Middle Age Craze

Medieval crafts go modern in the jewelry of three local artisans.

The Goth look has had its time in the gloom of youth fashion, but Medieval aesthetics are poised for wider appeal. Tucson artist Courtney Crocker is creating innovative jewelry that incorporates the work of two other local artisans, Miki Hackler and Bronwen Heilman. Hackler builds chain mail into jewelry, clothing and even armor; Heilman lampworks one-of-a-kind glass beads.

"I've always had a fascination with Medieval and Byzantine things, and Hackler's chain mail is reminiscent of those eras. The patina of the metal creates an aged, antique look, while the brightness and color of the crystals and glass beads give the jewelry a more modern, youthful feel," explains Crocker. She feels that both Hackler's chains and Heilman's beads strike a balance between being strong and tactile and also delicate. Masculine and feminine, bold yet not overwhelming--the same is true of Crocker's designs.

"I love her work," declares Hackler. "It is very trendy and very now, but in a classy, upscale way. I'm not interested in adding to my chain mail in the same way, but I think her results are fantastic."

Raised in Southern Arizona, Courtney Crocker is no ordinary dietitian. Recently, Crocker embarked upon beading crystal jewelry as a means to making Christmas presents for a few friends, but it quickly became a part-time venture.

Her chain mail designs came about from a casual downtown stroll, upon passing by the window display of Wonderland, a store that is no longer open. A chain-mail bikini by Hackler caught Crocker's attention. Soon after, she commissioned Hackler to create the chains she wanted, thus beginning their working relationship.

Crocker's creative process does not involve a carefully thought-out design, but rather consists of playing with the materials at hand. She has an intuitive sense of what looks good, so it was natural for her to experiment with combining the chain mail material, the colorful crystal and glass beads.

Born in Japan and raised in San Diego, Miki Hackler drifted into the art of chain mail through her curiosity about her armor-making neighbor, Dan VanPelt. After learning some basic techniques, she began experimenting with different metals like stainless and galvanized steel, aluminum, copper, brass, silver and gold. Hackler makes everything from scratch, starting with straight wire.

Her designs are simple and tailored, including necklaces, rings, bracelets, anklets, head pieces, tops, dresses, vests, bikinis, bras and lingerie, with some incorporating elastic and leather. Hackler plans to play with combining fabrics as well. Although she has done armor pieces, usually for people involved in reenactments like those of Renaissance fairs, Hackler prefers to produce fashion-oriented creations and club wear.

She moved to Tucson three and a half years ago and continues to develop her business through contacts across the country, by word of mouth and by displaying pieces in shops.

Making chain mail is an extremely intricate process of metal weaving, but it is the material of her art that impels her. "I'm inspired by the feel of the metal," she says. "I like creating and working with my hands. And I enjoy the whole process, from the design concept all the way through to the finished product."

IN 1996, BRONWEN Heilman and her husband were wandering around the Gem and Mineral Show and made a spontaneous visit to the bead displays. She was so inspired by the variety, beauty and artistry of what she saw that she went out that same day and bought all the necessary equipment to make her own glass beads. It was only two short years before Heilman quit her day job as a mechanical engineer and began making beads full time.

Born in Ohio, Heilman has lived in Tucson on and off since second grade. She picked up the lampworking process with relative ease, in part because she had done jewelry and silversmithing for many years. An ancient method of glass bead making, lampworking involves melting glass around a manually-rotated mandrel (a thin metal rod), which creates multiple layers of glass, one on top of the other, until the desired shape and design are achieved, and then it is annealed in a kiln. As a result, no two pieces are alike and each is born at least as much from perspiration as inspiration.

Heilman's innovations are fueled by the world around her, especially the desert and fine art. She says she loves working with glass because its liquid, malleable qualities combine with a dynamism to create a sculptured, magical, miniature world with surprising texture, astonishing colors and hidden depth. "Every morning is like Christmas," she says with child-like glee. "I rush out to my studio, open my kiln and see the beautiful pieces that await me. I just have to show my whole family."

Crocker insists she does not have the patience for the intricate and labor-intensive work that both Hackler and Heilman's art demands. This is fortunate, because it is their collaboration that allows for a perfect balance. Their art comes together so beautifully, you'd expect it to be the result of a scrupulously planned design by all three, but it is not. It is precisely Crocker's genius--her inclination for creating combinations that are simple, provocative, whimsical and always beautiful--that creates this magic.

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