From left to right: Janna Lies, Beth Millner, Nina Lehto, and Amanda Kucharek.
by Rebecca Tavernini ‘11 MA
Wetmore Landing Shoreline
Chocolay Bayou Sunset
Mini Hike to Munising Falls
Radiating Greatness Lake Superior
When you read these words, you can’t help but think of Marquette and NMU, right? Do they instantly resonate, with your own memories etching in the details?
That’s what a piece of Beth Millner jewelry does, too.
These are names of her U.P.-inspired, handmade metal creations for neck, ear, wrist and finger.
Maybe there’s a curving copper river carving through silver banks lined with delicate trees. Or a silhouette of a sandhill crane. Or an outlined relief of the U.P.
Heritage Trail depicts the quiet but popular non-motorized pathway that stretches from Republic to Harvey and runs by both Millner’s home and business. Her business depicting the ideal for many a maker—a successful retail venture where she can create what she loves.
Millner ’08 BFA opened Beth Millner Jewelry, a few blocks from Lake Superior on Washington Street, in 2012. She bought a building (much to her surprise), renovated it to house a first-floor store and second-floor studio, and was soon employing five other people, all Northern alumni and students. Beth started her business in 2007, while still as a student, traveling to art shows and selling on Etsy.com.
“I always thought I was going to be an artist, but never thought of that as being a business person,” Millner said. “I just couldn’t get enough of it. I’ve been making jewelry since elementary school, and even sold friendship bracelets on the playground.”
Today, besides her own shop, Millner’s jewelry has been sold in stores from San Francisco to Florida, and she estimates that there are 10,000 pieces of her jewelry out there in the world. “With our website, BethMillner.com, we ship all over. It’s cool to think there are people everywhere wearing our pieces,” she said.
What’s the appeal? “Because it’s down to earth. I don’t consider my jewelry fancy. It’s really approachable. You can wear it with a t-shirt or a black dress. It’s connected to nature. Who doesn’t like beautiful scenery? It’s a reflection of our area’s natural beauty and our connection to that.
“Having my incredible staff helps give me time to try new designs. And to practice new techniques—which helps me to challenge myself as an artist—and to not make as many mistakes!” she laughed, in her own approachable way.
Her new Dreamscapes series involves as many as 15 different pieces of metal, diamond or local gemstones on each earring or pendant. “A lot of my work is representational of local landmarks: Black Rocks, Presque isle, Wetmore Landing. But the Dreamscape series is pushing the boundaries, challenging myself to do better.”
To look at what appear to be trees drawn onto metal, but are actually so finely cut through with a jeweler’s saw that an eyelash may not gain entry, it’s obvious that Millner is not coasting.
After “a lot of drawings in a sketchbook,” she scans and works on them digitally, so a design can more easily scale. She then goes old school, printing on paper, which gets glued to metal. She works with about 10 different metal alloys, including silver, copper, brass, yellow gold, rose gold and white gold, which is mainly from suppliers who take in scrap or recycle metal. It comes in the form of sheet, wire or grain.
She even has a precious supply of U.P. copper from a shuttered mine.
She has a personal connection with a rock hound couple from the Keweenaw who find and cut Lake Superior agates, rare copper agates, Michigan greenstones and U.P. Thompsonite. Most of the diamonds in the shop are certified recycled diamonds from scrap jewelry.
Millner may set the stones in a sterling silver twig engagement ring or have them serve as a rocky outcrop sprouting pines on a pendant.
Even the simplest pieces have numerous steps, with hammering, cutting, welding, darkening, texturing and removing highlights. “So much of it goes into making it feel nice,” she said. “No one wants to wear something that’s uncomfortable or irritating, so we spend a lot of time on the sanding and finishing of the pieces.”
In combination with hand fabrication, she also uses the lost wax casting method, which involves carving wax models, injecting wax fillings, heating plaster to 12,000 degrees and spinning molten-metal-filled casts in a centrifugal machine—all in a little section of the upstairs studio where you can see the steeples of St. Peter Cathedral out the window.
In a front room, business manager Janna Lies ‘10 BFA, a human-centered design grad, is photographing jewelry, uploading new pieces to the website, designing ads, preparing quotes for custom orders and paying the bills. Amanda Kucharek ‘15 BFA, an art education grad, is taking her place at one of the jeweler’s stations, to punch, file or solder, or be ready to circle down the spiral stairway to assist a walk-in customer. Nina Lehto ‘15 BFA, a ceramics grad, is putting a pair of petite peninsula earrings in a postal service box before heading into the fabrication studio.
“I studied metalsmithing under Dale Wedig,” recalled Millner. “He’s really funny, and his work is amazing. I learned from him that to make good work you need to make a fun work environment. He also taught me the value of hard work and allowing yourself to experiment and make mistakes in order to grow.
“The art program taught me how to discuss my work. Northern gives you a language to describe, talk about and explain your art. The reasons why you did something. People want to know more deeply why.”
To her, it goes deeper, too. She has special pieces that benefit nonprofits, such as the Michigan Lupus Foundation or Moosewood Nature Center. Beth Millner Jewelry also sponsors an award for each semester’s NMU Senior Art Show. “It makes the art more fulfilling to me. And I want to show the students that you can do well and get to a point where you can give back.”