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Finding inspiration in pearl

To market, to market

Crafting the little pig was both easy and problematic.

For many years, I had in my (far too vast) collection of gem materials a small, carved rose-quartz pig with a tiny ruby eye. When I purchased it, I considered several design options, but nothing ever materialized. Though the item was a perfect addition for this project, there was one problem: it was only ‘half’ a pig (flat on the back and fully modelled on the front).

After much discussion, the design team and I decided to construct a white-gold polished back plate for the carving. This would help in keeping the colour of the delicate pink quartz clear, and also provide a method for attaching the pig to its island home.

We added some green gold foliage to the base of the palm tree, which gave us the metal needed for welding and attaching the pig’s back plate. A few tufts of gold wire grass helped further secure the pig in place. Finally, a small jump ring of pure gold was attached to the back plate and shaped to provide his nose ring. With that, we were set for the upcoming nuptials!

Setting sail

With all of the large pieces in place, a few finishing touches were still required.

Because I thought it unlikely the poem would be widely recognized by the millennial crowd, I decided to incorporate its title into the sculpture. I considered engraving the first line or two into the chrysocolla base, but, due to the irregularities of the surface, this was not feasible. Instead, I opted to add a sign-post to the pig’s island. Visualizing something a castaway might create, we crafted a sign of four rough-hewn white gold ‘planks,’ and the engraver then carved rustic letters into the boards with the poem’s title.

Finally, the boat required a sail. Using paper-thin platinum ribbons, I wove ‘mats’ in an over-and-under design, then trimmed it down. I attached the sail to a mast of white gold tubing, which was topped with a black south sea keshi pearl. Mimicking the tendril of a peapod, fine green gold wire was attached to the stem-end of the boat and spiralled to the top of the mast and sail, like rigging. As a final touch, I added a tiny diamond briolette dew drop, dangling from the end of the tendril, and a triangular purple sapphire flag.

The voyage begins

With the sculpture complete and all components pegged and epoxy-glued into their stone bases, my next challenge was to determine how to safely pack the piece to ship it to the AGTA Spectrum judges. Some last-minute fabrication issues caused delay (of course), but, fortunately, I had the option to ship my entry to New York City a couple weeks after the original Dallas delivery deadline.

When planning transportation, I started with a double-magnum size, hinged, wooden wine box. I opted to invert it and replace the hinges with stronger models before covering the case with black leather. Some secure flip-style latches completed the closure.

To hold the sculpture inside, I lined the interior with high-density foam. The bottom section (originally the shallow ‘lid’ of the wine box) was cut to fit the chrysocolla rock base, and I built up thick foam sections on the left and right of what was now the case’s cover. These foam pieces gave firm contact between the stone base and the cover, such that the stone was tightly held in place when the box was closed and latched. I was afraid to have physical contact with the owl/pussy-cat and the delicate green gold leaves of the palm tree, so I decided to leave them free.

To further re-enforce the sculpture’s connection to the Owl and the Pussy-cat, I had the text of the poem engraved on a metal plate, which was attached it to the lid of the leather-covered case. Then I had the inspiration to include an audio component and, using a small electronic circuit board, I uploaded a recording of the poem I had found online. A small button was fitted into the interior of the case and, when depressed, the poem would play.

Satisfied with my packaging, I took the case for a test run before sending it off, carrying the box around for a few days, shaking it, and turning it upside down. Everything appeared to be stable. I added a leatherette cover, a fitted inner-box, and a padded outer-box and the sculpture was finally ready to be shipped.

Late-game disaster

I had arranged for a colleague based in New York to accept the delivery when it arrived in the city and drop the sculpture off with the judges on my behalf. When my precious cargo arrived, however, the situation turned out to be a bit more complicated.

When the sculpture was unboxed, it was apparent two things went unaccounted in my packing strategy: 1) the power of inertia; and 2) the lack of delicacy offered by the courier. If I had been a bit more aggressive with my testing of the packaging before I shipped, I would have discovered that if the box was dropped from any height (or, in the case of the courier, tossed around like the proverbial football), the elements of the design that were not fully supported would move.

In this sculpture, the Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea in a pea pod vessel, adapted from a computer-aided design (CAD) model.
In this sculpture, the Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea in a pea pod vessel, adapted from a computer-aided design (CAD) model.

Hence, when the box was opened, it appeared disaster had struck. Most components were lying loose; the shock of transit and rough-handling caused the pieces that were epoxied into the rock base to vibrate and detach. In retrospect, I should have found a method of supporting everything to avoid this result—perhaps by using bubble wrap or more pieces of high-density foam. I had considered these options when planning the packing, but was afraid they would be difficult for the competition staff to remove, and equally difficult to reposition for further shipping. My mistake!

Fortunately, nothing was irretrievably damaged and I was saved by my New York friend. Indeed, she went above and beyond, calling on the services of a talented goldsmith colleague who, after several video calls, emails, and phone calls, was able to put ‘Humpty-Dumpty’ together again. Then, my associate delivered the sculpture back to the competition in time for the judging deadline—most definitely ‘under the wire’!


Next came the waiting (and, hopefully, a phone call with good news).

Happily, my piece received recognition from the judging panel, earning an honourable mention in its respective category. While I would have loved to have taken first place, I’m more than content to place in what is a very competitive and difficult-to-judge event.

Having received the award, the next challenge was how to safely transport the piece to Tucson, where it would be displayed at the annual gem fair. Fortunately, my New York connection came to the rescue again, and introduced me to a skilled shipping company that specializes in shipping fine art and antiquities. These professionals were able to examine the sculpture and its shipping container, and then incorporate additional packing materials that allowed them to guarantee (with insurance) the delivery of my piece to its destination. Mission accomplished!

Planning ahead

A valuable (albeit expensive) lesson was learned: never take anything for granted. This applies not only to the design and construction of a piece of jewellery or object of art, but also to the assurance that it can survive being transported to and from its destination.

All’s well that ends well; the owl and the pussy-cat live to play another day. Perhaps I will need to create another piece to complete their story.

Llyn L. Strelau is the owner of Jewels by Design in Calgary. Established in 1984, his by-appointment atelier specializes in custom jewellery design for local and international clientele. Strelau has received numerous design awards, including the American Gem Trade Association’s (AGTA’s) Spectrum Awards and De Beers’ Beyond Tradition—A Celebration of Canadian Craft. His work has also been published in Masters: Gemstones, Major Works by Leading Jewelers. Strelau can be reached via email at

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