MOUNT DESERT, Maine — Inside Lisa Hall’s jewelry studio and store in Northeast Harbor, glass once carelessly tossed into the sea is transformed into art.
Cobalt blue, white, green, brown and other, rarer shades of lavender, red, orange and turquoise seem to glow in the sunlight streaming through the windows. Time and tides have worked their weathering magic on the shards of old bottles and other types of glass. Hall, who is perhaps Maine’s best-known maker of sea glass jewelry, said she still enjoys walking the shores of Great Cranberry Island off Mount Desert Island in search of more raw material to turn into necklaces, earrings, rings and more.
But it’s not as easy as it used to be.
“There’s not that much glass left,” Hall, 49, said.
The reasons for the change, she said, are numerous. One important reason is that people recycle more these days and are less inclined to toss glass into the sea. Still, the decrease in glass is probably matched by the increase in the use and disposal of plastics, which remain easy to find on Maine’s beaches. One foundation estimates more than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every year.
But there is another reason for the precipitous decline in the weathered sea glass on Maine’s coast. More and more people have seen the beauty in sea glass and are collecting it themselves, Hall said.
“What I love is making bigger, one-of-a-kind pieces that are a little more outrageous,” she said. “I like treating sea glass like gems. I like treating them like they are one-of-a-kind. They’re more rare than a diamond, if you think about it.”
Searching for sea glass
Hall’s journey to becoming a well-known Maine jewelry maker also could be considered one-of-a-kind. She is originally from the Boston area but grew up spending summers at her grandmother’s cottage on Little Cranberry Island, where looking for sea glass was one of her favorite activities. She loved those summers in Maine and dreamed of finding a way to come back for good. During college, she expanded her horizons when she studied abroad in Florence, Italy, a city that abounds with Renaissance art and jewels. After college, she returned to Italy, where she took a jewelry making course on a whim. But when she came back home to the United States she aimed her car north to Maine.
“I got here,” she said. “That’s all I ever wanted.”
But, as is the case for many Mainers, she found that making a living here wasn’t so easy. Hall got a job as a sternman on a lobster boat that fished out of Little Cranberry Island. Other fisherman figured that a summer person wouldn’t be able to make it, but she figured otherwise.
“I did it for two winters, out of stubbornness, mostly, because I had something to prove,” Hall said. “I just wanted to be here, and this was a way to be here.”
The work was cold and hard, but she loved experiencing the beauty of the ocean in the early mornings and the chance to be alone with her thoughts. She kept up with jewelry making, too, working summers for Sam Shaw, a well-known Northeast Harbor artist and jeweler. After a couple of years, she gave up the lobster boat and worked full time for Shaw. Then after a few more years she decided to go to work for herself.
In 1999, she was busy doing gardening work for her husband’s nursery and landscaping business and making sea glass jewelry “once in a while” in a renovated lobsterman’s shack on Great Cranberry Island when a chance encounter led to opportunities and changes. A writer for Martha Stewart Living magazine visited Little Cranberry Island and saw some of Lisa Hall’s sea glass jewelry for sale at a gift shop near the town dock. The woman ended up writing an article about the jewelry maker, and almost immediately after it was published in the summer of 2000 Hall’s phone started ringing off the hook.
At that time, it seemed the whole world wanted what Martha Stewart liked, and not unlike the process of finding smooth, time-worn bits of sea glass on the beach and turning them into coveted pieces of jewelry, the article and the ensuing clamor had essentially plucked Hall and her sea glass creations from obscurity. Everybody wanted a piece of jewelry.
“It was almost too much. I was crying every night,” she said, reflecting on that time.
After working double-time to fill the orders that flooded in from around the country and world for her wares, it became clear to Hall and her husband, Gary Allen, that they needed to expand and grow their business. These days, Hall and her employees make jewelry in a spacious studio in Northeast Harbor. That’s where her showroom is, too. On a recent summer day a steady stream of customers walked up to check out the delicate necklaces, rings, earrings, pins and more that were on display in the sea glass section of the studio and store. But there’s more to Hall than sea glass, and a second room makes that clear.
Beyond sea glass
“I love that I am the sea glass person, but I don’t necessarily only want to be that person,” Hall said. “I’ve always loved spookier stuff. Skulls and bats and haunted houses, Gothic architecture, Victorian memento rings. I love antique jewelry, but I don’t want to recreate it. I love taking inspiration from old stuff. I want the jewelry to be wearable and fun, but not so over the top that people wouldn’t wear it.”
Here, in a space that offers an unimpeded view of the jewelry makers at work in the studio, there are jewelry collections featuring snakes, skulls and tiny crowns that are made with the opulence, mystery and glamour of medieval and Renaissance art. Instead of the beachy pastels of sea glass, these pieces feature gold and silver and gemstones in rich colors. And in addition to jewelry, there are other artisanal products for sale, including clothes, clutches, candles, pillows, scarves, sail bags and luxury soaps and scents from Santa Maria Novella, a pharmacy established in Florence, Italy in 1612.
“I want it to be unusual but accessible,” Hall said of the store, and the goods for sale there. “Not so weird that people don’t understand it or want it.”
Snake and skull jewelry notwithstanding, the store and workshop space has a friendly, welcoming vibe. Hall is friends with the jewelers she has trained to help her make her pieces, and the women banter cheerfully with each other as they use soldering torches to secure the sea glass into gold and silver settings. Boxes full of sea glass separated by shape and color are the product of the quieter winters, when Hall and her employees spend time sorting through supplies while binge-watching shows on Netflix.
Even if there is less sea glass available on the rocky beaches around her, Hall has a network of established collectors who sell her their pieces. The glass has to be smooth and weathered, a process which can take decades or more in the ocean to get just right. It can’t be too sharp, clear or big, and it certainly cannot be mechanically tumbled, a thought that nearly makes her recoil in disgust.
“No. There’s no point in that for me,” Hall said. “This has to happen through nature.”
It’s nature that has turned the glass from trash to beauty and nature’s work that has caused her jewelry to be worn by customers all over the country and beyond. Seeing someone walk by wearing one of her necklaces, rings or other creations still brings Hall a thrill, a feeling she expects to continue forever.
“That never gets old,” she said. “I still love it. It makes me so happy.”