Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Junk Jewelry Christmas Tree

What to do with junk jewelry?  I've really been wondering that for many years and only recently discovered a good answer.

I have more than 400 pairs of earrings, and some I have no intention of ever wearing again because they are tarnished, broken, missing a mate, or not my style.  But I never throw earrings away nor most other jewelry because I have this crazy notion I will make my own with leftovers someday when I have ample time.  But not all jewelry can be strung together with beads.

Of course if you have good jewelry, you can sell it to a pawn shop or mail it to the gold and silver scavengers who will melt it down.  You can also donate to a thrift store, and there are some charities that collect nicer accessories and give them to battered women starting life anew so they can look polished on job interviews.

But if, like me, you have a lot of old jewelry you're pretty sure no one else will want and it just seems WRONG to throw it in the trash can, then this is a great idea for how to repurpose it, and it's surprisingly easy.  (Click "Read More" and scroll to the bottom of this post for directions.) The other reason I like this craft is that it is the perfect compromise between my need to get rid of junk and my desire to cling to the past.

Two years ago, my dad died on my birthday, and one of my brothers died about six weeks later from oral cancer.  They had lived together in the split-level house we grew up in that had been in the family since 1972, and they left it a filthy, cluttered mess.  My mom died in 1997, so there had been no woman's touch for more than 15 years.  My two surviving brothers and our kind spouses and friends spent several weekends sorting and throwing out truckload upon truckload of junk.

There was so much stress and junk that I would become rabid whenever I came into contact with clutter around my own home. Get rid of it! I would scream at myself (or my husband). Otherwise in 40 years, someone will be going through our attic asking Why? Why? WHY would someone keep this totally useless flea-infested scrap of fabric that was once a child's Halloween costume?  If only someone had saved it 10 years ago before the mold set in!

Yet at the same time, going through junk at my dad's house made me come into contact with items I couldn't part with in good conscience. Or I would be conflicted. We were trying to empty the house to sell it, so I ended up reluctantly bringing numerous boxes of junk to my townhouse so I could sort through them later.  (As if there were any available storage space left in my townhouse!)

As time went by, when I could muster up the strength, I would venture into the guest bedroom thinking I would just sort through one of the boxes and it would take maybe a half hour at most.  I just needed to make sure there was nothing in there that would be important to the settling of my dad's or brother's estates for which I was the Executrix.  But every time I opened a box, an hour and a half later my husband would find me in the guest bedroom crying again.

There were receipts from stores like Ivey's and Brendle's that haven't existed since the 70s.  The title to my dad's long-gone Fiat that cost $3,000 brand new.  Paychecks from Lock, Stock & Barrel and Steakmasters (restaurants that once stood where three or four other restaurants have come and gone since).  Letters I sent home from college. My mother's diaries that I never knew she kept.  (The entry for the day I was born indicating supreme gratitude that I was a GIRL!) Diplomas, Bibles, rosaries, and obituaries of other relatives who had passed away long ago.

Looking at this junk made me feel like Captain Picard looking at his flute. The flute was the only tangible object that remained of an entire civilization whose planet died thousands of years ago, and he was the only one who knew about it because he had lived an entire life there in the span of 20 earth minutes.

Eventually, it seemed like all that remained of half a dozen or so of my relatives had been whittled down to a single box. How could I throw it out?  Yet do I just relegate it to my own attic for someone else to find when I die?

Anyway, that's a lot of exposition, but that's the background that led up to my making the Christmas tree out of old junk jewelry.  This little tree is chock full of sentimental value.  Many pieces belonged to my mom and I can remember her wearing them.  Other pieces belonged to my dad, brother, and uncle.  There's Mom's Den Mother pin; Dad's ROTC pin; a company pin from Speer, where my dad worked; a Moose Lodge Past Governor pin that must have belonged to my Uncle Bill; Knights of Columbus and Hibernian pins that I assume belonged to my brother Tom. I'm particularly pleased to have included beads that spell out our family name from my first Rosary, which I had broken as a child but saved all this time. There's a locket that I had given to my mom with pictures of my dad and me inside. You can't tell from looking, but I know what's in there.

I got the idea for this project by searching online for ideas about what to do with old junk jewelry, so I don't claim to have originated it. I'm sure you can find many similar examples on other blogs. Apparently it was a popular craft decades ago, and some people even punch holes through the back and poke Christmas lights through.  You don't have to make a tree; you could make any simple shape, and in fact, I've already done a heart and some other designs that I'll share in future blog posts.  But I thought the Christmas tree works well because you can easily incorporate broken chains as garland.

This would make a great, thoughtful gift for someone who has experienced loss, but I found the process of doing it myself to be therapeutic.  After nearly two years of dealing with the ugly detritus of lives cut short, it was kind of a personal triumph to finally be able to make something beautiful out of the mess.


1. Frame.  You can use any old frame if you remove the glass.  However, I felt like I wanted the glass to protect my treasures from dust, so I bought an 8x10 shadowbox frame from Michael's.  Because some of the jewelry pieces are so thick, you can't use a regular frame without removing the glass.  The shadowbox frame I bought can be hung on a wall either vertically or horizontally, or it's thick enough to stand on a shelf by itself.  They come in black and white and different sizes.

2. Background.  I bought a piece of foam board from a dollar store and cut it down to 8x10.  You could use whatever back comes with your frame or a piece of cardboard, but I suspected that I would want to be able to push some of the pins and earrings through the back.  Otherwise, you have to remove the pin shafts with a pair of pliers before you can glue them on.

I also bought a piece of black velvet clothing from a thrift store that I cut up a few inches larger than 8x10.  I wrapped it around the foam board and secured the back with duct tape.  On some of my other designs, I used pieces of felt that I found at Michael's instead of velvet.  Had I been thinking about this project ahead of time, perhaps I could have saved some of my family's clothing and used it for the background, just to be extra sentimental.

3. Selecting, Arranging & Preparing the Jewelry.  Arrange your pieces into a Christmas tree design or whatever shape you like. Personally, I like the way it looks when the individual items are as close together as possible, but they don't have to be.

You can poke some earrings and pins right into the foam board back, but other pieces (such as clip-on earrings) you may want to remove the hardware first.  Just pull it off with some pliers.

Tip:  Although any colors would do on a Christmas tree, I found that shiny gold/silver/white pieces looked best against the black background. I also have a lot of tacky, colorful plastic jewelry, which I saved for different projects. (The heart I did for Valentine's Day includes pink and red pieces.)

Tip:  If you can't find an angel, it should be easy to find a star-shaped piece of jewelry for the top of the tree.

4. Glue on the Pieces.  I glued on all pieces, even those that I also poked through the foam board.  I was concerned about which glue to use because I'm not otherwise very savvy about crafts.  I was going to ask someone at the craft store for advice, but it turns out that there is a handy glue guide right there on the shelf at Michael's that allows you to compare the features of various glues.  I chose one that would be good on fabric, metal, and plastic.  I chose E6000 glue. I made this craft about four months ago, and none of the pieces have fallen off yet. The glue was relatively easy to work with - a bit like rubber cement in that you can get some hairy strands stuck to your fingers. It dries clear.

Tip:  If you are working with a necklace chain, you may want to also use tiny pins to hold the ends in place, but it's really not needed.

5.  That's it, really!  Just wait a few hours for the glue to dry and put your masterpiece in the frame.

You can do this project in a day, but I have found that I like to think about it for a while and try different designs before committing to glue.  You'll want lots of table space so you can spread out all your junk jewelry to make selections.

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