Brian Brissette remembers the day Polly Earl and Barbara Hayslett of Fort Fairfield first delivered their .22 Bling jewelry to sell at Morningstar Art and Framing, the Presque Isle shop he owns with his wife Jane Caulfield.
Earl and Hayslett collect the .22 caliber brass casings that litter the shooting range after biathlon competitions and recycle them with shiny beads into necklaces, earrings, bracelets and zipper pulls.
It was February 2011. Presque Isle and Fort Kent were hosting back-to-back World Cup biathlon competitions at their respective Maine Winter Sports Center venues: the Nordic Heritage Center and the 10th Mountain Center. Biathletes, their coaches, staff and families from all over the world had arrived in Aroostook County for the events, which combine cross-country skiing and marksmanship.
Within minutes after the jewelry went on display, a team of German broadcast reporters strolled into Morningstar.
“It’s funny how things happen,” Brissette recalled. The journalists thought the jewelry would make a great local color story, and Brissette offered to arrange an interview with Earl and Hayslett.
The reporters later returned to the store with their equipment and Germany’s star female biathlete, Magdalena Neuner. When she learned the local artists had gathered casings after the 2006 Junior World Championships in which she had competed in Presque Isle five years earlier, she exclaimed, “Some of these could be mine!”
The cameras rolled, the reporters interviewed the skier and the jewelry makers, and the .22 Bling story was aired in Europe, where the biathlon is the most televised winter sport.
To date, making jewelry has been more an excuse to get together once in awhile than a business. Both women have full-time jobs and teenaged children, restricting the time for their creative efforts to the occasional weekend when they have a few moments free.
Hayslett is the district representative for U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, and Earl is a consulting educator of children who are deaf and hard of hearing for the Maine Education Center for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing.
A former biathlete, Earl learned to ski and shoot from her older brother who competed in amateur biathlon events in New Hampshire. He died at age 49 from Agent Orange poisoning, and she volunteers at Maine biathlon competitions in his memory.
Both women love to ski, but when it’s too cold to ski, it’s fun to make jewelry and chat in the warmth of their homes. They collect the shell casings in gallon and five-gallon buckets in the spring at the shooting ranges in both Presque Isle and Fort Kent.
“Recycling is an effort we support in Aroostook County,” they say in their mission statement, describing the jewelry as a useable by-product as well as a souvenir of an athletic event that is growing in popularity.
“Big events generate lots of casings,” Hayslett said. “We have plenty.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon, boxes of glass and wooden beads, simulated pearls and crystals, shell casings, earring wires, string and tools were spread out on the counter in Hayslett’s kitchen as the women worked to build their inventory in advance of the 2014 International Biathlon Union World Junior Championships starting Feb. 28 in Presque Isle. Earl had spent the morning drilling holes in the ends and sides of the brass shell casings using a fine titanium drill especially crafted for the task.
“This is the year we need to do it,” Hayslett said of the decision to get serious about marketing .22 Bling. “I like the idea that something from small rural Maine could go worldwide.”
Both women describe the venture as an evolving process. They obtained a mini-grant from the Maine Centers for Women, Work and Community to help build a new website and are working with Rainald Gervais of DigiMaine to introduce .22 Bling to the world.
Brissette admits he was skeptical that day three years ago when he accepted .22 Bling at his Presque Isle store where he showcases local artists.
“I really did not think women would buy jewelry made with ammunition.” But today, he says it appeals to both men and women.
He recalled a busy day last summer when a German couple came into the store, pleased to have found the place and the product they had seen on television in Germany in 2011.
“That just shows you should not underestimate an idea,” he said.
For more information, visit www.22bling.com.
This column was amended Feb. 28 to correct the fact that a German couple, not a single person, found the store and jewelry.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.