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A Really Big Project

My biggest work-in-progress started with a view and has gone on for about four years now.

My husband, Bill, and I were shopping for a house.  The first time I visited this particular house, it was a foggy, miserable January day and this is all I saw:

RUN!!!

The horror!  A giant pool built in the 1960s, defunct for the last 25 years, and refurbished into a dreadful little Japanese garden complete with miniature pines, trellises, and a re-circulating stream with bridge.  And bonus…it was updated recently with a wheelchair ramp.  I was looking for a garden sanctuary for entertaining friends and sipping cocktails, maybe a place for an offspring to frolic.  This was NOT IT.  Rebar infested concrete covered fully half of the backyard.  The other half was crumbling cinderblock and chain-link.  RUN.

The second time we visited the house, it was a crisp clear winter day, and all we saw was this:

Wow!!!  What a view from the front yard!  Pool?  What pool?…  A couple weeks of hard sledge-hammering next May, and we’d have it out, right?  That yard had nothing but potential.

Stage 1:  Break ground.  My first priority was to create a lovely place to enjoy our lovely views.  So I built a little patio, a fine place to sit with a bottle of wine and plan our next moves.

The view Before...

After!

We are close enough to smell the perfume of scrub oak and scree slope drifting off the mountains in the evening.  The full moon rises over the cirque and lights up the snow covered peaks.  For a country girl tied to a city girl lifestyle, this is pure bliss, sanity recovered, a reminder that wild still lurks beyond the two-car garage.

The back yard was built on a slope that was previously stabilized by two cinderblock pool houses, which were crumbling into dust and would be demolished.

Inspired by The Art and Craft of Stonescaping, by David Reed, I wanted to build dry stacked stone terraces to replace the pool houses and stabilize the slope post-pool removal.  Never mind that I hadn’t ever built a dry stacked retaining wall.  I had the book…it was a really good book.

Stage 2:  Practice makes perfect.  I decided to build a mini-retaining wall along the side of the house to develop stonemasonry skills before diving into the backyard.  This cinderblock loveliness in the front yard would be the first dry-stacked project:

It was at this point that Bill, who had previously been contributing the sledgehammer arms and feigning disinterest in the stonework, became impatient with my slow progress and tried his hand at wall building too.  The results were astonishing to us:

We were buoyed up by this little miracle transformation, and ready to tackle the pool and retaining walls in the back.

Stage 3:  Reality check.  After sledge-hammering to failure, Bill managed to bust a fist-sized divet out of the walls of our pool.  The little concrete shards were like pebbles to the pyramids.  We considered renting or maybe buying a jackhammer, and spending the next ten summers in jackhammer hell.  The narrow slopes at the sides of the house would not accommodate any big machinery.  Professional bids involved lifting an excavator over the roof of the house into the back yard with a crane.  We were totally screwed.  At this point, we considered sprucing up that fine Japanese garden.  The wheelchair ramp would allow easy access in and out with our barbeque grill.

Stage 4:  Denial.  Enjoy our fine views and a few fine bottles of wine from our fine front patio.  Who needs a back yard when you can sniff the scree slopes from your front door?

Then we fell into a little luck.  A friend’s boyfriend happened to drive an excavator for a landscaping company, and he figured he could drive a little mini-excavator back there and do the job in four days.  In exchange, he wanted a full rack of climbing gear.  Bill works for a climbing company.   Score.

Stage 5:  Demolition.

Entry...Holy Cajones!

The plan was to dig a giant hole at the bottom of the pool, crush up the pool walls, surrounding concrete patios, and the cinderblock pool houses, and bury them all at the bottom of the hole.

Seriously?

Disaster zone

Look, it's working!

A blank slate

No shit, we couldn’t believe it.  Four days later we had a blank slate.
Stage 6: Euphoria.  We can do this!  Ground is broken on the first of four dry stacked retaining walls.  Notice the baby bump?  This is when I checked out of the manual labor and became supervisor, much to Bill’s delight.  Whose crazy idea was it to build these dry-stacked retaining walls anyway?  I did manage to get a vegetable garden going.

By fall, we had a brand new baby girl to enjoy our nice views with.  And the back yard… Well.  Building dry stacked retaining walls is a lot of work.  Who knew?  And weeds grow like….weeds.  Bill perservered gallantly on the stone walls, building increasingly more stunning and intricate terraces.

Stage 7:  Reality strikes again.  The next summer, Bill refurbished the balcony.  It was supposed to take a couple of weeks, and then back to terrace building.  But it took pretty much the entire summer, even though he had lots of help.

We failed to capture the “before” balcony in all of its crooked, astro-turfed glory.  But the “after” looks pretty good, don’t you think?

Sweetie's got Skilz

Stage 8:  Acceptance.  We will need lots of help and piles of money to finish this project.  The following summer we hired our friend with the mini-excavator and his entire landscaping company to put in sprinkler systems, rough out the garden beds, lay down sod, and give the rest of the front yard a facelift.  Bill continued to toil on the terraces.

Stage 9:  Triumph!  Bill conquers all with this stunning topper to the fourth retaining wall:

We now get contractor pricing at the stone yard.  They know our pickup truck by sight and call Bill occasionally to see how his projects are coming along.  If you ever need any stonework done, don’t call Bill because he is OVER IT.

Here are the numbers:

Stone pavers: 50,360 pounds

Gravel: 29 yards

Sand:  6 yards

Topsoil: 48 yards

Mulch and compost:  8 yards

Boulders:  28,000 pounds

All but perhaps a dozen tons of this was hauled, one wheelbarrow-full at a time, down the steep and narrow slope into the back yard by Bill himself.  What a stud.

Stage 10:  Planting!  Time for the fun stuff!  I got to buy and plant and buy and plant, so many wonderful things.  By the end of summer we had loads of flowers.  This year, most of them are head-high, almost concealing the last vestiges of civilization visible from our front patio.

Stage 11:  The tail end.  Now in its fourth year, the end of this gargantuan do-it-yourself project is in sight.  There are still plenty of things left to do:  a garden shed, the far corner with the bench, the rest of the drip irrigation, the shady patio under the maple tree cobbled entirely with Indian artifacts.  Mere amateur stuff, weekend projects.  I’ll keep you posted.  In the meantime, we’ve got really fine views, loads of flowers, and a few great new places to enjoy a bottle of wine.


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Diamonds

Diamonds.  These days they get a really bad rap.  Their intense commercialization has bred despotism and wrought despair upon millions.  But this post is not about the dark side of diamonds.  It’s about their beauty, pure and simple.  I got to play with a diamond this weekend, and wanted to share.

Isn’t it amazing?  The diamond is the perfect stone for my favorite design aesthetic; contrast.   Dark elevates light, soft feminine surrounds hard masculine.  Rustic made elegant.  It is the simplest of gems, uncluttered by color and extraneous mineral deposits.  All carbon, all glitter, all fabulous.

 

The moral of the story?  Yes, yes, please be responsible and find an ethically sourced or recycled stone.  But whatever you do, love your diamond.  It’s a truly special gem.

Sunken Treasure

This is a mystery about sunken treasure.

The story begins in San Diego, sometime in the late 1970s.  It was a teeth chattering, lips blue, eyes squinting in the overcast, hair whipping around in the 20 mph wind kind of day at the beach.  But rather than pile the seven of us back into the Buick and drive on home to Utah, we huddled in the lee of whatever we could find, tossing seaweed around and eating saltine crackers while Dad went scuba diving.  Just when we were about to give up hope of ever leaving, Dad emerged from the waves, treasure in hand.  Gold!  Down under the murky waves, the yellow gleam had caught his eye.  He reached out a neoprene-gloved hand and snatched it up out of the deeps, just like Smeagol with his Precious.  It was a gold ring, cryptic and enigmatic.  We could tell it was probably stolen from an Aztec tomb and dropped into the waves from a conquistador’s ship.  Wow!  We were rich!

Dad took the ring to a jeweler who confirmed that it was indeed gold, and likely worth (drum roll) a couple hundred bucks.  Not even enough for a new car.  The ring sat in his dresser drawer for 30 years until one day Dad plunked it down on the kitchen table in front of me.  There it was, a heavy, square, flat-topped ring with a series of cryptic looking symbols etched on the top.   A perfect fit on my ring finger.   And all that mystery returned.

Like a good research scientist, I turned to the Internet.  I learned that gold rings made in the USA after 1904 should be hallmarked to indicate their purity.  No stamps anywhere on this ring; must be antique.  Or perhaps it was made in 1973 by an “indie artist” like me.  Ha.  I’ve never hallmarked anything.

A few tips from friends convinced me that the ring is a signet ring.  A ring worn on the pinky of an Important Man and used to impress his coat of arms, or signature, in the wax used to seal letters in days of old.  Ah yes, a coat of arms.  The striped square is a shield, and it’s divided into four unequal sectors with a king in the upper sector and three cloaked men kneeling before him in the lower sector.  There is a feathered battle helmet too, up at the top and looking oddly like an afterthought or a mistake.

I promptly melted a few drops of beeswax onto a sheet of paper and pressed the ring into it.  Hmmm, a sticky mess, followed by ten minutes of picking beeswax out of the fine engraving with a toothpick.  I guess that’s not how you do it.

But this particular seal doesn’t follow the austere rules of heraldry.  One Internet Expert said the ring “appears hand engraved, but not a regular heraldry symbol, like a coat of arms… I see nothing resembling this, even in my old catalogs of fraternal organizations.”  Wow, it’s not even in the old catalogs!  We do have a shield, a helmet, and a crown, check.  But we’ve got the whole king’s head, not just his crown.  And the crown is supposed to be at the top, above the shield, and never, ever below the helmet.  The human figure is rarely depicted in a coat of arms.  Maybe those figures are three ships in the water, or mountain peaks rising out of the sand?  And there is no fancy mantle surrounding the helmet, no raring quadrupeds embracing the shield, and no banner or lettering of any kind.  The design looks starkly primitive.  There is none of the fancy calligraphy or clip art symbolism that typifies the modern seal.

Another Internet Expert supplied the following information:

“Antique signet rings are highly collectible, primarily because of their scarcity. Only a few authorized copies of these rings were ever created, in order to reduce the chances of fraud. Quite often the official signet rings of Popes would be ceremonially destroyed upon their deaths. Surviving signet rings of political leaders or other notable personalities would most likely be found in museum collections or under strict lock and key. ”

Maybe this thing should be in a safety deposit box?  Buried in a trunk in the back yard?  At least I should have it appraised.

After being succinctly blown off by three antiques dealers, I finally spoke to a kind antique jewelry specialist who tried his best to let me down gently.  He told me that there is nothing special about an old signet ring.  They are, in fact, not rare in any way, and are precious only to those for whom they mean something.  Despite what the Internet says, their value comes almost exclusively from the amount of gold in them.  He explained patiently that jewelry purchased from K-Mart today still won’t be worth much in 100 years, because age does not impart worth.  And as for my desire to find out where and when the bearer of this ring might have walked the earth, he assured me that the design styles used in crests and seals have been standardized for so long that the crest itself will lend no clues as to its provenance.  He suggested I take it to O.C.Tanner to find out how much it weighs and the current spot price for gold.

So, what is this mysterious sunken treasure?  Maybe it’s a low budget class ring from the 1970s.  Or perhaps the ill-designed symbol of somebody’s wannabe fraternal organization, not even long-lived enough to get into the old catalogs.   Or maybe it really was stolen off the corpse of an Aztec King by marauding Spaniards, and lost in the waves off the coast of California some years later.  The story ends here, but the mystery is yours to ponder.

The Sound of Metalsmithing

I’m tasked with bringing you the sounds of my world.  Well OK, maybe that’s a bit grandiose.  But what do I listen to while I work?  Come with me down the carpeted stairs, through the family room littered with toys, past the guest room, through the crooked door and onto the cracked cement floor of the basement.  Down here with the cat box and the furnace is my haven.  A glorious, expansive workshop, with 65 square feet of bench top, a utility sink, and tools, tools, and more tools.  Shiny ones, dull ones….but I digress…we’ll save that for another post.   I’ll set up my laptop, plug in the speakers, turn it up, and turn it up some more, and sing my heart out.

Some people sing in the shower.  I sing in the basement.  Amidst the cacophony of the furnace blower, my jeans clanging around in the dryer, the tapping of my hammer, and the crackle of the baby monitor, I sound really good.   One of my favorite basement howling accompaniments of all time is Crazy by Gnarls Barkley.  I’ve got the falsetto dialed.   Really, you wouldn’t believe how great I sound:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bd2B6SjMh_w

Next up, Into the Open, by Heartless Bastards.  In my next life as a singer, this is how I am going to sound.  Her voice is so raw, pure passion, no frills, powerful and unusual.  OK, maybe it will be a couple dozen lives before I get there:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z77Jx7kcC_8

Then a voice I will surely never achieve no matter how many lives I get (but it sure is fun to sing along): Bitter Heart by Zee Avi: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8ZH6QU0XvQ

And a heartbreakingly beautiful favorite, Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1bFr2SWP1I

A new favorite tune is Blitzen Trapper in Fur.  Seriously, have you ever heard more brilliant storytelling? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqtlcHiSHTE

When you next have a few moments with your coffee, sit back, close your eyes (most of the videos are terrible anyway) and give a listen to a few other tunes on my metalsmithing playlist.  And be glad that you don’t have to hear me singing them in my workshop, very loudly, very badly.

Yael Naim: New Soul:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7pvy37XaRw

The Shins New Slang:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYwCmcB0XMw

Koop: Koop Island Blues:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEWW2zGGaKc

Portishead: Glory Box:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yF-GvT8Clnk

Detroit Cobras: As Long as I Have You:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdFiyskVSkM

Adele: Cold Shoulder:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGwH-x4VoH8

Regina Spektor: Better:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zA4oG4FJFY

Missy Higgins: The Wrong Girl:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WzwcveXULQ

Check out what the other Aspiring Metalsmiths are listening to in their workshops:

Stones

The first entry in my new blog is something old.  Something I wrote at the passing of my 95 year old grandmother and read at her funeral.  Why do I start my blog, an entry about jewelry and my prettiest, most precious stones, with this?

You will see.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 My grandmother was not your typical grandma, or a typical woman at all. When I think of her, I don’t remember any homemade cookies or hand-knit sweaters or warm hugs. I certainly don’t ever recall feeling spoiled by my grandma.

The grandmother I see is walking through the high desert, surrounded by sandstone cliffs and searing heat and heartbreaking beauty, and she’s a perfect reflection of that landscape: full of richness and depth and quiet history, a little mysterious and intimidating sometimes. She’s walked a thousand miles out here, in her apron and her white Keds. And she doesn’t carry water, or a Power Bar either.

I do recall feeling privileged to be her granddaughter.

I see an educated woman from a distinguished family, taking to her mother’s china with a hammer. She’s building a

Roberta on top of the Uintah Bank Building in 1923

ranch with her husband, raising it from scratch out of the sagebrush and river mud. She gives birth to her boys at home in her own bed. And she never complains about any of the hardships or difficulties in her life. She just sets fire to them.

She keeps her stories to herself. Her heartaches and triumphs over the long years are left for us to imagine.

I see a beautiful garden full of daylilies, roses, and fruit trees, and a yellow tomcat on her doorstep. He’s a little intimidated by my Grandmother too, or anyway he ought to be. And the deer browsing her garden outside her bedroom window— they should be terrified. Grandma was a crack shot and she did like venison.

It’s hard to describe the kind of influence a person can have on your life just by living. But my grandmother looms large in the catalog of forces molding my life. I believe most of us would say that she didn’t so much touch our hearts. Rather, she branded them, with her fierce dignity and independence, her strength of character. We will forever be grateful to have had such a woman in our lives.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Grandma loved her stones.  She was a dedicated rock hound, something she got from her mother.  In the last year of my grandmother’s life, she left me a message saying she had some rocks for me.  This is what she had:

A pile of cabochons.  She figured maybe I could get some use out of them, since I was making jewelry now. She cut these cabs herself, undoubtedly from stones she found herself.  Grandma would never dream of buying rocks.

The next step in my stone odyssey starts here, with this jar of Wyler’s Chicken Bouillon.

****

Open the jar… carefully, carefully dump it out… and what do you find?

Sapphires.

Hundreds of rough Montana sapphires, found by my grandmother and her mother in the early 1900s near their home in Phillipsburg, Montana.

I can see my Great-Grandma Dolly pluck this little river-washed beauty up out of the gravel bar and stash it in her apron pocket. Maybe it’s the year 1917 or so, and a little toddler girl splashes in the stream beside her.

My dad tried his hand at lapidary and cut some of these gorgeous specimens.  Here is what they look like turned into bona fide gemstones.

So, what’s next?  I now have my dad’s gem cutting machine and I really need to learn to use it.  It’s in my bones.

Stones.

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