Baubles and Botanicals

by | Nov 1, 2013 | People

SMALL BOTTLES OF FINGERNAIL polish are neatly arranged in rows in a plastic storage box. The colors of polish range from pearly whites to sophisticated silvers and iridescent creams. It is important to Cathy Miller of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, to find the exact shade she wants. But Miller isn’t coloring her fingernails. In fact, she wouldn’t dream of personally wearing most of the colors.

The polishes are part of the botanical jewelry artist’s supplies needed to create one-of-a-kind artistic necklaces, bracelets, earrings, rings and pins. Miller also embellishes boxes, mirrors and other small items with botanicals.

Spray paint, glue, wax and silverleaf pens add to Miller’s inventory. But by far, her dried plant material takes center stage. Tiny storage bags, jars and boxes contain flowers, seeds, capsules, pods, stems, twigs, leaves, bark and other plant parts. Delicate vine tendrils may become part of a tiara; a calyx can be incorporated into a charm bracelet.

Some contemporary botanical jewelry artists use both native and non-native plant materials in their work. But many more are discovering what indigenous people have known for centuries: Native plants provide a wealth of stunning and suitable material for artwork.

When designing botanical jewelry and embellished creations, a native plant sometimes can be substituted for an exotic species – and in many cases become an improvement. Some natives can be more plentiful, less expensive, easier to obtain or more durable. Using natives for botanical jewelry also encourages the planting of natives in general.

Instead of the red corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas), for example, artists can consider the Celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) or California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), both North American natives. Or look for the yellowish-white ray flowers of common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), a good dried plant that can be used in place of many non-natives with similar blooms.

But remember that collecting plants or seeds from public gardens, parks or land owned by others for any purpose without permission is unethical and often illegal. Rare and endangered native plants should never be collected.

Once gathered, plants chosen for jewelry pieces can be dried by several methods, including sand, chemicals or heat.

“Most of what I collect is already dried. Other materials I like to air-dry,” says Miller, a Garden Club of America floral design judge who took her first botanical jewelry class 10 years ago. “I tell people who want to collect materials to keep their eyes open when they go for a walk or even when they are in a parking lot of a supermarket. You never know what you can gather from a ‘weed.’

“The winter garden is where you find a lot of materials. Even though the garden is down doesn’t mean you can’t find interesting shapes and colors. I like trees when they are gray skeletons. You learn to look beyond green,” adds Miller.

She particularly likes bristly greenbrier (Smilax tamnoides), a native vine found throughout much of the eastern half of the United States. Its tendrils make exquisite botanical jewelry components. To complete one of her most recent necklaces, Miller used tendrils from native crossvine (Bignonia capreolata). The plant pieces were gathered and donated to the botanical artist by the Ohio Governor’s Residence and Heritage Garden, a Wildflower Center affiliate.

Miller has won Best of Show, First Place and Curator’s awards at botanical jewelry competitions across the country. (Entries must not include endangered or locally invasive plant materials.)

“The object in botanical jewelry competition is to make the piece look as believable and real and wearable as possible,” says Miller. “Show themes – which have included everything from Hawaiian Royal Occasion to outer space – provide artists inspiration.”

The Garden Club of America judges its botanical jewelry entries with a point system that grades design, craftsmanship, originality, interpretation of theme and distinction. Key cards identify plants used in each entry.

Gay Estes is a former Wildflower Center board member and a botanical jewelry judge. She calls botanical jewelry a form of “recycling and reusing plants.” One of the “prettiest pieces” she recalls is “an acorn cap painted gold and three wonderful eggs (dried beans) in the nest painted a robin’s egg blue.”

“Botanical jewelry possesses the same as all art forms – the elements and principles of design – plus it takes great patience and a place to work undisturbed, as it is time-consuming to let the layers dry,” says Estes. “Everything that shows must be organic [except paint and finishes], so it is tricky to hide glue and backings. Craftsmanship is in the detail.

“Creativity wins the day in botanical jewelry,” adds Estes. “The art form gives new life to a plant. I also love all the seasons, as fall and winter are great times to harvest twigs, berries, roots and dried leaves.”

Carole Bailey of Houston, a member of River Oaks Garden Club, is an accomplished, nationally recognized floral arranger, botanical jewelry artist and floral design judge. She began by embellishing objects – picture frames, lanyards, shoes, mirrors and other common objects supplied by competition show coordinators. Fairy boxes and wizards’ wands have even been subjects to embellish.

“For one competition we were given harmonicas. I had no idea what I was going to do with it at first,” recalls Bailey.

Bailey gathers her plant materials, including natives, from her own garden, a ranch her family owns in West Texas and from travels around the country.

She sometimes uses white buckeye (Aesculus glabra var. arguta), with its spiny capsules containing black seeds, and Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa), with a threevalve dark-brown capsule. (The California buckeye [Aesculus californica] features a pear-shaped seed capsule and is the only native buckeye in the West.)

“I also made a pin whose center is a Texas buckeye. I just put one coat of finish on it and all of a sudden I have a black pearl. And the large bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) acorn cap makes the most precious little bird’s nest because it is fuzzy on top and goes every which way,” says Bailey.

“You can look at magazines and on the Internet for pictures of authentic jewelry for inspiration for a botanical jewelry project, but I really think that copying something does not give you a satisfactory result,” says Bailey. “Plants are not the same material. You aren’t dealing with gold and silver. Let the plant part dictate what you do.”

Because using native plants in modern botanical jewelry is not yet common, pieces with relatively unknown or underused native plant pieces may capture the judges’ eyes. Miller isn’t aware of any show ever asking for entries using all native plants. “But I think especially if the show is a historic one, that it would be very appropriate and unusual,” says Miller, who sometimes uses her husband’s discarded dental tools from his practice for fine precision work.

Botanical jewelry has one advantage over other botanical art forms because original colors don’t always have to be preserved since doing so requires a difficult and timely drying process. That means natives with less flashy colors aren’t at a disadvantage for selection.

“If I wanted to use a dried dogwood blossom, I can always paint it white with a green center to get it back to its original coloration. Or I can paint it a completely different color that isn’t found in nature,” says Bailey.

The artist’s number-one piece of advice for novice botanical jewelry makers? Don’t use anything with high water content because if it is not dry before assembly it will shrink, pull apart or turn to mush.

She adds, “Drying also allows you to shape things. You can use a block of Styrofoam and pins placed on the outside of native wild grasses to coax them into the shape you want them to dry.”

Bailey is looking forward to the April 16 -17 Florescence flower show in Houston, which includes botanical jewelry and embellishments. Other important venues for botanical jewelry include the Philadelphia International Flower Show and The Garden Club of Palm Beach’s flower show.

Although botanical jewelry artists use individual creativity in their extraordinary work, Miller humbly puts her talent into perspective: “God made these materials. I just take things that are already here and assemble them in another way.”

Special thanks to the New England Wild Flower Society and the Ohio Governor’s Residence and Heritage Garden for their help in identifying and gathering plant materials for this article.