“I love making things. It took me awhile to realize that you could actually go to school for that and jewelry is the one way that I found to make a living at it,” says Elaine Butcher. Almost two years since she officially launched her Elaine B Jewelry studio, it’s clear that Butcher has found a way to build a life around her handmade designs. Many Elaine B pieces are straightforward: metal cages and loops, gracing a collarbone or ear here, a wrist or finger there. Often, their lines give the impression of a prism or crystal, despite providing little more than a thin contour of those shapes. Butcher describes her designs as geometric and, technically, that’s accurate. However, the word doesn’t account for the grace in the silver teardrops cascading from an earring or the breezy chasm created inside the gold-framed cube on a necklace.
Her first signature pieces were these cubes, pieced together from thin strips of silver or gold in a way that attracts attention to their airy emptiness rather than a glittering excess. From there, she embraced other shapes—tetrahedrons, hoops, even hearts—maintaining the same simplicity of design. She says, “I try to be as minimal as possible while still being interesting, but I am always learning new ways to make it better. I am a very quick designer, less is better.” This minimalism is balanced with the playfulness of a vintage jungle gym, the efficiency of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, and the functionality of Charles and Ray Eames’ work. Indeed, Butcher counts the Eames among her influences and, like their work, her jewelry brings sculptural aesthetics to the everyday. As one of her longtime collaborators, DC-based photographer Billy Prime reflects, ”I've had the opportunity to shoot Elaine's jewelry frequently since she got started. I really appreciate how she's able to blend strong lines and more organic forms, which fits perfectly with my more avant garde work.”
Many Elaine B pieces are crafted from recycled metals, sourced from a supplier that melts down old wedding rings, gold teeth, and other precious metal scraps. Butcher jokes, “Whenever you see those ‘We buy gold’ signs, it’s like, ‘where does that go?’ They sell it to the refinery, and they melt it down, and then it goes to people like me.” With growing frequency, Butcher also includes gems and stones in her designs. She says, “A lot of my work is in metal, but I love buying stones because they’re so beautiful. I get a lot of stones from traveling: I was in Vietnam a couple years ago and got all kinds of rubies, topaz, and quartz; I was in Namibia and South Africa and got a bunch of tourmaline.”
Regardless of the materials used, one thing remains constant in Elaine B designs: wearability. As someone who will occasionally wear a bracelet for weeks at a time, Butcher brings her personal desire for durable and versatile jewelry to her business as well—an especially important fact since she often wears her own designs. “A lot of times, it’s just easier to wear my own work,” she jokes, “you have to test it to make sure it works.” Likewise, as she’s continued to test her designs and refine her metalcraft skills, she’s also had to hone her talents as a businesswoman.
Growing up, Butcher split her time between Colorado and Virginia where her mother owned a restaurant in Charlottesville. As an undergraduate, she studied glass and metal at VCU in Richmond, but learned plenty from the family business as well. Butcher reflects, “My mom and my sister really know all about having a business and working your butt off. I really learned a lot of that work ethic from that. It’s just one step at a time: today I get my business license; tomorrow I start telling people about it.” After she graduated from college, the restaurant also provided a landing place for Butcher, who spent her days experimenting with her own designs and working for her jeweler-mentor, Gabriel Ofiesh. Nights, she waitressed at the restaurant, earning enough to ensure her continued freedom to experiment. When the time came for her to strike out on her own more than a year and half ago, she was ready for Elaine B to become a full-time commitment. Both her business plan and jewelry designs were ready for the big time.
Since then, the Elaine B studio has grown to include Lauren Samay and Matt Jackson, who, among other talents, provide extra sets of skilled hands to construct the delicate jewelry. Now retailing in more than 40 shops around the country, Elaine B’s growth has been organic but steady, supported by Butcher’s own tireless energy as well as the city she calls home. “Charlottesville has been an awesome place to start a business. People are so supportive and I’m really lucky to have the community here,” she says. “But of course, there’s only so many times you can sell your friends a pair earrings. I have to find new people, new ears.”
This summer, Butcher is working to sustain Elaine B’s trajectory, participating in more trade shows and craft fairs while also preparing a large online marketing campaign for her work. She continues to expand her retail locations around the state and country, including a growing presence in Washington, DC. After all, she says, “This is such a great time in my life when my business is going well. I don’t have any kids. I don’t own anything. I can really put all my energy towards it and just see what happens by re-investing everything, so that’s what I’m doing.”
Elaine B Jewelry will be at Charlottesville’s monthly fleaVILLE event at IX Art Park on August 8 and September 12. To see more of her work, visit elainebjewelry.com.
Photography by Monica Pedynkowski