already stationed, and all it took was one look at each other as I crossed the brow of that ship and we both just knew we were meant to be together. Our love story is complex and full of scandal (as you can imagine), and maybe one day I’ll write another book on that! HA!! That one would definitely be a best seller! ;c)
Got married in 2000 and had Anders in 2001. It never was any question that I would be a stay at home mom. At the time, financially, it wasn’t easy, but we did it and made it work. Eric continued on with his career in the Coast Guard in San Diego, Ca and shortly after Anders was born, we got orders back to Seattle.
9/11 happened and everything changed. Eric decided to get out of active duty and joined the reserves. We lucked out and he got a position here in Portland, Oregon as a federal agent and quickly had to leave for 6 months for law enforcement training, leaving Anders and I behind. Flying solo with a baby isn’t easy, but I look back on those months and wonder if thats the reason Anders and I created such a tight bond. It was just the two of us, in a new town, new people.
2003 rolled around and we bought our very first home here in West Linn, Oregon. A year later Maggie was born. We had the house, the kids, the dog, a beautiful view and I still felt like something was missing in my life. Being a stay at home mom is great, but going from full blown active duty to being married with kids almost overnight took a toll on me mentally. I was contemplating massage school. I was contemplating going to college. I was looking at taking the civil service test to become a postal worker. I knew I needed SOMETHING, I just didn’t know what that something was. I laid awake at night thinking of ways to make money from home, something to keep my mind stimulated. Obviously working outside of the home with two small kids would’ve likely cost more than it was worth because of day care and all that. So I just kept my head down and continued to believe something would eventually happen for me.
Then in 2006 it finally happened. I saw a necklace on a friend of mine that had her two kids names hand stamped on two small silver disks and immediately I wanted one. Money was sooooooo tight, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that little necklace. And then it hit me…. I’ll just try to make one myself. Of course we didn’t have the money for me to order all the things I needed to get started. So I was talking with my mom one day and I told her my idea and within a week, she had sent me a check for $300 to get some basic tools and supplies. To this day I still have her note that she wrote to me “Hi Honey, Good luck on your new adventure. I love you, Mom”
I did hours and hours of research on metal gauge, stamps, hammers, work areas, and then I was able to finally get started. I made up some ridiculous business cards and made myself a necklace and wore it to Anders’ preschool one day. Well, that’s all it took. Word of mouth traveled through that Montessori school like wildfire and before I knew it, I was making close to 20 necklaces every single day. 20 turned into 100 almost within a few weeks. I dove in with both feet and worked my ass off. I’d sometimes crank out 300 disks in one day. Silver was at a measly 10 bucks an ounce then, so my profit was through the roof. Being self taught, and not knowing a THING about running a business, I made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot of good lessons the hard way. And to this day, I continue to learn lessons the hard way. I’ve accepted that it’s the only way I learn things….. the things that truly matter anyway.
I stamped every single day for 10 years. I stamped thousands and thousands of names. Stamped so many names that I could recognize where in the country the order came from just by the names they named their kids. At one point I thought about writing a baby name book, but it would’ve been entitled “What NOT to name your kids.” I wish I had counted how many times I had to stamp the name “Benjamin” on a 1/2” disk. I’m guessing well into the thousands, and I’m not exaggerating. I can stamp in my sleep. I can close my eyes and touch my stamps and pull letters without even looking. I was a stamping machine.
Around 2015 I started dabbling with precious metal clay. Stamping grew mundane and I was always seeing the most insane PMC pieces online, so I gave that a shot. I bought a used kiln from a gal nearby and dove right in. I made hundreds and hundreds of fingerprint pendants. I went to funeral homes to pick up prints and visited my fair share of dying loved ones at their bedsides to get their fingerprints. It wasn’t easy, but to be able to hand a grieving mother or a grieving family member a fingerprint made out of silver was the best feeling. It was that tangible thing they could wear around their neck that was the closest they could get to actually feel their lost loved one. Buffing out the patina on the lines of a fingerprint never got old. And then silver began to skyrocket.
In 2016 I wanted to start setting stones. I had never been into stones or turquoise or any of that. I had always loved jewelry as a kid, and always had a ring on every finger. I went through my huge “bead” phase as a teenager of the 80’s and 90’s, but I never really got into turquoise or big statement jewelry. So with just a hammer, a big benzomatic torch from home depot and some scrap silver from a pendant I tore apart, I set my first pendant. I remember it, it was a tear drop ammonite stone I bought on eBay for like 10 bucks. I had no freaking clue what I was doing, but I was determined to figure it out.
Then I went on a stone buying bender. We are talking THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS of dollars worth of stones here. I remember looking through a tool catalog and just being so confused. I had a pair of needle nose pliers, a regular hammer, a couple files from home depot, my big ol torch, my easy paste solder syringe, sandpaper, and a saw. I didn’t even know what a soldering block was, and I’d take my pieces out to my slate patio out front and construct them out there on the tile, squatting down on the ground so I could solder them. I remember even using my kitchen tongs to pick them up. I didn’t even know what pickle was. But again, I was determined to get good at silversmithing. I caught on quickly and kind of found my own way of doing things, all by hand.
Then in 2019 right before the pandemic hit, I had the wild idea of getting into lapidary. I was tired of spending so much money on stones, and figured I could teach myself how to cut them. So I started hunting online for a used lapidary machine and luckily found a 1968 Highland Park B-12 combo unit just down the highway for 500 bucks! I went and picked that rust bucket up and brought it home and tore it apart and cleaned it and oiled it and got it working properly. It sat in my garage for a few months calling my name, but I was just so busy smithing that I didn’t jump right in. I admit, I was incredibly intimidated. Silversmithing is one thing, but lapidary was something that really intimidated me at first. I procrastinated for about 6 months. I didn’t know what wheel grits to buy. I didn’t know what sequence to follow. And let me tell you, there isn’t a whole bunch online either, tutorials or videos or forums. I was blindly jumping into something I literally knew NOTHING about. In fact, I often tell people this, but my whole life I always thought “rock people” were weird. I remember as a kid, I was at a craft fair, and there was this big ol hairy bearded guy that was smoking a pipe with a big table of rocks and cabochons. He wasn’t scary, I just thought he was weird. And I held onto that impression all these years, and thought all “rock people” were just weird. Rocks really never interested me. I knew what malachite was, and lapis, obsidian, amethyst, the ones you see everywhere, but I didn’t know anything about geology or minerals or any of that.
I got my wheels finally, rebuilt that machine, put it all back together and then the pandemic hit. What else was there to do being stuck at home for two years???? Well, I used that isolation to teach myself how to cut cabochons. I bought a few pounds of hubei turquoise and just went for it. Had ZERO CLUE what I was doing. ZERO. My first few cabs were pretty wonky, but I had set enough of them to know what shape and form I was going after. I knew I didn’t like setting super domed cabs, and I knew I hated setting stones with angled tables, so I just started cutting them the way I wanted them, to make them super easy and clean to set. At that point I was just cutting stones for myself, for my jewelry, and had no intention of selling any of them. That changed pretty quickly when I found myself in front of that machine day after day, just cranking out hundreds of cabs, honing my skills. The abundance of stones in this house was absurd. And thats when I decided to try selling them on Instagram. It was important to me to define my cuts before trying to put them out into the silversmithing community.
Here we are a couple years later, it’s 2022, and the only regret I have is that I wish I would’ve got into lapidary long long ago. Cutting cabochons, setting them in my jewelry, and being able to sell them to make a good living is truly a dream come true for me. I don’t anticipate ever getting burnt out on what I do. I firmly believe my body will have to give out long before I ever tire of being a maker. When you are an artist, you grow addicted to creating. Creating feeds that hunger in your soul to make something from nothing, as it is the ultimate feeling of accomplishment. I will always be a maker. I look around and can’t imagine my life doing anything else but what I do. I fly fish on my off time, and I’m almost an empty nester now with Anders 21, a senior at Montana State and Maggie 17, a senior in high school. I often wonder what retirement will look like for Eric as he comes to the end of his federal career. But as for me, I will forever be an artist and a creator. Thank you for being here!