A Wayward Word's Worth

At the heart of her craft

Marcia Poirier’s wampum shell jewelry began as a fun project but grew into so much more- a thriving business, a creative outlet and, most importantly, the source of a deep bond between the artisan and her husband. By Kyle Mullin for New Brunswick’s Telegraph Journal, August 21 2010

Marcia Poirier’s pulse swelled with the sound of the rising tide because, for the very first time, she’d found her heart.

Its gleaming purple stripes popped out amongst the endless identical grains of sand, and as the chilly foaming sea lapped against her toes she rushed over and scooped the little shell up, marvelling at the symmetrical curves that made it look like it belonged in a valentine. She knew right away, with a little crude cutting, that little shell would make an ideal heart shaped pendent- but she had no idea that it would become her obsession for the next decade.

“It put the ‘ug’ in ugly,” she said of the first piece of jewellery she’d created out of the coveted wampum shells. “I had made the most
pathetic little heart out of it just for fun, but people thought it was cute. Soon my Mom wanted one, then a few friends, and it just kept on from there.”

DELVING INTO THE DETAILS: Poirier puts the finishing touches on one of her renowned Wampum beads

Within a few years she had her own business called Wildabout Wampum, selling earrings, necklaces, tiny statues and countless other trinkets all created from the violet stripped ocean gems that littered the beach near her home in Cocagne, a tiny New Brunswick hamlet between Shediac and Bouctouche.

Poirier’s wampum jewellery became the top selling local product at the Hopewell rock’s gift shop- she now produces 55 pieces a week for them alone, compared to the her initial weekly grand total of 50. Jewellery shops from as far as Fort McMurray Alberta regularly order shipments from Wildabout Wampum, because the shells Poirier digs in New Brunswick are a richer shade of purple, due to the high mineral concentration of the Fundy Tides.

The abundance of orders helped Poirier perfect her craft- each piece of her handmade jewellery is first buffed with glinting diamond sanders in the shell’s every nook and cranny. She then draws the designs that the vendors demand- usually beads, stars and hearts-onto the shell as a guide before cutting those shapes out with a diamond
drill bit.

“But you can only make so many of the same hearts and stars without wanting to stick that diamond drill bit in your own head,” Poirier said with a laugh. “That’s why I allow myself one play day a week to just experiment with a new design- whether it’s a wampum Harley Davidson motorcycle sculpture, or a new kind of necklace.”

Little did she know that by simply stringing those shells into necklaces she was adding a new link in an age old lineage. As her
creations began to sell she researched the wampum, only to find that it was once used as currency between  Aboriginals and  European settlers.
As Poirier delved deeper into the endless online articles about the shells, she came to find out that a purple wampum bead was once worth 20 shillings and that Manhattan Island had once been purchased for 28 pounds of those gleaming violet beads.

INGRAINED INSPIRATION: One of the standard triangle beads that Poirier carves out of rare Wampum shells

“The funny thing is it didn’t become currency until the Europeans realized how much the beads were prized by the natives,” Poirier said. “It wasn’t so material for them, the natives saw wampum as something spiritual. Treaties were made with the trading of wampum belts. Loved ones draped their elders with these beads before they entered the afterlife to show that they were loved and respected, and wampum was also used to sanctify wedding vows.”

And in a way, wampum helped strengthen her own marriage after a brush with the afterlife.

When Poirier was captivated by her first heart shaped shell nearly a decade ago, her husband Dave Francis bought her an amateur jeweller’s kit to kick-start her creations.

“Not everyone who wanders is lost, but I’d always been artsy and content to float about for inspiration without any real direction in my life,” she said. “Dave encouraged my love for these shells, and he helped me find focus by supporting me, by running the business side of our shop and helping me figure out how to sell this kind of jewellery. I owe all of this to him.”

Francis said he was more than happy to indulge in his wife’s inspiration, because he had an inkling of its potential from the start.

ARTISAN'S PASSION: Poirier grinds the edges off each of her handmade beads

“Artists are known to be flighty, and that’s not necessarily a bad connotation,” he said. “But they often aren’t wired the right way to be business people. When an artist works on something it’s hard for them to objectively price it, because they know how much they put into it and how much it’s worth to them, even though the public might not pay that much for it just yet. I help Marcia find the right balance so we can sell a lot more.”

But Francis knew almost immediately that the public could be captivated by such creations- partly by the way the violet stripes shone in the setting sunlight, and partly by his wife’s impassioned tone as she first presented the shell, and the notion of making something of it, to him while the tide rolled in on that tiny beach.

“When she first told me it’d be easy to see the shape of a heart by cutting it out (of the shell), I thought if she could perfect (that process) it would be something special. Because in this day and age everything gets copied so much, people would love a truly unique piece of jewellery.” 

And as they stood and pondered the possibility of cutting a crooked heart out of a simple shell, they  also began carving a niche that would help sustain them when Francis’ own heart literally failed- after emergency six bypass surgery in July, the store, their shells
and their craft gave him something to focus on as he slowly recovered.

“My heart attack didn’t come at the worst possible time, because we had built the company up enough that it could survive rough spots,” he said. “If it wasn’t for that, and for being together as long as we have- I mean, Marcia and I have been inseparable for almost a decade, we lived in an RV together for a year- if not for that, this summer would have been much rougher.”

Poirier said this tumultuous season ravaged their business. Normally she would tour the province this time of year, showcasing her creations at an endless number of craft shows. She also had to take over her husband’s managerial duties as he recovered. But as her husband grew stronger he offered her more inspiration- this summer alone Poirier has pushed herself to create wampum sculptures of lobsters, unicorns on their hind legs, and dozens of other intricate trinkets that demand meticulous efforts.

The heart shaped beads are now more than the top selling item at Wildabout Wampum's- they've also come to symbolize the artisan's inspiration

“I realized life’s too short to be boring,” she said. “I want these shells to be voluptuous, sensuous, with a hint of boldness and fun. That’s the same way I perceive life with my husband, and as he was getting better (this summer) we grew even closer, and appreciated that even more.”

For more information visit wildaboutwampum.com.

(All pictures provided by Marcia Poirier).

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