Lapidary Journal March 1996

Wanderlust

By Debra Diamond Smit
Photos By Paul Johnson

Even at a standstill, Lynne Merchant is in motion, propelled by the colorful swirl of her gypsy skirt, her wild hair, and the chink-chink of silver jewelry. Her fingers, adorned by rings, emphatically circle the air to make a point; her face, always laughing, is animated by each turn of phrase.

Stop Merchant long enough to engage her, and the raconteur springs forth. The smallest things in her world deserve attention and have a story — an old wooden bowl, a brass bell, an appliance that works well. It is a skill she has cultivated through the years, working the flea markets of the world, hawking her early jewelry under brightly painted Bali umbrellas, living up to her last name.

Today, on the brink of 50 and settled in the idyllic hamlet of Leucadia, California, she speaks of her creations as a continually evolving process. Like herself, they are the product of authentic thinking and ceaseless motion. From the beginning, Merchant embraced the artistic streak that ran through her family. Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she scraped tar off the street, rolled it into little balls, and stuck rocks into it to make patterns. After her family moved to La Jolla, California, she began whipping up original clothes from anything interesting she could get her hands on.

“My grandfather was a violin maker,” she explains. “He taught me that my first tool was my hands. He told me they were precious and to take good care of them.”

After high school, Merchant enrolled at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. It was the ’60s, an exciting time for the school, which emphasized pure form and natural materials in addition to its formal art education.

“It was all about skilled craftsmanship and an honest use of materials,” Merchant recalls. “It was there that I learned that when you mass produce something, it is dehumanized.

“I began to learn how to restore the dignity of something — a lost object found or something broken,” she continues. “One of my favorite quotes, one that I use now in my classes, makes this point: ‘In elder days of art,/ Builders wrought with care/ Each minute and unseen part,/ For the gods see everywhere/”

In her senior year, swept up by a man and the turbulent times, she left school. The Vietnam War and the draft led her to Canada. After several years of work as a children’s art teacher, she met another man, a surfer with an entrepreneurial spirit, who led her on a decade of travel around the world.

Gypsy Foot

“We went straight to Africa,” Merchant recalls. “I wanted to deal with my own guidelines, not someone else’s. We left the controlling world behind.”

Three months into the trip, the American bohemians ran out of money. They were living out of rondavels (native huts) and traveling in an old VW van. Money, or the lack thereof, convinced them to befriend an Australian sandal maker in the hope of learning his trade.

“We first asked him to teach us,” says Merchant. “But he shook his head. ‘No, but you can watch me while I work.’ That made a big impression on me. A big impression. To observe a real craftsman as he created.”

Every morning they rose early, sat down, and watched. Once satisfied that they understood the basics of the craft, they spent their last $100 on a leather hide and began to cut and sew. Six months and dozens of hides later, they had grossed $3,000.

And so Merchant discovered what she calls her “gypsy foot.” She and her friend peddled their way to France where they lived out of a Citroen school bus, which doubled as their workshop in the summer months. In the winters, they lived in chalets and skied the French Alps, tinkering away the hours on their sandals. “We were very earnest in our commitment to our work,” Merchant recalls.

Each spring, the two set off to sell their wares at flea markets and festivals around France, always beginning at the Paris flea market. From there they moved on to the festival of Avignon and then traveled overland to places like Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Morocco, and Yemen.

It was during their first winter in France that Merchant began experimenting with leather jewelry. From the leftover strips, she fashioned bracelets and buttons, adorning them with silver and copper wire as she had seen done in Africa. But it was only later, after a trip to Afghanistan and India, that she began creating her own wire jewelry.

“I would comb the marketplaces and bazaars hunting and gathering up old jewelry,” Merchant recalls. “I knew that almost every single shop had a box with broken pieces. I would say to the owner, “Show me your box with the broken pieces.’ My challenge was to look through them and decide if I wanted a few pieces or if I wanted the whole box.”

From these junk drawers rose a treasured collection of antique necklaces, loose beads, buckles, chatelaines, pins, and old coins that was to inspire her future creations.

“In Afghanistan, I would sit knee to knee with some of the old babas and learn how to put these things back together again the way they originally were,” Merchant says. “They were very kind to me, the old men. They would call me over to “Sit! Drink chai (tea).'”

Merchant kept a journal of her experiences, a sketchbook where she recorded all her impressions of what she saw at the time.

“What I ended up with (many years later) was better than a picture because I put something of myself into every drawing. It captured my own impression of what I saw at the time. I was always interested in stretching my authenticness.”

She also sketched the tools she saw. The Afghans made almost everything with two tools, a cutter and a long-nosed plier. They also used their feet and teeth when they worked. Although Merchant doesn’t go that far, she adopted many of their simple techniques. To this day she insists on “working only with manual tools.”

Merchant traveled for eight years, selling her necklaces, earrings, bracelets, anklets, key chains, and pins from stalls at flea markets around the world. She made her living solely from her art.

The Road Home

At the age of 32, she was drawn back to her home state of California. Lured by the prospect of a successful flea market in the area, she bought a Mexican-style beach bungalow in North County San Diego. There she has remained, surrounded by worldly relics collected on her travels: silver hand-beaded purses, carpets from Afghanistan, Russian scarves, Oriental fans, and a tortoise-shell cat named Paz.

Merchant became a regular at the flea market along Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia. Her dangly, Calder-inspired earrings and clunky key chains were a favorite among the locals who visited her stand regularly, as much to listen to her stories as to buy her work.

She began making her own beads and working on more ornate, complex pieces. One piece that brought her particular pleasure was a series of necklaces fashioned from old dog licenses she had collected. Part of the design’s appeal was its resonance of an old mongrel scratching himself, Lynn laughs. Another idea was gleaned from her sketchbook: wispy ticklebrushes she saw in India inspired her to use the whiskers her cat left behind.

Between trips to France and Bali, Merchant moved her jewelry cases to the parking lot of Stilettos Vintage Clothing and later to the Seaside Bazaar in Encinitas. Umbrellas above her, a thermos of rich, European-style coffee at her side, she sold from the site every weekend for seven years until word of her work spread and the tide turned.

“All of a sudden I started getting good at what I was doing,” Merchant says. “People began coming and demanding my work in particular, not just the things I had pieced together.” 

In 1989, the Shepherdess in San Diego offered her a place to teach her wire-bending technique. It marked what Merchant considers to be the second half of her life experience.

“The first part of my life I was busy gathering things up,” she says. “I think that I began expanding artistically when I started teaching. It forced me to intellectualize what I did, so in a way I had to learn everything I knew again.

“I express my experiences of the movement of life through the movement of the jewelry I create. I love that movement, just as I love traveling.” Merchant’s pieces are designed to spring or swing as they are worn. As many friends and devotees of her creations attest, she makes her clients try the pieces on. After studying it, she then taps it to make sure it has proper sway. “Most sterling silver wire is dead soft,” she explains. “I create the tension in the wire by hammering it on my anvil or pulling it through a draw plate. The tension is created with intention. If a piece is too rigid, it will break. I want it to move.”

It is a point of pride that Merchant has remained loyal to the tradition of ethnic wire bending. Everything is created with one of 10 simple tools, implements that fit neatly into her small, traveling tool pouch. Her one luxury is a custom-made hammer she designed with the help of a machinist and a woodworker.

“I think we all came into this world with a bag of tools,” Merchant says. “Some want to open it up and see what’s inside. Others never want to know. I challenge my students to be brave, fresh, bold. I tell them: unedit your thinking. Let yourself have an authentic experience.”

Ancient Methods, Modern Jewelry

Lynne Merchant embraces ancient methods of any kind, especially those that transcend the effort of a modern device. She learned her technique at the knee of master wire benders. She was inspired by the Kuchi coil, a technique she now considers part of her personal trademark.

The Kuchi bead is fashioned by tight coiling developed by the Kuchi tribe of Afghanistan. The wire is first pulled through a draw plate, then wrapped. The coil is created by weaving two pieces of sterling silver wire tightly together — a long piece of 20-gauge is wrapped snugly around a shorter piece of 18-gauge, 6-inch wire. After the first coil is complete, it is coiled again and again around a long-nose plier. This gives it the effect of layers of coils. Merchant often embellishes the bead with copper.

Some of Merchant’s most exquisite necklaces are linkages of her hand-turned beads, no two beads or links the same. She calls this model her “Chain of Events.” Each signature bead is baptized by name — there is the Calder Coil created from a “running line” of wire, and the Blue Moon bead, which takes so long to complete that she only makes it once in a blue moon.

A peek into her traveling pouch reveals the tools of her trade: long-nose pliers, a series of Swedish-made Lindstrom tools — round-nose pliers, flat-nose pliers, chain-nose pliers, and “bambutchas,” or cutters — several rulers, a polishing cloth, a manual hole punch for coins, a file, a mandrel, a draw plate, a chasing hammer, and an anvil. Merchant likes to work on a piece of black split leather at her dining room table under the watchful eye of her cat.

Acquiring a command of the tools is the key. In her classes, she teaches many dexterity techniques, such as the “organ grinder,” the “motorcycle mama,” the “ouch whoa,” and “a sock on the jaw.” All focus on developing a range of motion in the hands and the position of the pliers. She uses her hands, her tools, her whole body as leverage.

“Wire has different personalities,” Merchant explains. “Gold is king, silver is queen, copper is the crying metal — bend it too far and it will break. Brass is very brazen, it will go one of two ways. Silver is very reasonable and kind. It is very playful, that is until you hammer it. It allows you to go back and straighten it if you have a change of mind.”

In her work. Merchant uses simple tools, remaining loyal to the tradition of ethnic wire bending.