Lee Marraccini Volume 39.1

AQUA DOLCE NECKLACE of eighteen karat yellow gold set with natural surface and faceted aquamarines, 40.64 x 5.08 x .64 centimeters, 2010. Photographs by Pam Perugi Marraccini.

 

On a mid-April morning Lee Marraccini is in his element, talking about his work in his shop, Angelo Jewelry, which he opened in 1998 in the old Michie Building on the downtown mall in Charlottesville, Virginia. Wearing gloves with their tips cut off, Marraccini shows off a ring featuring handcarved mother of pearl with eighteen karat gold and silver and diamond accents. The piece is stunning in its simplicity and depth—like the jewelry equivalent of Venus on a half shell.

ANCIENT PEARL COLLECTION RING of eighteen karat yellow gold, fine silver and sterling silver with carved mother of pearl and inset diamond, 1.53 centimeters diameter, 2015.

      The ring is a part of Marraccini’s latest collection, which he has been developing over the past two years. The mother of pearl came from his wife, Pam Perugi Marraccini’s grandfather’s collection of materials. From Carrara, Italy, one of the marble centers of the world, stone sculptor Araldo Perugi came to America in the early 1900s. He worked on a number of projects in the northeast. One of the altars at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City is inlaid with the same mother of pearl that forms the foundation for this new collection.

Marraccini points to its unusual thickness: “The shell creature must have been really big,” he surmises. He discovered that he could carve into it and not lose the pearlescent quality of the surface. He has made bracelets, pendants and other ornaments from these remnants of Araldo’s altarwork.

Turning to a set of chrysoprase earrings with sapphire accents, Marraccini points out how they have great movement. He carved the warm green mineral stone into matching ovals, setting them off in scroll frames. He prides himself on an exceptional ability to shape stones on a wheel. That special talent has led to jewelry that is warm, clean, linear—and playful.

Marraccini has just returned from the American Craft Council show in St. Paul, Minnesota, which he feels is one of the most creative in the country. He enjoys meeting local artists from the greater St. Paul/Minneapolis area whom he does not see at other shows. “It’s good to see younger people coming back into the trade,” he states.

EARRINGS of carved green chrysoprase with faceted blue sapphires and diamonds in hand-fabricated eighteen karat yellow gold, 5.33 x 1.78 centimeters, 2013.

      One of the artist’s favorite gatherings is the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) GemFair held every winter in Tucson, Arizona. As a “serious rock fanatic,” Marraccini can satisfy his jones for stones in a major way. “You usually end up buying something you weren’t planning on buying,” he says, “but it always works out.” He describes the expanse of the show with awe, the way the fair spills out from the convention center into the streets. “You can get anything from a twenty-five-cent pyrite to a piece of fossilized tree,” he reports, adding, “The hard part is not spending money.”

The show, Marraccini has found, is a “kick starter” for design. “You come across a stone you’ve never seen before or an abundance of a stone you weren’t able to obtain in the past.” Several of his lines have started with Tucson finds. About ten years ago, for example, he started working with natural surface lines, picking out stones whose surfaces he could highlight without cutting. The Dolce series was born. “The Tucson show was key,” he says, “because I could find rough stones.”

Looking at a bracelet from the Dolce collection in one of the cases in his shop, Marraccini lists the six natural stones in the line-up: aqua, peridot, amethyst, citrine, tourmaline, and garnet. The stones have been laid over mother of pearl. “You can see the juiciness of the piece—that’s why I call it dolce, it’s sweet like rock candy.” He notes that to create such a piece you need to have a level surface, but enough saturation of color. “It can’t be too translucent,” he explains.

SPRING GOLD BRACELET of eighteen karat yellow gold with inlaid natural black jade and flushed set black and white diamonds, 16.51 x 1.27 x .64 centimeters, 1995.

      While recognizing that the work and travel that goes into participating in fairs may not always bear the financial rewards he seeks, Marraccini loves meeting up with close friends to talk art and business. These trips also double as scouting expeditions. His shop in Charlottesville carries the jewelry of more than twenty artists, offering a wide-ranging showcase of contemporary jewelry design from across the U.S. Featured jewelers include Belle Brooke, Reiko Ishiyama, Paul Morelli, Judith Neugebauer, Jayne Redman, Bree Richey, and David Urso. The work of several Charlottesville-area artists is also on display, including that of Tavia Brown and Gabriel Orfiesh.

Marraccini’s wife Pam is director of Angelo Jewelry. Her photographs of Italy are hung on the walls. She made a living as a wedding photographer, but gave it up after developing shoulder issues. Since the arrival of grandchildren, the couple has limited their travels to going “where they are.” Daughter Marisa is a postdoctoral fellow in clinical psychology at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Their son Marco works for an architecture firm in Culver City, California.

Marraccini and his son collaborated on the MarcoLee collection. They were interested in trying 3-D printing. With Marco’s familiarity with the CAD design system, they were able to create a line of intricate and intriguing pieces. An eighteen karat yellow gold and oxidized sterling silver icosahedron pendant with turquoise and rubies brings to mind the designs of M.C. Escher. Marraccini uses a company in New Jersey to do the casting; “I send them the sketch, they send back the design; I tweak it and then they cast it.” The process is expensive, but to get someone to carve it in wax is becoming increasingly difficult.

MARCO LEE COLLECTION ICOSAHEDRON PENDANT of oxidized sterling silver and eighteen karat yellow gold set with sleeping beauty turquoise and rubies, CAD designed and 3-D printed, 2.39 x 2.79 centimeters, 2012.

      A lot of Marraccini’s work remains hands-on, as a trip to his studio proves. Located in a line of brick buildings by the railroad track about a block or so behind his shop, the space is filled with the accoutrements of a full-blown jewelrymaking operation—benches, diamond saws, polishers, drawers of stones, stations for soldering and for other parts of the jewelrymaking process. On one table is an assortment of washers purchased from Hoover and Strong that Marraccini has incorporated into his work.

In speaking about the jewelry business, Marraccini traces the ups and downs. He began to see the beginning of a downturn in 2000 when several of the stores that carried his work closed. At the time, he had a bustling studio with as many as nine people working for him, plus a couple of apprentices. A series of setbacks, including having his jewelry stolen while at a fair in Winter Park, Florida, led him to begin paring down his operation.

Today, the team consists of Marraccini and Carol Rohmann Greene. He also lends space to jeweler Avery Groves who lives in nearby Afton, Virginia. While Marraccini misses his crew, which included an in-house caster, he continues to design like crazy, turning to a blackboard in the studio to work out new combinations.

CAROL ROHMANN GREENE, Marraccini’s assistant, working at her bench.

      “I’m really passionate about the jewelry I’m making now,” Marraccini states, even as he acknowledges that the winds of commerce blow hot and cold. His store is doing well this year, which allows him to design more and continue to attend shows. He credits his wife with helping to turn the business around. He also does a “decent amount” of custom work and offers general repairs, resizing and laser welding, as well as inlay work.

Marraccini’s journey began in 1947 in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, just south of Pittsburgh in the Monongahela River Valley. He grew up above Angelo’s Bar, which was owned and run by his father, Angelo Marraccini. After his father passed away in 1959, his mother took over the bar “and kept it.”

Marraccini graduated from Penn State in math education. He taught at the North Bethesda Junior High School. Not long after he married Pam, a third grade teacher, in 1972, she decided to take a class in pottery at an art studio in Washington, D.C. Wanting to accompany her through the dark city streets, Marraccini enrolled in the only other available class: jewelry. That is how he got started, learning the ropes from silversmith Dorothy K. Gordon, who specialized in hollowware.

Marraccini considers his “main talent” to be “designing by parts.” Starting with sketches on the blackboard, he develops concepts for new pieces and watches them “metamorphose” through metal manipulation, fabrication, casting, and stone inlay.

      In 1973, the Marraccinis took off in their van, outfitting it with a bed and camp stove. “You would call us hippies now,” Marraccini notes, “but we didn’t consider ourselves that back then.” At one point they went to visit a friend in San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico and ended up staying for three months, taking courses at the Escuela de Bellas Artes, an art school housed in the cloister of a former convent. “For thirty-two dollars a month, you could take four full-time art classes,” Marraccini recalls. Having never attended art school, he signed up for jewelry, drawing, guitar, and ballet. “Why not?” he thought at the time.

When things started to get a little crazy in Mexico, the pair returned to the East Coast. On their travels, they had met some friends who lived in West Virginia so they set up camp in Paw Paw, a small town located on a bend of the Potomac River “in the middle of nowhere.” They took up organic gardening and barely survived.

 

BLACK & WHITE COLLECTION ELEMENTS of eighteen karat yellow gold and sterling silver set with natural black jade and mother of pearl inlay, ranging in size from .64 to 1.91 x .95 centimeters, 2006.

 

      It was at that point that Marraccini made his fateful decision: to figure out how to make jewelry that he wanted to make and that people would want to buy. He made a commitment to this vision, stuck with it, and began to gain traction. He launched Moondance Silver and began making the rounds of craft shows. Around this time, West Virginia was becoming “a little too wild.” Floods and harsh weather, along with isolation, inspired the pair to seek out a new place to set down roots. Pam suggested Charlottesville; they moved there in 1984.

While much of his learning took place while residing in Paw Paw, Marraccini had some terrific teachers along the way, including Heikki Seppa, Ronald Hayes Pearson, Robert Ebendorf, and James Meyer. He learned rendering from Ivy Ross and advanced stone-setting from Alan Revere, the latter in San Francisco in 1986.

LEE MARRACCINI AND PAM PERUGI MARRACCINI standing in front of their store, Angelo Jewelry.

      Marraccini considers his “main talent” to be “designing by parts.” Starting with sketches on the blackboard, he develops concepts for new pieces and watches them “metamorphose” through metal manipulation, fabrication, casting, and stone inlay. He combines gemstones, conflict-free diamonds and recycled gold in contemporary yet classic designs that have won him awards at craft shows.

Marraccini has always worked this way, even when he had a larger crew. He starts by identifying what he wants to accomplish and then proceeds to work on it, letting chance and change guide the design. “That’s the way I’ve designed my whole career. I can’t stop designing. I can design all day long. Anything.”

Charlottesville is a “sweet place,” Marraccini says, and he has developed a faithful following for his collections. He has been in the business for more than thirty-five years now; and although he is fond of quoting fellow jeweler Jacob Snow—“Setting stones in metal is a bad idea”—he has found a way to keep developing and to remain thrilled by the possibilities of the creative process.

 

STACKING RINGS 80’S COLLECTION of eighteen karat yellow gold set with diamonds, inlays and faceted stones, 5.75 centimeters, 1985.
ANCIENT PEARL COLLECTION EARRINGS of natural abalone shell, faceted blue sapphires, pink sapphires, and diamonds in hand-fabricated eighteen karat yellow gold, 3.2 centimeters diameter, 2014.
STONE COLLECTION RING of eighteen karat yellow gold bezel set red jasper with inset faceted red zircon on a sterling silver shank,
2.54 x 1.91 centimeters, 2009.

 

     Get Inspired!

 
 

On a visit with his daughter Emily and her family in Charlottesville, Virginia, in April, Carl Little paid a visit to Lee Marraccini at his shop and studio in the city’s pedestrian-friendly downtown center. Marraccini had just returned from an American Craft Council show in St. Paul, Minnesota. His belief that making jewelry should be “serious fun” for the wearer was evident in the work he shared during the interview. Little’s latest book, coauthored with his brother David, is Art of Acadia, which is being published to coincide with the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of Acadia National Park in Maine.

Julie Shaw Volume 39.1

BROOCH of sterling silver, twenty-two karat gold, cobalto calcite druzy from South Africa and enamel, 7.62 x 2.54 centimeters, 2016. “This piece gave me such joy to make, loving the bright pink, as I was texturing the top, I felt like I was channeling Van Gogh starry nights!”

Stones speak to Julie Shaw. Not in words, of course, but in signals and messages that are perfectly clear. The gunmetal gray hematite offers emotional protection because it repels negativity. Rose quartz stands for unconditional love and good will. Yellow-green citrine opens the heart to wonder and delight and is immune to ill will. Stones of nearly every kind have been the foundation of Shaw’s jewelry for more than forty years, and she describes her lifelong attraction to stones in spiritual terms.

     “Stones have an energy to them, and I like using stones that have metaphysical qualities,” says Shaw. “I put stones together in a piece because I like the way they go together. But then I’ll get a call from a gallery with a customer asking what the stone stands for, so I try to talk about what I know, though it’s more about the person just tuning into the stone’s quality because they like the jewelry. I think many people pick up on energy from certain stones.”

She laughingly refers to herself as a “stone-aholic,” but she might be better described as a stone whisperer. Her house is filled not only with stones for use in her jewelry, but also with mineral specimens and crystals. “Whatever town I’m in, I always find the rock shop and see what they have. When I’m on a beach I’m looking at the ground for rocks and shells. I get a little obsessive about it. Stones captivate me and take me to places in my mind that I wouldn’t get to otherwise.”

The other reason Shaw loves stones is that they are beautiful. Over the years she has used a treasure trove of quartz, opals, turquoise, moonstones, amethysts, lapis, coral, tourmaline, rubies, and virtually every precious and semiprecious stone you can name, and she uses them in relatively large sizes. One of her rings is typically one and a half inches across. A brooch could be up to four inches in length. A pendant might be four inches long and two inches wide. The stones that are the focal point of these pieces have nearly the same dimensions. She selects stones that throb with brilliant color, frequently designing two or three color saturated stones into a single ring or brooch. The compositions are framed in twenty-two karat gold and sterling silver, usually oxidized. The effect is invariably regal—these are head-turning pieces to be worn with self-confidence. They are also exuberant and joyful, a celebration of color and the natural world.

BROOCH of sterling silver, pyrite druzy from Russia and enamel, 8.89 x 3.81 centimeters, 2016. “While I was doing the enamel for this piece, I thought it was a riot how wacky it was and how it was coming together. It’s one of my favorite pieces.”

      “In the ‘90s I did larger pieces, and at craft fairs women would say how much they liked the work but that they could never wear such a large piece, which was funny. Because I was standing there wearing something big and I’m five feet two, and they’re telling me
how great I look in it. I always tell women, if you like it, wear it. It’s an attitude. I have fun trying to get women to expand their ideas about what to wear. I want them to feel good about themselves, to feel beautiful.”

NECKLACE of sterling silver, twenty-two karat gold, faceted lapis and enamel; pendant 3.81 x 5.08 centimeters; necklace 55.88 centimeters long, 2015. “The lightning bolt on top reaching to the sky was my inspiration.”

      Shaw’s long career as a professional artist could be a template for how to find fulfillment as an artist and support yourself at the same time. Born in Detroit in 1946, she was an artistic kid who took piano, ballet and art classes before attending the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, where she studied painting. After a year, she headed to London to meet up with an older sister living in Europe. Soon she was enrolled in the Sir John Cass Art School in London, studying ceramics. After eight months in London she packed up for Israel, where she lived on a kibbutz. Despite the military tensions and the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, she managed to hitch-hike through the Negev Desert. Shaw eventually returned to Michigan, where she rented a studio near a foundry, which inspired her to try sculpture. She also did some photography and built herself a darkroom.

Two years later she was ready for a change. Along with art making and her love affair with stones, Shaw’s life has been defined by travel and a periodic urge to move around the country, or across the globe. Her travels are motivated by curiosity and a deep interest in learning about other cultures and people. When she was almost forty she spent two months in Turkey, a place she says still inspires her. “The architecture. The food. The people. The kilims. The spice markets. The light. Everything about Turkey was wonderful and has stayed with me.” She has also visited Africa, where she was deeply impressed by the artifacts of ancient Egypt. But those travels came later. In 1971 her interest was in the highly imaginative arts and social milieu that defined San Francisco in that era. She supported herself there as a window dresser for an upscale department store. “It was creative work, always changing and very immediate. I could do what I wanted to do and use lots of great colors and textures with clothes, shoes, glass, and wine bottles. I worked with very creative people. It was a happy time and I loved that job.”

RING of sterling silver, faceted rose quartz from Brazil, and enamel, 2.54 x 2.54 centimeters, 2016. Photographs by Ryder Gledhill.

      A chance conversation with a friend of her brother’s, a man she did not even know well, pulled her back to making art. “This guy said to me, you’ve had all this art education, why aren’t you working for yourself? Why aren’t you making art?” Something clicked and she borrowed four hundred dollars from her brother and bought jewelry equipment. She had not made any jewelry since junior high, but jewelry seemed saleable, and she enjoyed it. Soon she was back in Michigan selling what she describes as “feather-and-bead” jewelry along with her paintings at mall shows. When a couple at a mall asked her to make them wedding rings, she agreed. She laughs about that now. “I had no idea how to make rings, so I went to my metals supplier and he suggested I take a metals class at a community center, which I did.” She ended up making vacuum-cast silver rings for the couple, who loved them. She quit painting and focused on jewelry. “I’ve always liked using my hands, and once I started making jewelry I realized that I was not using my hands in the same way with painting. I like holding the tools and metal, and I like seeing the work in my hands. With jewelry, it’s instant gratification, and I like instant gratification. I’m not a person who works for weeks on a piece. I know right away if I like it and if I feel good about it. If I don’t like it, I scrap it.”

Shaw took a soldering class and honed her skills making jewelry full time. Soon she was adding stones. The only other time she had made jewelry with stones was when she was twelve and had a volunteer job at the gift shop of the Cranbrook Institute of Science. Part of her job was to polish the rocks sold at the shop, and to select inventory from the vaults in the basement. She loved the work, and was paid in rocks. She got the idea to make pendants out of the rocks by attaching chains to them, and she talked the manager of the local dime store into displaying them for sale. She is still surprised they sold.

RING of sterling silver, twenty-two karat gold, opal, and amethyst, 3.81 x 2.54 centimeters, 2015.

      By the late 1970s Shaw was a regular participant at prestigious, juried craft shows on the East Coast. She was wholesaling to galleries around the country. She moved to Rhinecliff, New York, and started a production line. At one point she had six employees. “One day I realized all I was doing was directing traffic. I didn’t want to do that.” She downscaled her production and moved outside of Durango, Colorado. She lived in Colorado making one-of-a-kind jewelry and limited production work for twelve years. During those years Shaw apprenticed with a shaman and studied Reiki, a Japanese approach to alternative medicine. She ran a sweat lodge. Her interest in spirituality and cross-cultural philosophy has always been important. Some of her jewelry from her Colorado period has a Southwestern look, with elements of native design and traditional symbology mixed with what could easily be read as elements of Catholicism. “Periodically crosses show up in my work. I’m not religious, but I am spiritual. The crosses for me tend to be more about the four directions of the Southwestern cross, not a Christian cross.”

 

“Whatever town I’m in, I always find the rock shop and see what they have. When I’m on a beach I’m looking at the ground for rocks and shells. I get a little obsessive about it. Stones captivate me and take me to places in my mind that I wouldn’t get to otherwise.”

      In 2004 Shaw was lured to Paducah, Kentucky, by a generous civic program aimed at drawing artists into the community. Through the program she was able to buy a large, older home for very little money, as long as she agreed to fix it up and live there for a while. Which is exactly what she did. After supervising a major remodel, she spent the next ten years living in the home, where she also had her studio and ran a commercial gallery. “I called the gallery Aphrodite. It was a nice gallery, if I do say so myself. I sold my own work there, but also blown glass, ceramics, fiber art, and jewelry made by other artists.” It was also during her time in Paducah that she took up enameling. There were certain colors and finishes she wanted that she could not achieve with stones. So she took lessons from an enamel artist and started adding enamel to her jewelry. Today, six years after she seriously started experimenting with enameling, it has become integral to her work, and it has expanded her color palette. Her work is now a harmonious, colorful mix of stone and enamel, usually in the same piece. As a painter she was drawn to color, and enameling allows her to approach jewelry with a painter’s eye.

 

NECKLACE of sterling silver, azurite druzy from Morocco, and enamel; pendant 8.89 x 2.54 centimeters, 2016.
NECKLACE of sterling silver, dyed quartz druzy, and enamel, pendant 6.35 x 2.54 centimeters, 2016.
NECKLACE of sterling silver, opal, chrysocolla druzy from Arizona, pearls and apatite beads, pendant 6.35 x 2.54 centimeters, 2015.

      Shaw does not drag her feet when it is time to move on. In 2014 she left Paducah for Cocoa, Florida. Earlier in the year she had fallen on ice in Paducah and had broken her wrist. While healing, she made jewelry by taping her torch to her wrist. She decided she had enough of ice. She chose Cocoa for its balmy climate, but has also come to admire the natural world of Cocoa’s beach and seashore. Her latest work is distinctly tropical, as though the pink, white, blue, and gold shapes of her brooches and pendants are sea creatures darting through tide pools. Her work has always been partly inspired by the flora, fauna and geography of wherever she is living at the time. “I know my work has been influenced by the sea in the last couple of years. To me, some of my brooches are like sea beings, though I don’t know that you’d see anything that looks like them in the sea.”

 

BROOCH of sterling silver, acid-etched agate and enamel, 5.08 x 5.08 centimeters, 2015.

      Shaw’s work has sometimes touched on the narrative. After 9/11 she made jewelry showing flowers rising out of the flames of devastation. She has also made pieces in honor of Hindu gods whose spiritual qualities she admires. But her current work is abstract, despite its resemblance to brilliantly colored marine fauna. There are no heads or eyes on these creatures, though in a few brooches you might see the suggestion of tentacles or a dorsal fin.

At a time in life when many people think of slowing down, Shaw still works at least five days a week, all day, in her studio, and is “grateful that these hands have supported me all these years. In a broader sense, it makes me think of all these amazing artists who work with their hands, soul and spirit to do what they love and bring it to the public for them to glean something for themselves, whether they buy it or just look at it, or hold it in their hands. What a gift for all of us.”

 

     Get Inspired!

 
 

Robin Updike is a Seattle-based arts writer with a deep attachment to artist-made jewelry. As a former newspaper art critic she also has an interest in artists and the difficult choices they often face when it comes to their careers. For both reasons, she was pleased to have the opportunity to interview Julie Shaw, a jewelrymaker whose life as an artist is notable not only for the remarkable work she has made, but for the joyful, open-hearted way in which she has created a life wholly dedicated to art. In this issue Updike also reviews a handsome exhibition about indigo-dyed textiles at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. The exhibition is a serene reminder of why blue is such a primal color for us all.