Centuries have gone into Maria Wolff’s work. Her handcrafted jewelry—round pendants featuring colorful butterfly wings framed in silver, handwoven Viking chain earrings, a bracelet featuring the head of mythological beast—is a culmination of traditional craftsmanship and modern design. Each piece is a testament to folklore and family and the fellow makers she’s met over the years who have become another family of sorts.
Maria first understood the art of craftsmanship through her father, a fifth-generation master cabinetmaker who was born in Denmark. But the 44-year-old’s evolution into a jewelry-maker and metalsmith wasn’t preordained. It was a path she followed in fits and spurts, when moments called out to her over the noise of a busy life.
“The first time I really paid attention to jewelry was my first trip to Denmark,” says Maria. “My aunt had the most gorgeous silver jewelry on. It was so well-crafted and beautiful.” Her well-traveled aunt bought jewelry from talented makers wherever she visited. The jewelry looked like “miniature sculptures,” Maria remembers. “They looked so good,” she says. “I thought, ‘I want to try to make that.’”
Maria started taking jewelry-making and metalsmithing classes at Portland Pottery, in between shifts as a nurse’s aide and nights playing music at open mics around town. And something clicked. “I took every class I could,” she says. “I found my craft. It really spoke to me.”
At 29, she started at Maine College of Art, where she honed her skills. “My four years at MECA were crucial to learning discipline and working with others and being inspired by others,” she says. “And putting on really killer shows.” After school, she immersed herself in the jewelry world—working for a craft gallery in Chicago, working trade shows in New York City and London, selling high-end jewelry and meeting metalsmiths and stonecutters and other makers from around the country. But her own work took a back seat. So back to Maine she came, intent on getting back to her craft.
But re-starting that creative engine—simply picking up where she’d left off—wasn’t easy, so she looked to friends and other makers she knew in town for support and inspiration. “We started having meetings,” she says. “We all sat down and said, ‘We should start a group. We all need to get back into our craft. Let’s make each other accountable.’” The Metals Collective was created in 2010. They held their first show—featuring a selection of decorative Absinthe spoons—at Bar of Chocolate in Portland. They’ve held nine shows since, including “The Fragrant Jewel” at The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box this past summer, which featured a stunning array of contemporary vinaigrettes (small trinket containers that were used in the late-18th to mid-19th century to hold aromatic substances). The collective’s current show at Blue in Portland runs through Jan. 7.
“Being able to work with the collective in creating objects outside of our comfort realm, while sharing our individual craft, has been really crucial to my work,” says Maria. “I need and want that community in my life. Working with others makes you see more parts of yourself.”
It has been through the collective that Maria reconnected to her own work, which for the last seven years has been focused on the delicate and iridescent wings of butterflies. “I’ve always loved them. They’re so beautiful,” she says. “And there’s so much folklore around butterflies.”
The wings (which come from naturally expired butterflies) are set into pendants and earrings made from precious metals, and the colors of each wing—the contrasted blacks and whites, the rusted oranges, the bold blues and sweet pinks—shine at the center. And each is unique. “I never make the same piece twice,” says Maria. “It’s the nature of how they’re made. Each piece is hand wrought.”
There’s also something extraordinary about breathing a new kind of life into such a fleeting thing. “(The butterflies) live only one to two weeks in winged form,” she says, “so it’s an honor to use their wings and they can live on. The jewelry can be worn for 100 years.”
More recently, Maria’s work has been influenced by her Danish ancestry and an enchantment with Vikings. “I grew up with a pure Danish father…a lot of Danish heritage and stories,” she says. “My father was really fascinated by the Vikings. He did extensive studies on Viking shipbuilding and was always trying to make miniature Viking ships.” He’d hoped to write a book on the subject, but he passed away in 2012 before he could. Maria herself has long been drawn to Viking handicraft, but after losing her father, she undertook a new resolve to carry his legacy forward. “It feels like the natural evolution,” she says.
And when it comes to craft, the possibilities are endless.
Shannon Bryan is the editor of Maine Women Magazine. She lives in South Portland and is always up for an adventure.
Find Maria Wolff’s work:
Metals Collective group show, “Resonance,” a jewelry show based on the theme of music, with work on display and for sale through Jan. 7 at Blue, Portland
MECA Holiday Sale, Dec. 2-3, at Maine College of Art, Portland
And look for her next summer at the Yarmouth Clam Festival
Or at mwolffjewelry.com