Meet Master Jewelry Maker Caryn Hetherston
The Delaware Art Museum instructor teaches students how to create timeless pieces that are both beautiful and functional.
Caryn Hetherston collects stones and other objects from her travels, which she later uses to create one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces./Photo by Ashley Shuey
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Before you can enter Caryn Hetherston’s jewelry-making studio, you’ve got to get past a cocky rooster.
“Colonel!” she calls from a wooden staircase that bridges her home and an idyllic 2½-acre yard brimming with wildflowers, beehives and more than a dozen free-range birds. “Hold on … this is the Colonel, our security guard,” she chuckles, shooing the bird beneath a pergola while forbidding him to peck.
Inside is the sort of organized chaos you’d expect of an artist’s space: On one side is a neat display of finished pieces atop a glass case, along with jars of Landenberg Honey, aptly named after the bounty she and her husband “steal” from the four hives at their Pennsylvania home. On the other is a soldering desk; a bookshelf tightly packed with odds and ends but hardly any books; a CD player that Hetherston says spins a lot of Thievery Corporation these days; and a large work table scattered with nicks and dents, tools, loose materials separated by tiny jars and dishes, and a puzzle of rocks and gemstones she’s begun converting to wearable works of art.
“The first thing I do is sit down with my stones and pair them by complementary colors,” explains Hetherston, who’s been working at her craft for 40 years and teaching it at Delaware Art Museum for 10. “Then I build and design around those stones.”
An admitted “gemaholic,” Hetherston avoids attending too many gem shows for fear of overspending (“I already have enough stones for three lifetimes”) but instead prefers to incorporate found objects from her travels or other meaningful places.
She points to a floral pottery shard she found while hiking Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, which she fashioned into a pendant, and Hawaiian sea glass a hurricane had washed ashore before her visit, into which Hetherston carved a petroglyph and set in gold leaf.
One of her favorite pieces she made for herself, called Splashdown, was a reminder of a scuba trip she took with her husband for her 40th birthday. In a sculpture series, where Hetherston builds a piece of jewelry into a mixed-media sculpture casing, she’s incorporated concrete she saved from the original foundation of her kitchen.
The lapidary, who has an earthy air but a sharp wit about her, says this is the season when she really “gets in the zone.” When it’s cold outside, there are fewer distractions, like gardening. “When I’m at work in my studio, I lose all sense of time,” she says.
Capable of intricate designs that look uncomplicated—like a thick silver bracelet with fern overlays she wears around her wrist—many of Hetherston’s pieces are visibly more ornate.
“I tend to get carried away in the details,” she says. “My problem is that it’s not done until it’s overdone.” She’ll also fuse a chain by hand for special pieces, or when time and cost allow.
Hetherston’s future in jewelry making was crystal-clear early on. “As a child, I would take my mom’s costume jewelry that she didn’t want anymore and I would take it apart with nail clippers and eyebrow tweezers, then put it back together again the way I wanted it,” she recalls. “My mom couldn’t figure out why the nail clippers were always dull.”
She continued to polish her skills, enrolling and then dropping out of various art and metalsmithing schools. “I would get frustrated with this or that, and then when I’d mastered my skills, I just wanted to get out and do my thing.”
Finding success at a number of galleries and art shows, Hetherston never considered teaching until DAM offered her a position. “By that time, I realized I have a lot of skills that I really should pass on before I’m gone. …I love teaching and wish I had come to it earlier.”
Her objective is something she was never taught in school: Create pieces that are going to outlive you. “You can make a beautiful piece, but if it weighs a ton or doesn’t lay the right way on the body, nobody is going to wear it,” she says. “Jewelry has to be comfortable and functional. My work is contemporary and classic in both design and construction.”
Hetherston doesn’t take on many commissioned pieces, but some she can’t resist.
“One was for a woman who had a whole bunch of mother-of-pearl buttons of her grandmother’s that she used to play with as a kid,” she says. “She wanted a necklace made of these buttons, to remember her. I love that, because it’s emotional.”
Another was for a man who wanted pendants for his daughters made from pebbles he collected at his favorite beach in Michigan.
“I enjoy creating something with a really special story,” notes Hetherston, who’s also designed wedding rings for many friends.
Ask her about any one of her creations, and she’ll likely share a story behind it.
Hetherston will host an open studio tour Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, where guests can shop her jewelry and the bees’ honey. For more information, visit carynlhetherstondesigns.com.