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Storytelling One Stone at a Time

Caitlin Cimino’s apartment is sparse – a studio with a bed and a workbench. And not much else. “I work and I sleep,” Caitlin says, smiling. “I mean what else do I need?” Sun spills through a small window, casting hazy light across a table full of tools and rocks and dust. Caitlin fishes through a drawer, looking for a specific piece for us.

“Ah, here it is,” she says, revealing a metal ring with a flattened top, a line of stones embedded into its surface. “This is the very first piece I really made out of metal. It took me weeks.”

She turns the ring over in her hands and holds it out proudly. “I finished and realized I didn’t make it to my size,” she says, with a laugh. “But I was proud of it. I am proud of it.”

The ring is appropriately representative of Caitlin’s story – something having been fashioned from a raw element into something of beauty. After styling hair for several years, Caitlin experienced a shoulder injury that kept her from her practice. “After my surgery, I had a lot of downtime. I realized I wasn’t happy and needed a change.”

Weeks into her recovery, while contemplating what to get a friend for her birthday, Caitlin decided she would make her some earrings. “I had no money for a present, so it was the next best thing.”

Shortly after the initial birthday gift, she made a necklace for a friend that was moving out of town. “That happened a few times. And then more and more, people just started asking me to make them jewelry.”

And while Caitlin obliged most requests, she’s come a long way from making birthday earrings. Literally. All the way to Italy and back.

“I loved traveling and wanted to move beyond wire wrapping. I had all of these worlds I created in my mind…worlds of jewelry I wanted to give life to. I knew learning to work with metal would help me tell the stories of those worlds.”

So, figuring she could appease both her itch to travel and passion for learning the craft, Caitlin found a metalsmith in Florence, Italy who agreed to apprentice her for two months.

Traveling to Italy would prove to do much more than scratch the travel itch and teach her new metalworking techniques. It would prove to be the major inspiration for one of her collections, as well as one of her more popular ring designs, the Duomo. “I would sit on the steps of the Duomo di Firenze (the Duomo of Florence) and stare at its architecture. The beauty and history framed by the night sky are the story behind it. And really, every piece I make is like that.”

By “like that”, she means her numerous pieces that have been birthed from Italian history. Caitlin’s Etruscan Collection is her own representation of burial artifacts found in ancient Tuscan tombs from Maremma, the birthplace of Italian civilization. “During their existence, Etruscans were known as cultural and economic leaders of the western Mediterranean. The tombs were decorated with all of these ornamented objects to accompany them on their journey to the afterlife.”

And, like many designers, what begins with inspiration becomes a sketch. What happens after the sketch is where her world diverges from most.

“The Etruscan collection is completely fabricated, meaning all of it is made straight from metal. The Duomo and the Bones of the Earth collections are wax created. For those, I start with a block of wax, then carve and file and heat the wax to get the design I’m after. It’s like sculpting dense clay.” For some items, like rings, there are multiple mathematical formulas to follow for creating the right shape, and particularly for consistent sizing.

“Once the piece is exactly as I like, I have it cast in silver or bronze or brass or whatever metal I choose. At that point, I can make a mold to later create multiple foundations of the piece, so I can alter each one by means of additional fabrication.”

Another collection, Bones of the Earth, is inspired by Caitlin’s regular trips to the mines outside the city. The mines are blown with explosives several times a week and, after the large stones are removed, the rubble is open to the public for sorting. “When I first went, I would literally come back with rocks. I had no idea what I was looking for.”

Now, she certainly does, returning regularly with black tourmaline, quartz, and amethyst. “I don’t like to change the stones much. I like to leave them as close to their natural state, straight out of the earth. I don’t want to overly wash or polish them, so they keep their personality. Though sometimes I smash them to create new shapes, which is pretty therapeutic,” she says with a laugh.

But, like most artists, it goes far beyond therapeutic.

The process of measuring, sawing, soldering, drilling, polishing, and contorting are an abyss of creative zen. The hours, like flakes of metal, fall away to the studio floor. “I forget to socialize and eat and sleep,” says Caitlin.

“But for me, this isn’t work. It’s storytelling. Stories of history that are inspired. So there is an energy and nature to every piece that I want to convey, and sometimes I get lost in that, so I don’t want to disrupt it. There’s actually this Japanese word I learned called “Yūgen”, which means ‘An emotional response to the universe that is too deep and mysterious for words’. This happens often while I create, and I hang on to it as long as I can.”

She pauses and smiles. “Even if that means I miss lunch.”

“For me, this isn’t work. It’s storytelling.”