Hands coated a powdery gray, Miquela Wallace hunches over a small blue plastic tray. In her left hand, she holds a clay butterfly wing; in the right, a fine metal file grinds off the rough edges. The wing will soon join others in a drying tray, awaiting the heat of a small kiln.
“When they first made this clay, there were no specific tools for it,” Wallace said, gently blowing the dust off her piece. “So I use anything. I don’t need all the fancy tools. This stuff does just fine.”
Wallace is the owner of Splendid Sparrow Designs. She works on her handcrafted, fine silver jewelry in a makeshift workshop on the second floor of French at Heart, a gift shop on School Street in Lodi.
Shop owner Kay Marie Claxton has worked her retail magic to connect Wallace with gift-giving events before this weekend’s Academy Awards. If all goes well, the Lodi mom’s jewelry could end up in the dressing rooms of movie stars and television actors.
For now, it can be found at Claxton’s shop, and online on the handmade craft website Etsy.
“I wanted her work in here because it’s beautiful, but also because she has such a gentle demeanor,” said Claxton. “These things should be in magazines and catalogs. It’s a unique and special gift.”
Wallace’s work first caught Claxton’s eye when she came in the store two years ago. She wore a shadowbox style necklace built by hand and decorated with vintage rosary beads from France.
Claxton asked where the necklace was purchased, and was delighted to hear Wallace had made it herself.
Did she have any more? Sure, plenty.
At home, she had a collection of pendant necklaces and hand-wrought rings with gems, stashed away in old cigar boxes and salvaged suitcases.
The jewelry work began five years ago as a hobby for Wallace when she lived in the East Bay.
She took classes on using Art Clay to make silver pieces at the Crucible, a center for creative works in Oakland. With experience, she now teaches classes at Hutchins Street Square and Bunches of Beads.
“These were pieces I made for myself, and I enjoy for me. I didn’t think anyone would like it but me,” she said.
Making the jewelry is a delicate process.
Wallace unpacks a small pouch of moist clay and works it in her hands until it is pliable.
She presses it with rubber stamps, cuts it into shapes, adds texture, and even makes her own silicon molds. The tiny creations dry for a few hours. The process is sped up with a food dehydrator. When the piece is completely dry, it’s ready for 35 minutes at 1475 degrees in a jewelry kiln. The clay burns away. The microns of silver mixed within it shrink together in the heat and form a solid piece.
The simplicity in the process allows Wallace to create on a whim.
A silver arrow charm was based on a necklace she liked. One customer requested wishbones. Some sea glass can hold up to the heat in the kiln, so Wallace wraps clay bands around small fragments to create pendants.
She made a mold of a favorite vintage ring, and fuses the piece to handmade ring bands to recreate the original. Jewelry makers can buy pre-made bands, but Wallace says that’s cheating.
“I want people to know it’s handmade,” she said.
In what feels like a former life, Wallace spent 12 years as a legal secretary. But the long office hours kept her away from her sons Devon, now 6, and Bratden, 2.
“I wanted to spend more time with my kids, not be buried in an office,” she said. Her silver work was selling well in her online shop, so Wallace took a risk and quit her job.
Wallace lives in Lodi with her husband and two sons in a 900-square-foot home. That doesn’t leave much room for jewelry work. So last summer, when Claxton offered the attic space of French at Heart for a workshop in Jan. 2013, Wallace gladly agreed. Now she’s spending four days a week creating new pieces.
The last two months have been frenetic trying to fill orders for two major events.
In the past, actors and musicians nominated for the year’s major industry awards would receive grab bags of gifts ranging from jewelry to spa treatments and other high-end products. Now, there are gift suites instead. Dozens of vendors set up in hotel conference rooms around L.A., and 100 or so starlets walk the circuit, hearing product pitches and collecting swag. If a vendor is lucky, his or her products will be a hit with a celeb and they may strike an endorsement deal.
Through a friend’s public relations company, Wallace has presented her jewelry designs in a gift suite for the Golden Globes and is set to do it again today for the Oscars.
It’s a long day for Wallace. She’ll hand out free necklaces on sterling silver chains and promote herself for eight hours to strangers. With travel and hotel, plus the cost of materials, it’s a $1,200 weekend. That doesn’t include the hours she spent creating hearts, sugar skulls, butterfly wings and roses out of silver clay.
Wallace hopes the weekend will pay off and lead to a boost in sales.
“I’m not sure that I’d want to go into mass production or anything. But I’d love for my work to be in a few boutiques,” said Wallace.
Until then, her happy place is that second-floor workshop, dreaming up new designs and firing them into life.