By Marcy Stamper
Nicole Ringgold has dedicated herself to making intricately detailed botanical silver jewelry, from textured maple spinners to buds on crab apple twigs and delicately curving fern fronds.
So it was a resounding testament to the authenticity of her work when Ringgold received a recent commission for hemlock-cone pendants for a memorial dedicated to Flight 93, the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Because more than 100 hemlock trees were lost when the plane crashed, the hemlock theme has been incorporated throughout the Flight 93 National Memorial. The architect incorporated etchings of hemlock trees and needles into the windows, walls, floors and ceilings of the visitors center, said Greg Kraycirik, the unit manager for Eastern National, which operates museum stores at parks and memorial sites for the National Park Service.
Eastern National found Ringgold through her Instagram site. “We had been looking for a while for a handmade pendant or something that would hark back to the hemlock trees,” said Kraycirik.
Part of the proceeds from sales at Eastern National’s museum stores help support interpretive and educational programs at national parks and monuments. All items sold at the Flight 93 memorial museum store are approved by the park service. Family members of the 40 people lost in the crash are also consulted, said Kraycirik.
Ringgold said she was humbled an honored that her work had been chosen to recognize the loss at the memorial.
While the crash site is considered sacred ground and the hemlock trees are not being replanted, the Flight 93 memorial emphasizes the natural environment in other areas. There are wetlands, a wildflower meadow and several trails. Reestablishing wildlife habitats is part of long-term plans for the memorial landscape at what was once a surface coal mine, said Kraycirik.
While Ringgold has been making jewelry for about six years, she decided to devote herself full-time to silversmithing after losing her house and studio in the Rising Eagle Road Fire in 2014.
After the fire, Ringgold found studio space in the greenhouse at YardFood in Twisp, so she makes her jewelry just a few feet away from feathery herbs, veggie starts and ornamental cacti. “Given that I work in a greenhouse, it dawned on me to create plants,” she said.
Ringgold set herself a challenge of making 30 botanical pieces that would be as lifelike as possible. She kept a photo journal of each one to document the process from beginning to end.
“It took several months but, by the time I was done with the 30th, I was pretty much hooked,” she said.
Because her pieces are so faithful to the actual plants — down to every petal, seed pod and pistil — people often assume she uses a mold, but each piece is created by hand through sawing, hammering and bending sheets of silver. Depending on the plant, Ringgold may oxidize or incise the silver to add texture. She assembles the jewelry by soldering the components.
“People are very intrigued by the process. I always have to clarify that it’s hand-fabricated,” said Ringgold.
Ringgold enjoys studying plants to understand their physiology and figure out how to re-create them in silver. “The incredible thing about any pine cone or hemlock cone is that they are a perfect sphere when you look at them from the top,” she said. “I like to have the real plant in my hand to replicate it as closely as possible.”
To make the small, egg-shaped hemlock cones, Ringgold creates each individual scale by hammering it into a cup shape. She solders each scale to a central tube. “What’s challenging is to heat the center tube without getting it so hot that the pieces fall off,” she said. Each cone takes three to four hours to complete.
Each jewelry design is completely different and often requires brainstorming to figure out how to create it. “One of my favorite challenges was a broccoli floret,” said Ringgold.
Ringgold’s jewelry has attracted attention beyond Pennsylvania. A woman who grows olives on the Greek island of Lesbos sent an olive branch for Ringgold to make her a pair of earrings. Others have simply mailed plants — gingko leaves from Indiana and pine cones from around the country — or donated boxes of rocks and stones they have collected but have no use for.
Since she began focusing on plant-themed jewelry, Ringgold has found her one-of-a-kind creations sell almost as quickly as she can make them. When she posts new inventory on her Instagram site, it often sells out within 10 minutes, she said.
While Ringgold is focusing increasingly on individual sales and commissions, the Flight 93 museum store joins galleries and botanical gardens around the country that sell her jewelry.
After the fire, Ringgold got assistance rebuilding her business and studio from an organization that provides grants to artists who have been affected by a disaster. The expanded studio has enabled her to offer workshops in silversmithing. Her next intensive workshop for beginners is July 17 to 21. See www.nicoleringgold.com for more information.