About a year ago, my friend Julienne Pacheco dropped by our house with an ocean-caught steelhead. Before we cooked it, she got out a filet knife and carefully separated the flesh from the glittering scales. She had a plan that would leave them glittering long into the future.
It’s a plan that, with time, experimentation and perseverance, has grown into a business called “WILD by Nature,” for which she makes jewelry using of all sorts of natural Alaskan materials, including fish skin.
Arctic grayling had been Pacheco’s favorite fish since she was gifted a metal print of one after volunteering as part of a fundraiser for Trout Unlimited. A few years later, she asked a colleague to take close up photos of arctic grayling and other fish she had caught while working and fishing in Western Alaska.
Initially, she hoped to print the photos on metal plates and inlay them into a belt buckle. She also wanted to create earrings, her “jewelry of choice” since first donating her hair to Locks of Love.
She knew there were artists making jewelry with fish leather, she said, but she wanted to develop a technique to retain the beauty of the scales — and, instead of printing photos, that’s what she ended up doing with WILD by Nature.
“Fish are beautiful. And they’re all different; they all shimmer in a different way. King salmon shimmer purple-gold. Arctic grayling are very unexpected. You see them in the river and they look brownish — mottled brown gray. Then you land them and the sun hits them and they’re teal, and red, and blue and their eyes shimmer purple green, like they’re wearing ‘80s eye shadow,” she said.
Because of their brightness, ocean-caught sockeye and steelhead are two of her other favorite kinds of fish to work with.
She started collecting and experimenting with processing fish skin — from fish she had caught to eat, that friends had caught to eat, or bycatch, for the most part, though she has occasionally purchased from processors — in 2016. She credits her science background (she graduated from the University of Alaska Southeast with a B.S. in marine biology in 2012) with helping her to figure out how to process the skin on her own, though it took until the second season before she figured out how to do it efficiently, she said. Still, it can be tedious. Sometimes she has to individually glue scales back on.
The biggest challenge, though, may be retaining certain colors that are hard to preserve — like the once blue spots in one of her favorite pairs of earrings, made out of arctic grayling dorsal fins. Other kinds of fish lose their color completely. It’s a problem she’s trying to figure out.
At the same time, she chose her business’s name, WILD by Nature, intentionally, knowing she also wanted to work with other natural Alaskan materials. Some of those materials have included leaves, birch bark and her newest addition, jewelry made with driftwood and resin. She hopes the jewelry made with fish skin will remain the cornerstone of her work.
“I didn’t know how to do any of this before,” she said. “It’s all been a learning curve. The challenge has been learning to let the materials guide me. What I initially envisioned my jewelry would look like — it doesn’t look anything like that.”
Processing materials and making jewelry “has really forced me to slow down and find beauty in small things — not just the macro, but the micro,” she added. “To value unexpected beauty… Unexpected beauty is something really wild to be able to share with people. When a person is admiring a piece of your jewelry and then you tell them what it’s made of, their surprise is unforgettable.”
She’s been at Ninilchik’s Salmonfest and Juneau’s Public Market two years running, and plans to do more events and holiday markets around the state. Her work is also at a Seward location and several Southeast Alaska stores, and she hopes to soon have it at shops in other locations. She’s working on a website and can also be reached for sales and commissions through her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/wildbynature907/.
“There’s this humility when I see my jewelry on someone — especially if they buy it from one of my retailers and they don’t know who I am. It means a lot to see something I’ve created valued by someone else,” she said.
One of my own favorites is a pair of bright, steelhead-scaled earrings. I like to think they’re made from that same steelhead she fileted in our kitchen.
• Mary Catharine Martin is the communications director of SalmonState, a nonprofit initiative that works to ensure Alaska remains a place wild salmon thrive.