The small Acadian village of Cocagne is nestled along the Northumberland Strait in New Brunswick, Canada. It’s an area of natural abundance; a “land of plenty”, which is what Cocagne means in French. It’s a beautiful part of the world. Inspired by this natural beauty Marcia Poirier, the artisan behind Wildabout Wampum, creates spectacular jewelry from quahog shells. Quahogs are edible clams that live on the eastern coast of North America. Admittedly, when I think of the unremarkable clam I do not immediately think of spectacular jewelry. At least, I didn’t before learning about Wildabout Wampum.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Marcia’s home-based studio and meeting her in person. Marcia is friendly and welcoming. She’s full of energy and passionate about her art. She personally took us on tour of her studio and boutique. I love the story of how Marcia got started making these unusual treasures. As she tells it, Marcia and a friend were walking along the beach when she spotted a quahog shell with an unusual marking. Marcia picked it up and pointed out a heart shape in the purple layers of the shell. She tossed the shell and they went on with her walk. A few days later, Marcia’s friend surprised her by giving her a carving kit along with the very same quahog shell she had tossed away. Marcia went on to carve out that heart and then wore it as a pendant.
Friends admired Marcia’s quahog heart pendant and asked her to make one for them. Marcia has been making hearts, and other beautiful jewelry, ever since. Isn’t that a great story?
Marcia eagerly shared her knowledge about quahogs explaining how the purple and white layers of the quahog shell are annual growth bands. The age of a quahog can be determined by counting the layers in the shell much like counting the rings in a tree. The vibrancy of the purple layers is affected by various environmental conditions including the level of iron found on the ocean floor. Marcia has learned which areas produce the most intensely colored quahogs and exclusively sources her shells from those locations.
After selecting and preparing a quahog shell, Marcia transfers a design onto the shell. She selects and positions the design to maximize the natural layering of the shell. The design is carefully carved by hand using tiny power tools. The piece is then sanded by hand to a smooth, shiny finish.
After watching the artisans at work in the studio a visit to the Wildabout Wampum boutique is mandatory.
The shop is well-stocked with a wide selection of pendants, earrings, bracelets and other items. This stunning whale tail pendant is a popular design.
Of course, I couldn’t leave Wildabout Wampum without selecting my very own one-of-a-kind memento. Isn’t it lovely?
Marcia’s success in turning quahog shells into beautiful jewelry is a remarkable story. But it doesn’t explain the name of her studio. Why “Wildabout Wampum”? After she started making her jewelry, Marcia learned that Native Americans, the Wampanoag Indians in the area now known as northeastern USA, carved beads from the purple sections of the quahog shell. These beads where used for trade and ceremonial purposes. The Natives used the beads as currency for trading. They also wove the beads into patterns to form “belts” for ceremonial purposes. The patterns indicated tribal history, inter-tribal treaties and even sanctified wedding vows. Today, wampum (like those shown below) still have a special significance to Native Americans.
Mystery solved! Wildabout Wampum doesn’t actually sell wampum but the name is a clear nod to this honorable heritage.
While I love wearing my Wildabout Wampum heart pendant on a chain, I couldn’t help but wonder how it would look on a woven statement necklace. I found yarn in nice complementary colors and then followed the step-by-step instructions from my post DIY Woven Statement Necklace Tutorial. I made a few refinements such as leveraging a blank metal jewelry connector for the top bar and using decorative yarn for the top row of fringe. The woven necklace provides the perfect backdrop for the gorgeous quahog shell heart. Now, I have two ways to wear my Wildabout Wampum heart.
I’m always intrigued by how traditional arts and crafts can be re-imagined in contemporary ways. I seek out examples of how materials and/or techniques have been changed to bring new life to an old practice or product. This is a perfect example. Thanks to Marcia Poirier, the original art of carving wampum has evolved into hand-crafting beautiful quahog shell jewelry.
Learn more about Wildabout Wampum on their website. Be sure to check out Marcia’s video “The Art & Design of Marcia Poirier” and the galleries of her collection.
The Tourism New Brunswick website has additional information on Cocagne, New Brunswick, Canada.
Here’s the link to my post on the DIY Woven Statement Necklace Tutorial. It really is an ideal DIY project. It’s fairly easy, it’s inexpensive, no special tools are needed, and it’s fast. But the best thing about this project is its versatility. You can change the colors, embellishment, size or design to make your own one-of-a-kind work of art!
- Keep your eyes open for unexpected sources of inspiration.
- Consider ways to transform the ordinary.
- Seek out opportunities to learn about the artisans and craftspeople in your community.
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