Local artisans embrace gemstone wire wrapping
One of the most ancient techniques for crafting jewelry is making a comeback here in the Scenic City. Wrapping wire around precious stones is a process that has been used for thousands of years, with some of the earliest examples dating back to around 2000 BC.
Mesopotamian artists were able to make jewelry without the aid of any soldering irons. This absence of technology is what has popularized wire wrapping in modern times—making wire jewelry is a way to create something of value while traveling, which is why many might associate wraps with music festivals and touring bands. They can't be mass produced, so they are primarily made by individual artists.
The materials that compose the jewelry are simple—wire and precious stones—but the varieties of wire and stones are plentiful.
The wire is available in many different gauges and shapes: there is square, round, half round, even triangular wire. Low dome is flat wire that has a little bit of a curve to it. It is very stiff, and takes a gentle touch to work without kinking or breaking. In addition to size and shape, there are three standard consistencies. Dead soft wire is soft and malleable, but doesn't hold its shape well. Half hard is more difficult to bend and holds its shape. Full hard wire is the most difficult to manipulate, and holds its shape best.
The more you work wire, the more it gets work-hardened. There are only so many bends you can make with wire before it gets brittle and breaks. The two main techniques of bending the wire are coiling and weaving. When two pieces of wire are joined together, they make mechanical connections, as opposed to a soldering iron which makes hot connections.
Weaving is like knitting with wire—one method makes what looks like miniature baskets, while another creates smooth forms. All of the stones are held in place by tension settings, bends that are designed to secure them.
We had a chance to talk to two of Chattanooga's most successful wire wrappers about their craft.
Aaron Kopowski's work is fluid and organic, and many of his pieces have a mystical feel that hints of magic and shamanism. He started wrapping because he saw someone else's work at a show and thought, “I can do that”. In the last two years, working full time as a wire wrapper, he has made and sold over 2,500 pieces.
He wraps using non-tarnish coated copper and .925 sterling silver. The stones he uses come from all over the world with his favorites being fire agate, amethyst and opals of all kinds. He wraps five days a week for 5-12 hours a day, making between 30 and 50 pieces a week.
“It takes a lot of effort at first, and there are lot of blisters and sore hands,” Kopowski explains. “I'm pretty sure this is why a lot of people give up early when they try.”
Elizabeth Morris's work is intricate and elegant, the forms refined and well resolved. Though she does work when she travels, the majority of her wraps are made at her work bench in her home.
“Every time I make a piece, it's a challenge—I have something in my head that I want it to look like, and I draw it out on graph paper first,” she explains. “I spend a lot of time refining designs and re-engineering pieces.”
A few of the stones she uses are ruby, emerald, sapphire, aquamarine, tanzanite, topaz, tourmaline, and opal. “I love the stones in their natural state. When I found that there are incredible quality stones in their natural state, I had to use them. I still use the faceted ones sometimes, but if I can find something natural, that's what I like to use. No two stones are the same, just like no two wire wraps are the same.”
For some of her wraps, she uses a mixture of liver of sulphur and warm water to give them a patina. She can control the oxidation based on the temperature of the water, and sometimes adds other chemicals like ammonia to create iridescent finishes.
In 2015, Elizabeth created a line for a fashion designer in Las Vegas. The crown jewel of this collection is a sterling silver masquerade mask. She designed it with pivot points to form fit to the model's face. Each of her pieces represents an engineering challenge.
“Whenever I make a piece, I end up wearing it for a few days to make sure it wears well,” Morris notes.
You can follow Aaron and Elizabeth on Instagram: @acollectivemindtn and @eimorris or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com