Kate Nolan, ginger-haired queen of her craft, operates in a wraparound domain. Tiers of gems, precious metals, beads, and fastenings line her gallery walls. At her desk, Nolan’s skilled hands work with precision pliers, hammers and stamps, transforming gems, mother-of-pearl and sterling silver into her one-of-a-kind earrings. Her art is ancient, her satisfaction a daily occurrence.
“I started making jewelry when I was 14,” she says. Nolan moved to Santa Cruz when she was eight, after her father was offered a job teaching journalism at Cabrillo. “I never left,” she grins, “because I can’t leave this weather.” After ditching high school, Nolan worked for arts-related companies. “I always made my own necklaces, and people would stop me on the street and ask me where they could get one.”
While in her late 20s, she decided to make jewelry to sell. Hits and misses occurred, and a year before the 1989 earthquake she and a colleague started up Many Hands Gallery. That renowned showcase was located exactly where Kate Nolan is sitting as we speak. Less than 10 years later, a second Many Hands opened in Capitola, which Nolan sold to an associate in 2007.
When Nolan’s gallery was in the front window space, next to the entrance to the then-flourishing India Joze restaurant, “I had a large selection of local work—and most of the people who went into the restaurant stopped by my shop on their way out,” she says with pride.
“I liked selling local work so that my artisan friends wouldn’t have to work at the post office. I wanted to save them from going postal,” she jokes.
The display cases surrounding her work table at Kate Nolan Jewelry glitter with Nolan’s intricate earrings, uniquely displayed hanging on the gilt and etched rims of antique glassware. Rich with engraved ethnic gold and silver findings, her work favors semi-precious stones and shell such as abalone and mother of pearl.
“I started using shell when I realized that my earrings were becoming too heavy when I made them as large as I wanted. I had to figure something out,” she says.
That something was mother of pearl and abalone, to add to her luxurious use of carnelian, amber, antique coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli, amethyst, and quartz. Where does she find the exotic elements for these pieces?
“I buy a lot at the San Mateo gem show,” she says. She long ago became wise to issues with gems in catalogs or online. “They always photograph only the very best example in their lots,” she says, raising her eyebrows. “You really have to buy stones in person.”
Silver ornaments play an increasing role in her current line. She buys blanks of sterling and stamps them with designs she devises using a wide array of punches. “It’s fun and very therapeutic,” she grins, “pounding small things with a two-pound hammer.”
Lately, she has added her wares to the online emporium Etsy. “Everybody shops online, so I had to try it. And I’ve done pretty well. But there are so many people now selling, it’s so crowded. It’s hard to be seen, to stand out.”
She complains about needing to become more tech savvy. “But,” she says, speaking for every craftsperson I’ve ever met, “it’s hard balancing the tech updates with making jewelry.”
Her favorite thing? “Earrings!” she responds without hesitation. “Because each one is so different, and I dream up new designs all the time.”
Her favorite pair? “The ones I’m wearing,” she says, pointing to the large pendants of two types of shell, adorned with her stamped silver beads and a small piece of coral. “I always wear my favorite ones.”
Making jewelry has been her living for several decades. “But it’s sometimes been a struggle,” she says. Noland lives within her means, and doesn’t travel much. “Back and neck problems have made it difficult, plus it wouldn’t make financial sense for me to plan long trips.”
“I hated school, and didn’t want to go on with it,” she says. “Art and music were the only things I liked.” Jewelry has brought her continued rewards. “Yes, I love making these pieces. It’s a meditation. And a pleasure, because at the end of the meditation you have a tangible object.”
Kate Nolan Gallery, Santa Cruz Art Center, 1-5 p.m. Wed-Sun. katenolanjewelry.etsy.com.