Alison Jean Cole is a jewelry designer, a self-proclaimed rock enthusiast, and mineral nerd residing in Portland, Oregon.
She spends a lot of time driving to the middle of nowhere and digging for the materials she’ll later use to make jewelry. I learned all this (and much more) as I sat with Alison in her kitchen to chat about her world and how she got here. For Alison - and as it turns out, a lot of other artists and makers - her path to where she is now was anything but a straight line.
You make jewelry and you rockhound - which came first?
The jewelry came first actually. It was accidental. I think I was bored, which is incredible because I don’t think I’ve felt bored in many, many years. But once upon a time I was bored and I picked up some stone beads at a craft show. When I was a little girl, I made jewelry all the time. I was obsessed. At 10 years old, I had my own booth at the summer band concerts in the center of town where I sold all my jewelry for $1-3 a piece. That’s how I made my summer money - I did that through my kidhood.
So, I’ve always been making it. I always loved beads. I think it’s because they’re really colorful. I suffer very strongly from some forms of synesthesia, so really colorful things to me are very obsessive. Small, colorful objects are very tasty to me. It’s like being a kid in the candy store. Being around them sensory-wise is very stimulating for me, almost like doing a drug. Making combinations is a lot like finishing a complicated math problem.
Being outside in the wilderness and rockhounding is a beautiful and very meaningful experience, but designing jewelry and putting things together is definitely more compulsory and sensory. It’s to experience a deeper or more raw sensation.
So, you’ve been making jewelry since you were a kid, but did you do any formal schooling or take classes? Or did you just figure it out?
Again, the whole jewelry thing was totally accidental. It was a time-filler. I was selling it at a friend’s treasure shop, just to make a little bit of extra money and I only wanted to work with stone beads and I couldn’t find any stone beads that I liked. I hated everything. I started contacting stone-cutting, like, sweatshops in Asia, to get quotes on cutting stuff and I felt so guilty about that. I never followed through with any of it.
After that, I started calling American lapidary artists to see if they would cut rocks for me. The first woman I ever called, I described the shape I wanted cut and told her I could pay her $75 for eight pieces and she said, “What do you think this is?!” I had offended her with my offer, tremendously.
Two weeks later, she called me back and she said, “Listen, kiddo, here’s what you gotta do: You need to go join your local rock club," Which I’d never heard of, "And charm one of the old guys. He’ll take you to his garage and teach you on his equipment how to cut rocks. That’s how everybody learns.”
And after some searching on the internet, you found and joined the Mt. Hood Rock Club? And that’s where you learned to cut stones?
Yes, I found the Mt. Hood Rock Club. It took a little while, but I’m so glad I did. It’s mostly grumpy old guys and misfits. The club has a reputation for being a little ornery, but they have a shared lapidary shop for members to use and that’s how I learned.
When did you know this was more than just a hobby?
I knew the very first time I went to the club’s lapidary shop and learned to cut a rock. I had tears in my eyes. It was so much fun! I had never felt so connected to something before.
I have a degree in the biological sciences and worked in my field since graduating. I got along well on all those jobs, but something always felt wrong. It wasn’t like I was a poor performer or a bad employee. I was a good employee, I always did a good job, you know? I just felt so bored. I felt so trapped and kept thinking “This is an awesome job and I hate this, what’s wrong with me?”
You have to open every possible door, you know? You can’t just keep walking down this hallway forever and ever and ever and ever, until you reach the end.
That's a great analogy. So, this was all within the last six years?
Within the last three years actually.
Yeah, I’m a novice. Beyond learning how to switch on a rock saw, I’m self-taught. And I’m still learning.
Let’s talk more about the jewelry that you make. When you’re making it, what inspires you? Is it the stones or a specific shape? I’m curious about that process.
I accidentally locked myself into a certain aesthetic. When I was making jewelry at the time, I was designing on trend because I was trying to make money. Around eight years ago, the New Age trend burst onto the fashion scene. Like, full force New Age crystal and prism bonanza. Which was funny to me because I grew up in a New Age community - that was so much a part of my upbringing. I’m not a New Age person at all - you always run away from your upbringing - but, I think a lot of those shapes from sacred geometry made its way into my first set of work. Not really intentionally, but because I knew those shapes would sell and I really needed to support myself. It soon became clear to me that if I was going to be putting something out into the world it needed to be authentically mine and I needed to feel proud of it. This was a liberating notion.
So, I instantly wiped the slate clean and started doing whatever I wanted. Geometric shapes remain in my work because they’re symmetrically pleasing and it’s something I really appreciate. Organic form messes with me. I haven’t really given any deep thought into why I choose the shapes that I do, it’s just kind of compulsive. Color is the only choice that I make very consciously. I work with a lot of material that I don’t dig up myself, as well. Most of the really colorful material that I include in my work comes out of places like Mexico, Afghanistan, and Australia.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I work at night, but I’m not exactly a night owl. If I’m not working I’ll be in bed by 10, but if I am working, I’ll stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning. Usually after dinner, I’ll go down and go to work and just marathon it.
Tell me about your rockhounding adventures - do you have a crazy story to share from one of your many trips?
Every rockhounding adventure usually ends with me getting back on the pavement a few days later, bewildered I’m still alive and still have four inflated tires.
Around New Year's, some pals and I went out looking for gold mines outside 29 Palms, California with a guy we met at the local bar. We took cliff edge roads that were cleared for donkey carts during the Gold Rush and haven’t been used since. That trip was great. I almost tipped my truck into a canyon, and even wept while driving because I was so scared. We found lots of abandoned mines and I’d absolutely go back out there again.
You have a lot of hobbies. From painting, to writing, to planning a yearly art festival, and so on - how do you balance your interests with running a business?
I really enjoy, quite thoroughly, all the activities I get myself into. I would never do something that sounds limiting or boring. Life is too short.
At the same time, it’s important to only take on as much as you can. I’ve put a lot of effort into prioritizing adventures, so I’m careful not to sabotage myself with too many projects. Rock cutting and rockhounding are my jobs, Spaceness, the art festival, is my joy. Painting and writing are my intellectual pursuits, which often come last. I turn down good rock cutting jobs and art gigs often. You can’t say yes to everything or you will ruin your life!
When did you decide to sell your work online? How has your Big Cartel shop helped you?
Big Cartel has been great! I originally put my work for sale online thinking they’d just sit there as a visual example of my work, but they all sold! I’ve been using the service for a few years now and I will continue to.
At what point in the process do you decide to list a piece in your shop?
I list my most cherished pieces that I can’t bear to sell at wholesale.
Have you found any secrets to packing and shipping small but valuable items?
Bomb proof it! And then bomb proof it again.
Did you ever imagine that you’d be your own boss and doing your own thing? What advice would you give to anyone interested in pursuing their own path as an independent maker?
After a few years of working for other people it was clear to me that I would have to become my own boss or perish. If someone is considering taking the leap I say DO IT! But take a Small Business Foundations course somewhere. Seriously.