rachelle davis, metalsmithing, jewelry, jeweler, asheville, western north carolina, fine silver, metals, craft, handmade, unique gifts, workbench, sawing, native american, Southern Highland Craft Guild, craft fair
Guild member Rachelle Davis at her workbench in Asheville creating pieces for the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands.
July has always been a fiery limbo of summer. Growing up in the South, the days began and ended in humidity. My family's attempts to defeat the heat was heading to the Blue Ridge Mountains, hiking to breezy lookouts and wading in cool waterfalls. Connecting to the land and nature was my parent's way of unplugging from city life, and reminding us of the value of simple things. I find that land holds a magical power, often spellbinding people and returning them to their roots. At least for jeweler Rachelle Davis, it is this power of her ancestors' land that brought her back to North Carolina.

I first met Rachelle demonstrating her craft at the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Since 1999 she has been fabricating fine silver into unique pendants and jewelry. Her work is one-of-kind, in which she literally leaves her mark, a broken arrow, the Native American symbol for peace. Intrigued by her fluidity with the handheld jeweler’s saw, and iconic Native American symbolism, I decided to visit her studio. 

HB: Tell us about your connection to North Carolina. You moved here a year ago, yes?
RD: Yes, I moved to this area to be closer to the land of my ancestors. I also missed water and green – the beautiful green and lush mountains of Appalachia drew me home. There is some Cherokee on my dad’s side. We didn't know until recently. My aunt is very into genealogy, and she discovered the Cherokee link. Ever since I was little, I was fascinated and intrigued by the Native American way. When I moved out West, I loved being close to the tribes there. I didn't know about the Cherokee influence in my own family, but I knew that we had links to the land near western North Carolina. 

HB: It sounds like you have lived in places where Native American culture is more prevalent. How has that proximity influenced your work as a metalsmith and jeweler?
RD: It evolved more into what it was supposed to be. The Native American communities definitely influenced my work out there [Durango & Santa Fe], but I was using Native American symbols before I moved west. 

HB: So let's back up. I'm getting ahead of myself. Start at the beginning. I mean jewelry how did this skill become your life's work?
RD: Well, when I was little I loved jewelry. I would put on my mom's jewelry and back then it was gold that everyone was into. And my mom had a lot of gold, so she always locked her jewelry box. But I knew where the key was hidden, in the closet. So I'd climb up the shelves, reach for the top and get the key, open it and put on all of her pieces. Needless to say, she wasn’t amused!

HB: And so it was that feeling? I mean, wearing her jewelry you just knew?
RD: Well it didn't stop there! In high school, most people would save money and buy clothes or the in-thing,but I would buy jewelry. I would always have something on hold or layaway at the department stores in the mall. They joked around and called me “Mrs. T” because I had so many gold chains on and bracelets and rings. I was the jewelry girl in high school. Don't put that in there! 

HB:  [I can't help but laugh.] Quite an image you are building for me!
RD: College, Indiana Purdue University in Fort Wayne, is really where I discovered metalsmithing. My second semester, I was in the bookstore and noticed a ring on one of the employees. I complimented him on it, and he told me he made it at a metalsmithing class. I couldn't believe it - You made it? Where? How? They have metalsmithing classes here?!So I looked into it, signed up that semester, and took metalsmithing for the rest of my college years. 
Piercing fine silver with the handheld jeweler's saw at her workbench in Asheville, NC.
HB: What's it like to have a formal education in metalsmithing?
RD: I originally went to college for mechanical engineering and took metalsmithing as a hobby to keep my sanity! The first thing I had to do was raise a copper bowl. You learn how metal moves. If you don't have that knowledge of how metal moves, when you start to do detail techniques well, it's not pretty. It takes a lot of practice to saw the way I do now. I love sawing, it's my thing. Every jeweler has their thing.
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HB: What attributed to finding your niche in sawing?
RD: I would not be doing what I am now if it wasn't for my metalsmithing teacher, Les Motz. I am an independent person, and he saw that. Instead of giving me assignments, he let me explore. I became interested with the fabrication part of metalsmithing. Finals were show and tell. You would come in with whatever you made, so it was always my goal to create something that would make Les go, WOW, really? You made this?
Rachelle with Les, her metalsmith teacher in Indiana.
HB: So how did you end up out west in Colorado and then Santa Fe? 
RD: I was a full-time engineer for two years after graduating from college. And then in 1999, I quit to see if I could make my metalsmithing work. I wanted to go out west, and have always been drawn to the mountains. And my grandfather used to live in Colorado. So I packed up Zachery [her car], he's downstairs, with all of my metalsmithing tools, and whatever else would fit and headed to the Rocky Mountains. He’s my boy, Zachery, he’s still the same car I drive today, we’ve been together 24 years now!

HB: Sounds like a major move, not to add packing your life and tools into a car! How did you do it?
RD: You really don't need much to make jewelry the way I do. The jeweler’s saw is the big deal for me, especially since that is what I am known for, my saw work on the back of the pieces. I headed to the mountains, camped out until it snowed, then stayed in a hostel, figured out a place to live and have been making jewelry ever since. My mom and dad always taught me that I could be whoever I wanted to be in life. They taught me to be independent. I didn't know anybody; I just went.

HB: Let's talk about your process. How do you come up with the designs for your pendants when each one is so different?
RD: In many cases, the color and shape of the stone inspire the piece. I first place the stone on my sketchbook and trace around it with a fine pencil. Trusting my instinct, I sketch the first shape that comes to me. It used to be several drawings around each stone, but now I usually draw just one. I feel as though each stone already has a story and I am downloading from Spirit what it wants to be. Then it is my job to create the piece with the upmost craftsmanship that I can.

HB: You mentioned the saw, how do you go about creating the designs on the back?
RD: The sawing technique I use is called piercing. All the designs on the back of my pendants are sawed out and filed by hand. The bezel is a thin piece of silver wire that holds the stone in place, created by bending the wire around the stone. After soldering the bezel in place, I have that area within the bezel to saw. I drill a hole, slip the saw blade through the hole and reattach it to the saw frame. I can then saw designs within the area of the bezel. For stability, each design sawed is created with a separate hole.

HB: What gave you the idea to saw out designs on the back of pendants?
RD: I have always loved hidden symbols and meaning in art. Each piece I create has a story behind it.  This is my way of creating more unique and meaningful work. I started sawing out designs on the back of stones years ago while I was still in college. The lines have gotten more detailed and more meaningful over the years.
Current pendants being made for the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands in July 2015. 
HB: What is your average production?
RD: Every year I create fifty new pendants with stones. I do other types of jewelry and series throughout the year, some rings, bracelets, earrings, etc. But since 1999 I've been creating approximately fifty new pendants with stones a year.

HB: Why fifty?
RD: It's just what works for me. Every January is my design time. I go through my stones and pick out the ones that I am drawn to. I make ten tiny ones, with small stones. Ten with big stones, which will be very intricate. And then thirty that are in between. I start designing, and go with the first design that comes to me. 
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A glimpse into Rachelle's sketchbook. These pages are of her 2015 pendant designs.
HB: Your sketchbooks are incredible! What inspires your designs?
RD: I have always been inspired by nature and the places I have lived and travelled to are absolutely beautiful. The shape, color and sometimes a design within the stone inspires the piece. Like this one, to me this looks like an eagle. See the wings and the tail feathers? I first saw the eagle, but this Red Creek jasper is also the color of pipestone. Pipestone comes from South Dakota and is used by some Native Americans to carve out pipes, the part that the tobacco goes in. 

The inspiration for this piece came to me. I saw the eagle, the color of pipestone, and it inspired me to
saw out a buffalo. There are many bison in South Dakota one time I was camping and woke up surrounded by a herd of buffalo. It was in Badlands National Park. They were everywhere. I just kind of hung out and soaked it in. Zachery and I had to drive through the herd to get out of the campsite! I never sawed out a buffalo before. To me it is very sacred, and I didn't feel like I was ready yet. In that case it came to be. 
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L - The backside, Rachelle's very first buffalo carving. R - The frontside, showing the color of pipestone and eagle imagery. 
HB: What a powerful moment. Your process sounds very time-consuming. How long does it usually take for you to complete a piece?
RD: I do an assembly line process with all fifty pendants. So I'm working with all of the pieces at the same time in one specific process. When I solder, I'm soldering all the pieces. It makes it more efficient. If I do one piece from start to finish, I am amazed at how long it takes. 

HB: What about that piece? [I point to the largest stone three inches long, one inch wide.]
RD: I spent weeks on this one! It is the biggest piece I have ever done. I am on a mission to get it done for the Guild show. You'll just have to come to the show to find out the story! 
Rachelle's biggest piece, which is currently being made for the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands.
HB: The show! [The Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands.] Are you excited? What are you looking forward to the most?
RD: Totally excited, especially since I’m almost done with my new creations for the show! I put my heart and soul into what I create and hope to inspire others to become more of who they are through my work. I look forward to sharing my creations and meeting other artists. It’s a great opportunity to make connections of all kinds.

HB: What is it like to be a member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild?
RD: It feels like I am a member of a new family, just like that. A pretty nice feeling for someone who recently moved to town! I feel honored to be part of such a talented community of artists.

HB: As an artist who has exhibited in numerous Fairs, what do you find unique about this show?
RD: Well, I haven’t done the show yet, but I think it is unique because of the number of people who attend, and it draws folks interested in handcrafted art. The standards to be a member of the Guild are very high. The best of the best in the Appalachian area are all gathered under one roof for a spectacular exhibition of high quality art! It’s a great opportunity to meet many talented artists. Also, the show being inside is a huge bonus! If it rains, no problem.
Davis buffing her pendants, a part of her process resulting in a shiny finish.

No problem indeed. Upon moving to North Carolina, Rachelle Davis applied to the Southern Highland Craft Guild and became an official member in January 2015. She will be exhibiting at the 68th Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands from July 16th through 19th. You can find her at Booth 404 on the arena floor of the US Cellular Center in Downtown Asheville, NC. 

If you're trying to escape the July heat, head to Asheville for a weekend in the mountains and visit the show! The Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands is a bi-annual exhibition showcasing nearly 200 juried artists of the Guild. Works of metal, glass, fiber, wood, pottery, mixed media, natural materials, jewelry, and leather are exhibited. The Fair is a longtime tradition in Appalachia, and we look forward to seeing you there! 


July 16 - 18, 10 am - 6pm + July 19, 10am - 5pm 
US Cellular Center, Downtown Asheville NC | 87 Haywood Street
General Admission, $8 | Weekend Pass, $12 | Children Under 12, Free 
Tickets can be purchased in advance at either of the Guild Shops in Asheville, or over the phone at 828-298-7928.