LINCOLN SQUARE — Diamonds, rubies and emeralds are nothing more than cut and polished carbon, beryl and corundum.
That's the premise behind artist Theresa Cowan's designs, on display at her new shop Mineralogy, 1944 W. Montrose Ave.
Mineralogy jewelry designer Theresa Cowan at her newly opened storefront, 1944 W. Montrose Ave. [All photos by DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
An outgrowth of Cowan's online presence, Mineralogy is a brick-and-mortar showcase for the 28-year-old's handcrafted pieces of jewelry, which incorporate lesser known stones like the milky green chrysoprase, pinkish-purple lepidolite and the glittery druzy.
"I'm really attracted to how they're all so different, where they come from," Cowan said. "They all have such unique properties."
Patty Wetli says Cowan's interest in minerals came from science class:
"For a while, I was working with fossilized [horse] teeth. They were two million years old," Cowan said.
Her aesthetic isn't for everyone, a point Cowan freely acknowledges.
"There's definitely a group of people who would have no interest in my statement pieces," she said, and she's fine with that.
"I don't like to make stuff people would find somewhere else."
Jewelry designer Theresa Cowan admits she has a weakness for the color green. These rings are bezel set, which gives the stone a sturdy mount but also requires the use of more metal.
When Cowan, a native of Fond du Lac, Wis., first moved to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute, she originally thought she'd study fashion design.
An accessories class turned her on to jewelry making and a course in earth science piqued her interest in minerals.
It was a short leap for Cowan to combine her two new passions, but she's the first to admit her earliest efforts were rudimentary.
"I started collecting minerals and wire wrapping them," she said. "I needed to figure out a way to create what was in my head."
She signed up for metalsmithing workshops at Lillstreet Art Center, where she picked up skills like soldering and learned how to melt, hammer and otherwise manipulate gold and bronze into prong and bezel settings.
"It's really changed the way I work," said Cowan. "It opened a whole new door."
One of Cowan's first wire-wrapped designs, at left. Her creations at right, since learning metalsmithing techniques.
For Cowan, a piece of jewelry — be it a bracelet, ring, necklace or earrings — always starts with the stone.
Though it would be romantic to picture Cowan hiking through mountains and deserts in pursuit of some elusive mineral, most of her raw materials are bought during annual pilgrimages to Tucson's Gem, Mineral and Fossil event, where dealers converge every February from all corners of the globe. The "event" is really more like 30 shows held over the course of several weeks — some in makeshift booths along the road and others at convention centers.
"There will be tents of fossilized minerals, amethyst spires and huge tabletops of petrified wood," Cowan said of the chaotic scene.
Her parents frequently travel with Cowan to Arizona, helping her sift through scores of vendors' wares. In general she has a preference for "dreamy colorscapes," but for Cowan to buy a stone, the rock has to "pull at my heart," she said.
Since she isn't trained in the art of lapidary — the cutting and shaping of stones — what she gets is what she sets, irregular shapes and all.
Some of her finds suggest their own use, while others patiently wait for a flash of inspiration from Cowan, biding their time in one of her many storage cabinets.
"It's better if they hang out until they have a purpose," she said.
The same could be said for Cowan.
She spent years working as a bartender while designing jewelry in her spare time.
"There was always that fear of not being able to make it," she said.
Then in December 2014, the Chicago Firehouse, where she'd been mixing drinks, burned down.
Cowan interpreted the fire as a message, a sign she was meant to create jewelry full time.
With the support of her husband, Alex, she turned their Old Irving Park home into her workshop. Custom orders, particularly for engagement rings, picked up to the point where having her own storefront/studio became feasible.
"I missed interacting with people," Cowan said.
Mineralogy is the former home of Alapash. It now houses Cowan's retail shop and design studio.
Despite the shop's airy and orderly appearance, jewelry making is anything but.
"It's definitely messy work," said Cowan. "I have to wear a mask because of the metal dust."
As she demonstrated the process of turning two-dimensional metal wire into a three-dimensional ring, Cowan also revealed metalsmithing to be a loud and semi-dangerous craft.
How rings are made (clockwise from top left): A piece of metal "wire" (in this case brass) is pounded into the desired thickness; the rough edges are sawed off; the metal is torched at a couple thousand degrees to make it pliable; the metal is formed into a rough circle; the edges are soldered together; the ring is hammered into final shape and size.
Clanging hammers, hair-thin saw blades that'll slice through a finger and torches heated to thousands of degrees are all tools of the trade.
"It feels bad-ass," Cowan said.
Mineralogy, 1944 W. Montrose Ave., is open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, and noon-5 p.m. Sundays.
Materials and tools of the jewelry trade: gold, in various forms; stones, such as lapiz lazuli; hammers, wire cutters, saws and more.
Theresa Cowan at home in her new shop/studio, Mineralogy.
Cowan is adding more metal pieces pieces like these earrings to her retail offerings, in addition to jewelry featuring stones from her collection of minerals.
Theresa Cowan's designs. Earrings, top row center, are made from druzy. She crafted the ring, lower right, from gold scraps.
Mineralogy's Theresa Cowan said she likes stones in dreamy colors.
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