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Why handmade costs so much . . . and is still a bargain

Nearly every artisan I know has fielded the question at least once, and most of us have been confronted by it frequently:  “Why is your jewelry/glassware/painting/pottery/woodwork so expensive?”  For those of us who use “found” materials, there is a special twist:  “If you just picked it up off the ground, how come you’re asking fifty bucks for it?”

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The “how come” is called cost accounting.  When I was studying for my two-year degree in accounting at Ivy Tech in Fort Wayne, IN, the one branch of accounting everyone hated was cost accounting.  Well, everyone except me.  I loved it.  And it has turned out to be most applicable and I think most valuable to a self-employed artisan.

So let’s look at all the costs associated with making a piece of jewelry from a “free” rock picked up off the ground.

First of course is getting out to the ground where the rocks are.

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This is a Google Earth (r) satellite shot of my Chevy Blazer and me out rock hunting on 30 December 2014, about 100 miles from my house.  Out in the middle of the desert.  Where the “free” rocks are.

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After collecting my rocks and bringing them home, I have to clean and sort them.  Though they may all look like just lumpy blobs of stone, they really are different types.  Did I mention it has taken me nearly 30 years of going out into the desert, collecting rocks, sorting and processing them to learn which ones are right for which applications?  Well, count that learning into part of the cost of the jewelry!

Once I’ve decided which rocks to use for jewelry, they have to be cut.  The saw is a Lortone 8-inch trim saw ($715) purchased new in 2015.  It uses a diamond-rimmed blade  ($16 from eBay) and about two quarts of lubricating oil ($12).  And electricity.

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The slices of stone are cleaned of oil by soaking overnight in a bowl of kitty litter, and then they are washed in water and dish detergent to remove the final remnants of oil and dirt.

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Slices like those pictured above will become my signature Angel Feathers.  That means they will spend the next six to seven weeks on one of my two Lortone tumblers, going through a series of progressively fine silicon carbide grits, then a pre-polish, and finally a polishing cycle.  That’s six to seven weeks, 24 hours a day.  The tumblers cost about $110 each, and you have to add the cost of the grits and polishing compounds, plus of course the electricity to run the machines.

Not all the stones I find “for free” are suitable for Angel Feathers.  These are usually larger slices that are trimmed some more on the saw to an approximate shape — called a blank — which is then ground on a diamond wheel to the next stage or “preform” before being domed on the grinding wheel into its final cabochon shape.  In the photo below, the brown jasper and white agate blanks have been marked with a template for the preform shape.

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Depending on the material, I may put the cabochons through the same tumble polishing process as the Angel Feathers — though this will only take about four or five weeks for most cabochons — or polish by hand on grinding wheels that are progressively finer down to polishing compounds similar to what is used in the tumbler.  By hand, it can take an hour or more to finish a single stone; by accumulating 40 or 50 preforms for a tumbler batch, I can process more at one time and save a lot of hand labor, as well as freeing myself to work on other tasks.

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Here are two of those white agate blanks after preforming, cabbing, and tumble polishing.

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At this point, the stones are done, but they still aren’t jewelry.  For that they need precious metal wire, tools, patience and experience.

I use solid sterling silver and 1/20th 14k gold-filled wire. with only occasional fun and inexpensive pieces using copper wire.  None of the wire I use is plated or “silver-tone” or “gold-tone.”  As of April 2016, sterling silver and gold-filled wire in the gauges I commonly use both run about $1.25 per foot, and a single pendant can easily contain four feet of wire, or more.  I use several different tools to twist, bend, wrap, and secure the wire; and a fairly complex wrap like this below can take two to three hours to complete.  The stone may have initially been free, but my time and labor are worth something!

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Yes, this is the stone from that first picture of slices; it sold at the first show at which I displayed it.

Making the jewelry, of course, is only part of the process, and part of the cost.  To sell it I also have the expenses of show fees and display equipment such as tables and table covers, packaging, transportation to and from the show.  If I sell online through a third party e-commoerce venue such as Amazon, there are listing fees and commissions to be paid; even my own website costs $25 to $30 a month plus payment transaction fees and of course the time to maintain it, such as writing this blog about how much it costs!

Would it be unreasonable to charge $100 for that Angel Feather?  Probably not.  I’ve often been told my prices are too low, but to be honest I don’t want to price myself out of the market, and I want my pieces to remain affordable for real people.  People like me, who don’t have a whole lot of extra money but still like and appreciate nice things.

So why, if there’s all this time and labor and material and equipment and everything else that goes into the making of a handmade piece of jewelry. is it still such a bargain?

Well, you can get a gold electroplated druzy quartz pendant made in a Chinese factory for a couple dollars.  The gold plating will wear off in a week or two, and the quartz may or may not be dyed.  The first few times it is worn, it will look pretty flashy, but after that, not so much.  More than likely it will be thrown away in six months, or taken to the thrift store.

Hand-made is much more personal.  If you come to know the maker, in person or even just through an online conversation about your order, you’ll probably learn that she or he really cares about their work.  They take pride in it and want you to be happy with it, not just for one or two wearings but for many, many years to come.

The same is almost always true regardless what the product is.  A quilt, a leather purse, a lathe turned wooden bowl, a hand painted gourd holiday ornament, a crocheted scarf: these are the things people make because they love to make them.  Because they’d rather crochet or paint or weave than sit in a cubicle at a magazine subscription call center all day.

If you’re interested in the inexpensive, the kind of thing you’ll use or wear a few times and then move on to the next cheap item, hand-made isn’t for you.  If you’re interested in the unique, the unusual, the made one at a time, then you’ll understand all the elements that go into creating that item, and how money alone can’t buy them.

Is hand-made expensive?  Maybe.  Is it also a bargain?  You bet!

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Toward a definition of handcrafted

The English author, artist, designer, and social theorist William Morris (1834- 1896) was a devout believer in the need for art and utility to go hand in hand.

Time was when everybody that made anything made a work of art besides a useful piece of goods, and it gave them pleasure to make it.

The emphasis is Morris’s, not mine, but maybe there should have been another emphasis on everybody that made anything.  Without the preceding phrase being highlighted, part of the meaning is lost.  It’s not just that people derived pleasure from making useful items that were attractive but that everyone did so.  Art and utility were one and the same, and it was . . . good.

Industrialization changed much of that, and Morris accordingly deplored industrialization.  He was, of course, wealthy enough not to have to labor for a wage.  He had the means to indulge his creative bent and to associate with others who were similarly positioned.  Even so, he understood the desire that lurks in many to put their personal mark on whatever it is they make.

William Morris would have loved Etsy, and it would have driven him up the freaking wall.

 

The dream is there.  Whether Rob Kalin had ever heard of William Morris, I don’t know, but as one of the founders of the original Arts and Crafts Movement, Morris would have agreed wholeheartedly with Kalin’s vision of a marketplace for all things handmade.  Morris would have recognized the enthusiasm of those artisans who work full-time day jobs and plunge into their second jobs making things to sell on Etsy.  Morris and his contemporaries would have supported the “quit your day job” philosophy, and would probably have sponsored lecture series to help crafters achieve that goal.

What Morris would not have understood was a redefining of handmade to encompass industrial mass production.

When a marketplace begins redefining the essential terms of its business, one has to look at the reasons.  In the case of the redefining fo handmade, the reason is clear:  Money.  But money was not supposed to be either the motive or motivation behind Etsy; the art, the revolution, the transformation of the marketplace was what mattered, or so they said.  Once the terms and their definitions became fluid and subject to radical change to fit circumstances, the philosophy no longer mattered.  It was all about the money.

So let’s use that as the basis for walking the definition back

If it’s all about making money, it’s probably not handmade.

No product is completely handmade.  Even if the knitter shears her own sheep and spins her own yarn, she doesn’t grow the wool herself.  Setting that argument aside, is there a point at which handmade begins and a point where it ends?  And if there isn’t a hard and clear line, is there at least a range in which consensus reigns?

Sadly, no, there isn’t.  The marketplace devoted to handmade has so thoroughly changed the definition that they have even changed the culture of handmade:  If it makes money, it’s handmade. Even if by no other definition is it handmade, even if its maker admits it’s not handmade, it’s handmade if it makes money.

Fortunately, away from that marketplace, more traditional meanings do reign.  Words have meanings, after all.

How can a marketplace determine what is and isn’t handmade?  What criteria can it use, what limits can it set, who will make the decisions?

Let us start with some other questions, to be asked of the potential seller.

Would you make it even if you couldn’t sell it?  Is it about the making or the selling?  Which is more important to you?  Would you give it away and claim it as handmade?  Would you take pride in your contribution to its making?  Do you take pleasure in making the item, or in the selling of it?  Which is more important to you?

I grew up in a family of handcrafters.  Great-grandma Daisy Andrews made yo-yo quilts and felt booties.  I have none of the quilts, but I have two pair of the booties, sewn together with featherstitch embroidery and made before I was born.

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Her daughter, my grandmother Mom Helene Mueller,  seemed to make everything.  She knitted and crocheted and sewed.  I have several hand-knit sweaters she made me and an afghan.  My mother’s father, Pop Dick Mueller, was a self-taught carpenter and taxidermist and rock garden landscaper.  He made doll furniture, too, and Mom Helene made the quilted bedding.  I still have them.

My mother, Elaine Wheeler, sewed.  I was so proud to wear one-of-a-kind dresses that she had made; I never felt ashamed of handmade; I loved it.  Though all those little dresses and skirts and jackets are long gone, I’ve kept the doll clothes.  The dolls were often purchased on lay-away long before Christmas, and the clothes made using remnants and scraps from the clothes she made for herself.  Yes, I still have them.

My dad, Don Wheeler, didn’t have a fancy workshop or even a lot of tools, but he loved fixing things and making things with what he did have.  The black wooden cabinet started out as just a bookcase, a simple frame with some shelves.  Nothing more than pine boards and plywood.  The bottom doors came next, and then the upper glass doors.  It’s in my family room right now.

Why the genealogy and litany of crafts?  Because that’s what it all means to me.  It’s not the money.  It’s the making.

I can no more stop making things than I can stop breathing.  I can no more stop writing than I can stop eating.  This is what I am, and if I am a rather extreme example, I think there are many others who aren’t far from it.  We are delighted that we can sell some of our creations and make some money from them and share our enjoyment with others.  For some of us the revenue is more than just welcome; it’s needed.  Without it, we would have to find real jobs — or seriously cut back on our spending (even if it’s just spending on our craft).   If we have real jobs, we look forward to the day when the crafting income will replace the paycheck,  because it’s all about the making.

Are there people who get a creative high from hanging an inexpensive mass-produced charm on an inexpensive mass-produced chain and calling it a handmade necklace?  Are there people who fill album after album on Facebook with pictures of their imported-and-embellished headbands to share with friends and family?  I suppose there probably are, but I’m going to believe that they are few and far between.

I suspect there are far more of us who have secret stashes of crafting materials we don’t dare reveal to spouses or even friends.  We can’t help ourselves.  We make things compulsively, not because we think there’s a market for them or because we believe we can sell them, but because there’s a part of us that demands we make them and because it feels so damn good when we do.

Does this mean there is no profit motive at all?  No, of course not.  For some of us, as I mentioned above, the money is needed.  Crafting is not the only possible source of income, but it supplies both the revenue and the creative pleasure, and thus it is highly referable to the day (or night) job.  For many of us, that pleasure so far outweighs the advantages of a day job that we are willing to work longer hours at lower pay and put up with a whole bunch of annoyances, nuisances, and inconveniences rather than trade for the dependability of a weekly, semi-monthly, or monthly paycheck.

We do it because we believe in putting a part of ourselves in our products.  If the item that goes into the shipping box is something that anyone else could make without special talent, without special training, and most of all without special desire, it’s not handmade.  Whether it’s soap or jewelry, a purse or a necktie, a greeting card or a candy dish, a wedding dress or a coffee table, the defining characteristic is not in the product but in the producer.

El ojo que ves no es ojo porque tú lo veas.  Es ojo porque te ve. – Antonio Machado.

(The eye that you see is not an eye because you see it.  It’s an eye because it sees you.)

The marketplace can redefine handmade all it wants.  Mass produced in a slave-wage factory may be acceptable under the site’s Terms of Use, but calling it handmade or even selling it as handmade does not make it truly handmade.  Only the maker can do that.

 

 

 

 

 

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Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained. Or, Just Do It

So, I did.

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Why?  Because!

I am terrible at self-promotion, and I always have been.  Since I never win anything, I don’t enter contests.  (The only time I ever won an award was when I not only didn’t enter but didn’t even know it existed!)  As I wrote on Facebook, however, there was a kind of convergence of events that prompted me to take advantage of the last day of nominations.

So I nominated myself.  Since the nomination form requires all kinds of information about oneself, one’s history in the handmade “business,” and so on, self-nomination is the only kind that really works, so I didn’t feel too awkward.  I’m not sure that I gave all the right answers, but you can judge for yourself if you click through from the badge above to my profile page on the award’s site.

I have been a rock hound all my life, and I grew up in a family of do-it-yourselfers.  My grandmothers knitted and crocheted.  My mother sewed.  Handmade Christmas ornaments were a tradition on all sides of the family, whether they were Styrofoam balls with sequins pinned on, reindeer made from clothespins, or walnuts painted like strawberries.  It never occurred to me as a child to be ashamed of or embarrassed by handmade stuff.  I loved having one-of-a-kind.  Maybe that’s why I still have my dolls and especially all the handmade doll clothes.

By the time I approached adolescence, I had an inkling that part of the reason I had a lot of one-of-a-kind, handmade clothes was that we didn’t have a lot of spare cash for a ready made store bought wardrobe like most of my friends.   There were a few nice hand-me-downs, and I appreciated those, but they came with an understanding that someone else had more than we did and felt kind of sorry for me.  I preferred to have less, but to have it be handmade.

The same held true when I was on my own.  I took pride in making do on a slim income.  Making my own clothes, making my kids’ clothes.  Making quilts, even if they weren’t from intricate patchwork patterns.  Crocheting afghans and knitting sweaters.  In many cases if I didn’t make it, we didn’t have it.

I signed up for my first craft show in November 1975, when I was six months pregnant.   The $10 entry fee entitled me to one 10-foot table.  I brought no table cover, and I had barely enough inventory to fill the table.  Not my best showing by a long shot, and I barely made back the entry fee.  I remember that the weather was terrible; even though the show was indoors, people were kept away by wind and freezing rain.  A few years later I did the same show again with a bigger and better inventory, and better results.

Then we moved to Arizona.  With its really neat rocks.  As I made more jewelry and became more proficient at the craft, I ventured to apply for larger shows than the small local events.  Some were successful, some weren’t.  There was no way to be successful, however, at a show I didn’t even apply for.

Even so, when I learned about the Martha Stewart AmericanMade award, I hesitated for a long time.  Do I qualify as a business in the Martha Stewart sense?  I don’t know.  I have a business license.  I pay taxes.  I have a website and an Etsy shop.  Is that enough?  I don’t know.

Last week my daughter-in-law, photographer Shonda Hilton of Clinton, Washington, wrote her own blog post about the value of professional photography.  She wasn’t really saying anything I hadn’t said and thought myself for many years, but because she works in a different creative field and was speaking from a slightly different angle, her justification resonated with me.  Sure, I’m selling a stone I went out in the desert and picked up off the ground, but my contribution doesn’t stop there.  (By the way, Shonda took two of the photos I used in my AmericanMade nomination; I don’t do white backgrounds very well!)  There’s a lot that goes into making a stone into a piece of jewelry, both before and after picking it up.

After reading her blog post, I began to think some more about the Martha Stewart award.  Why not?  It wouldn’t cost me anything, not even an entry fee.  Just the time to fill out the form and nominate myself for the chance to win $10,000.

What sealed the deal was the baseball game Sunday night.  Jessica Mendoza had been hired by ESPN as a baseball analyst, the first woman to hold that position, and was announcing the Cubs/Dodgers game.  Yes, the NFL had recently hired their first female official and the Arizona Cardinals had hired a female football coach.  But I’m a baseball fan.  White Sox more than Cubs, but that’s beside the point.

Well, no, it’s not beside the point.  It’s actually part of the point.  Because back in the 1960s, it was the Chicago Daily News newspaper, in conjunction with the White Sox, who sponsored the annual contest for batboys.  There was an official form and I think you had to write 150 words about why you wanted to be the batboy, and then get a parent’s signature.  Everyone who entered got a baseball, and two lucky boys would be chosen.

No girls allowed.

That didn’t seem fair, so prior to the 1961 season — I was in seventh grade — my friend Sue S. and I decided we would enter.  We would somehow forge our mothers’ signatures on the form and enter in defiance of the rules.  I did it, she didn’t.  Of course I didn’t win.  I didn’t even get the free baseball.  Maybe the newspaper just automatically disqualified me because I was a girl, or maybe they figured out I had forged the signature.  At any rate, I didn’t get to be batgirl for the White Sox.

But Jessica Mendoza’s presence in the announcer’s box reminded me of the fearless 12-year-old I’d been.  So as soon as I got up yesterday morning, on the last day of nominations, I wrote out all the stuff you see on the linked profile and nominated myself for the Martha Stewart AmericanMade award.

Of course I won’t win.  But maybe someone will see what I’ve written and understand what it means to make something yourself and then share it with others.  That’s the whole point of being in business.  Oh, sure, making money is part of it because we can’t get by without some kind of income, and that’s why we make our hobbies into businesses.  For me, though, a good part of it is the sheer joy of playing with the rocks, finding them, turning them into wearable art, and then sharing with someone else.  Especially sharing them with someone who might not be able to afford the more expensive baubles traditionally touted for the ooh and aah factor.  I’m going to give people something no one else can buy anywhere else for any price:  One of a kind.

 

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Summer is a-windin’ down

Believe it or not, August is almost over.  In just another week, summer will be unofficially over.

For me, it’s been a very busy summer, and reasonably productive!  I’ve made some new jewelry pieces.

 

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In fact, my inventory going into the 2015 fall art show season is larger and more diverse than it’s ever been before.

Thanks to the new Lortone rock saw I purchased this spring, I started cutting into the vast stockpile of material accumulated over the past 30 years of Arizona rockhunting, not to mention what I’ve acquired from gem and mineral shows, estate sales, and gifts from friends.

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I’m also learning my way around social media a little better.  Those of you who know me are familiar with my kind of one-woman-show style, where it’s me on the stage and I just kind of talk at you.  You’re always welcome to chime in with questions or comments or even disagreements, because dialogue is how we exchange and expand our knowledge.

That’s why I’m going to invite some friends, and their artwork, to join me.  Let’s see what some other folks are doing with their rocks, or what other arts and crafts they create.  I’ll still get up on stage now and then — I’ve got a blog post in draft mode right now on diamonds — but I really want to put the social in this media.

Do you have something you’d like to get some additional visibility on?  A crafting problem we can maybe work out together?  What can we do to help each other, not just with “like” and “favorite” games, but with real assistance.

You know my philosophy.  You know how I’ve attempted to integrate my arts and crafts endeavors with that philosophy.  It’s time to stop philosophizing and start doing.

 

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Amethysts and Arizona

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The mountain is called Four Peaks. I can’t quite see it from my house because Superstition Mountain rises between us, but a walk or drive of less than a mile brings Four Peaks into view. Though it’s rarely covered with snow, this truly purple mountain majesty is readily seen all over Arizona, and in fact anywhere an Arizona vehicle drives. Four Peaks is featured, appropriately in purple, on our Arizona license plates.

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The sunset on the mountains isn’t the only reason for the colorful description. Four Peaks is the location of one of the world’s most famous amethyst mines, and the only commercial amethyst mine in the United States.

Amethyst used to be considered a precious stone, along with diamond, emerald, ruby, and sapphire. Those latter four continue to be precious because gem-quality material remains relatively rare. Amethyst lost its “precious” distinction when huge deposits were discovered in Brazil (see sample below) and other parts of South America in the 18th century. Amethyst’s loss is our gain, because abundant supplies means lower costs!

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Diamonds are carbon crystals. Rubies and sapphires are corundum; emeralds are beryl. Amethysts are silicon dioxide, or just another variety of one of the most abundant minerals on earth, namely our old friend quartz. It’s not really surprising then that amethysts show up in many localities around the world, and especially in Arizona.

Several years ago, my late husband and I were rock hunting at a location where we had previously found some purple jasper and some crystal-lined geode fragments. Putting the two together, I thought it quite possible that we might find some amethysts. Maybe not gem quality crystals, but who knows? When I spied a baseball-sized chunk of rather nondescript rock that looked like it might have a vein of agate running through it, I asked for the rock hammer.

“I wanna whack this rock,” I said.

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He laughed. “You think you’re gonna find amethysts?”

With a confident grin, I replied, “No, I don’t think so. I know so.”

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They’re very pale lavender and they’re cloudy rather than clear, but they were really amethysts! How did I know they were there? To this day, I can’t tell you. But I just knew. Later we found a few more similar light-colored crystals in the same area, but never anything like Four Peaks!

A few years ago, I acquired some raw Four Peaks crystals from an elderly friend who had collected them himself 40 or 50 years ago. Photographs can’t do them justice.

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Because amethysts get their lovely purple color from traces of iron that mix with the silicon dioxide of quartz, some of the crystals from Four Peaks are coated with hematite, an iron oxide, in the form of a shiny, sparkling reddish-brown crust.

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To fully appreciate these gems in the rough, you have to put them in perspective.  How big are they?  They can be pretty darn big!

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One of the characteristics of Four Peaks amethysts is that they often have a red flash.  This means that when faceted, the finished gem will show a spark of bright red when moved to catch the light.  I make no claims to be a great photographer, but I did catch just a tiny bit of the red flash in this little rectangular cut Four Peaks amethyst, photographed in bright early morning sunshine.

 

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Not all of Arizona’s amethysts form nice big distinct crystals like the jewels of Four Peaks.  A few months ago I purchased a slice of amethyst and citrine that came from a mine in western Arizona.  Here the individual crystals are smaller and mingle in a more massive formation.  Citrine and amethyst often occur together, and when in the same crystal they are called ametrine.  In this cabochon you can see the crystals in the formation, both purple and yellow-orange.

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Held up to the light — in this case, the rising sun — the color variation is even more dramatic.

 

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Because the amount of iron varied as the silicon dioxide crystals formed, amethysts range in intensity of color from the pale lavender of my whacked stone to the deep purple of that little rectangular faceted stone.  And as you can see in the photos above, an individual crystal may fade from the very dark purple at the termination point down to almost white at the base.  Here’s a nice sized — but imperfectly cut — round amethyst that exhibits a not uncommon streaking of the color.  That’s a good indication this is a genuine amethyst and not a fake.  Fakes — usually glass or a vibrantly colored cubic zirconium — tend to be uniform in color and flawless.  This stone not only is streaked with darker and lighter bands of purple, but it also has inclusions and other flaws that are rarely present in lab-created gems.

 

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Arizona has several other purple gemstones besides amethyst.  The Burro Creek and Sheep Crossing rock collecting areas produce lovely purple agates.  Though I haven’t been to Burro Creek — yet! — I’ve been to the Sheep Crossing and it’s everything the guidebooks say . . . and more!  Maybe next blog post we’ll go there.

 

 

All photos copyright Linda Ann Wheeler Hilton

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Come in, come in. The door is open!

Welcome to Arizona Angel Feathers, a very special kind of gift shop.

Here you’ll find not only the distinctive Angel Feather agate jewelry but also all kinds of wonderful, beautiful, unusual gems and jewelry as well as other delights and treasures from the natural world.

But be warned: The owner of this shop has been known to expound on a variety of issues, some of which may be a little bit controversial. She is a passionate advocate for art and artisan crafts, everything from (gasp!) crocheted pot holders on up. Stained glass, wheel-thrown pottery, wood carvings, fiber art, quilting, fine art photography, painting and drawing: Eventually you’ll find all these and more discussed on the Angel Feathers blog.

So come in, take a look around, set a spell, and enjoy!