Duluth silversmith builds jewelry to last
Yarrow Mead uses natural materials in her handcrafted pieces that are organic and human.
Yarrow Mead held a custom order of sterling silver hoops she made with peach moonstone and a client’s teeth.
“She walked up to me with a bag of her molars. … She handed them to me and was, like, ‘I would like a pair of earrings,’” Mead recalled.
It’s not new material for the Duluth silversmith.
In her business Yarrow Mead Metals, she has an array of rings and necklaces she forged using recycled metal, agates, sea glass, amethyst — and deer and bear teeth. She likes using nontraditional, affordable materials in her work that reflects her heritage and where we live.
Mead grew up in Finland, Minn., drawing bugs in detail on trips with her entomologist father. She went to college to be a scientific illustrator, but she got into metalwork by way of her college props department.
Silversmithing is working with fine metals such as gold, silver and platinum to make a variety of works, including jewelry. It’s all about the tiny details; Mead is really detail-oriented. And she said it’s gratifying to create something you can wear that will last.
After college, Mead moved to Grand Marais to work with metalsmith and jeweler Stephan Hoglund. What was meant to be an unpaid apprenticeship turned into a job after three months. It was very affirming, Mead said.
After working with him, Mead set up shop with secondhand tools.
Standing in her studio at the Armory Arts and Music Center, there are handwritten notes, some thank-you’s. Sage hanging from a thread. A painted bug and a deer skull with a beaded necklace on its horns.
She likes bugs, she said.
Animal teeth are hollow on the inside, so she fills them with jewelry epoxy. Human teeth can carry pathogens, so she wore a respirator until they were sealed.
Mead flipped through her book of sketches; it’s how she starts her designs.
And she collaborates with clients on custom orders. (She’s currently working on a scientifically accurate replica of a weather system for a ring.)
After her design is set, she either creates a wax mold, which she will cast in a kiln, or she solders and hammers metal pieces into the jewelry she envisioned.
There are hazards to this work. Mead uses acid to dissolve the carbon from metals.
That’s why there are holes in a lot of her clothes, she said, sticking a finger through her apron.
There are third-degree burns if the wax she uses drops on her thighs, and a slip and nick on a jeweler’s saw means it’s time for the super glue.
“I just use it to glue up cuts,” she said.
Mead is “obsessed” with texture, and it shows: a tapered wedding ring with what looks like yellow gold ripples that she forged on her anvil; a Thomsonite pendant encased in a detailed aspen bud; green lake glass butterfly wing earrings with small circles and line work.
She has sets of rune rings with different letters from the Elder Futhark alphabet representing intelligence and new beginnings — a reference to her Scandinavian heritage.
There are carvings on the insides of some of her ring bands, and she likes seeing the tool marks in her work. “If you're looking to buy jewelry made by a human being, then I like leaving the marks of a human being,” she said.
Mead has honed her voice as an artist the past year, said metalsmith and jeweler Britta Kauppila by email. “Yarrow’s work is very textural and earthy with nods to her Scandinavian heritage.
“Her roots of growing up on the North Shore are prevalent.”
Mead has a “very organic sensibility,” and her work captures the essence of where she is at the time while incorporating the materials of her place, Hoglund said. There’s a big difference between makers and designers, he added, and Mead will walk far and wide away from cookie-cutter works.
Mead is an advocate for the slow-fashion movement, which is understanding there are people behind everything we wear, and supporting fair treatment. So, she’s choosy about who she’ll source materials from.
And she aims to build jewelry that will last, that can be passed down, and won’t end up in the landfill. Jewelry is about expression, she said: “They’re mementos in many cases. They’re objects that we invest part of our identity into, and it can be really beautiful in a lot of ways.”
An article that holds personal meaning for her is one her father made her mother in college. It’s a silver saddle ring with a pine tree and a moon; she won’t wear it while she works.
And when she sees someone wearing jewelry she made, it feels like a home visit, she said.
While it has been tricky to run a business at times (she’s not a fan of admin work), she said she’s thankful for a supportive arts community here.
Her trick is to huck and pray, she said. “Just do it. Throw yourself in it, and see what happens.”
More info: Yarrow Mead Metals, yarrowmeadmetals.com
Find her work: Duluth Folk School, Back Alley Duluth, 47 Degrees in Knife River