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#TBT: A Braided Hoop Trailing a World of Golden Suns

After several days of beautifully clear skies, our fortunes have shifted with the winds. Smoke from the nearby wildfire drifted in overnight to blanket the valley, and the air is once more a dirty gray-white, ashimmer with particulate matter and stinking of sudden death.

Meanwhile, those closest to the fire are preparing to evacuate. The ignition was a mere two miles from the nearest human habitation, and while thus far it has mostly roared up into the canyon, burning through whole stands of ancient Ponderosa pine and regal fir, that can chance in the beat of a fleeing bird’s wing. Temperatures have reached highs around eighty all week, with gusty intermittent winds, amid a humidity level that hovers between thirteen and seven percent. This is much more than a five-hundred-year drought by now, without a drop for months, and as I have said before, this land is no mere tinderbox: It’s already halfway to ignition.

And so this morning the clouds were silvery white instead of the fiery amber and coral rose more usual at dawn this time of year. Still, they drifted across and between the eastern peaks like trailing vines, blooming and braided, flowering and feathered simultaneously. And the golden light denied us this dawn will no doubt put in an appearance just before fall of dark, one of a series of glowing autumn suns in a sky of flames.

I had perhaps not entirely expected another clear day today, but I was hoping for one; we shall both need to be working out of doors later today with the farrier, and while the pandemic makes masks necessary anyway, they’re more comfortable when they’re not also serving as a barrier to a heavy pall of smoke. Still, despite the absence of clear air and amber light, today’s featured throwback work fits the day quite well, a braided hoop trailing a world of golden suns.

This hoop is a bangle: one of seven, from my own personal collection of Wings’s work. The series of seven bangle bracelets was his gift to me last year for my birthday, and given that this is my birthday week, it seemed fitting to feature one of them now. All were formed of sterling silver pattern wire of various types, one of two of them of more less plain half-round wire. The number seven figures prominently in our teachings, and so he set each of the seven bracelets with a series of seven stones to magnify their spiritual power. This was the fifth of the series, set with seven amber cabochons.

I’ve written before, and at length, about the uses of pattern wire in silversmithing. It’s formed from ingot (in this case, sterling silver, although it can be any metal suitable for metalwork and jewelry), melted down and poured into extremely long molds of varying shapes and sizes and patterns. Because of its [relatively] slender width, ranging from filament-size to heavy, substantial gauges, it’s called “wire.”  Options include round, half-round, square, triangle, twisted, bead, and pattern forms, and the latter is now available in a dizzying array of choices. Depending on the gauge (size and weight), various forms can be used from everything from edging bezels to creating multi-strand cuffs to, yes, creating bangle bracelets.

Wings asked me to choose the 49 cabochons, seven each of seven types of gemstones in the appropriate range of sizes (which turned out to be turquoise, aquamarine, coral, carnelian, amber, opal, and iolite). He also asked me to choose the patterns from among his fairly substantial selection of pattern wire, which ultimately worked out to two in Art Nouveau-ish floral patterns, one plain half-round, one microbead-edge half-round, two very narrow ones in a pattern reminiscent of Art Deco-like flowing-water designs, and this one: half-round with a single lightly-raised shaft down the center and an Art-Nouveau-ish flowering vine trailing down its length, winding its way around the shaft in a loose infinite spiral.

The construction of the bangle, for an experienced silversmith, is simplicity itself: Cut the wire to the proper length, file it smooth, hammer it around a mandrel into a hoop, and then solder its ends smoothly together. Of course, nothing’s ever that simple.

I have very small wrists, no more than six inches around at the point where I usually wear a bracelet, and so a five-and-a-half-inch cuff band fits me perfectly.  But a bangle has to be sized not to the wrist but to the broadest part of the hand — measured around the outside edge of the hand at the knuckles to that point at which the lower knuckle of the thumb juts outward. On me, that’s about seven inches, but there’s a catch: It means the inner band must be seven inches.  There is still all the height of the wire between inner band and surface to be accounted for, and while it looks like almost nothing in the photo, traced around seven inches of metal it becomes substantial. For a bangle to go over a hand as small as mine, the wire needs to be cut between eight and a half and nine inches. It varies with the height of the particular strand of wire, or the thickness of a strip of plain sheet silver.

With a bangle, the whole circle must be formed, soldered, set, and cooled before the bezel work can begin. Once that was finished, he placed the hoop into a delicate jeweler’s vise, one small and strong enough to hold it fast but not so tightly as to mar or bend the silver. Slowly, he turned it, fashioning seven tiny round bezels around its outer surface at roughly equidistant points. Once they were soldered firmly into place and cooled, he oxidized the entire bangle and buffed it to a rich shade just a step brighter than Florentine, which gave the silver a warm, rich, deep glow.

Then it was time to set the stones.

Amber, of course, is not a “stone” in the literal sense; it’s a resinous material, dried over time on an epic scale into a hard and glossy substance that sometimes traps small creatures or bits of plant material. Even without such fossilized life forms, natural amber is full of natural inclusions, air bubbles or self-layers that fold and drape and stack. Good-quality amber has depth to it, and color and fire, and these seven cabochons had all three qualities. As you can see in the photos, their colors range from near-gold to near-crimson, and that’s no mere trick of the light.

The particular birthday gift of which this was a constituent part was one of the most powerful I’ve ever received, one that was a gift of beauty and talent and love . . . but it was also a gift animated by spiritual power and full of medicine as we understand the word. [He managed to rival it with this year’s gift, which I’ll feature in this space at some future date.] Each of the seven bangles holds its own unique identity, its own powers and medicine and animating spirit. But this one seems especially apt for this season and this place, and for the day of my birth that falls squarely within it: a braided hoop trailing a world of golden suns.

It reminds me that I am always held in the embrace of the light.

~ Aji








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