Interview: Allison Jean Cole
Rockhound, lapidarist, and jewelry designer Alison Jean Cole is based out of Portland, Oregon. She is a member of the Mt. Hood Rock Club, where she teaches lapidary arts—more commonly referred to as stone cutting. View more of Alison’s hand-crafted work on her website and follow her adventures on Instagram.
L.E. Brown: When and how did you begin working with rocks?
Alison Jean Cole: I’ve collected rocks as long as I can remember. In sixth grade, I brought my rock collection in to show-and-tell and I was heartbroken when no one cared, so it wasn’t until my late-20s that I began to care again. Living in Portland was a large influence on that. It’s a great place for rock collecting, and I joined my first rock club in Portland, which is where I learned how to cut rocks. I’d never done any lapidary work before then, but one of the other members of the rock club showed me how to use the tools and let me explore. Cutting rocks for the first time was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had, and it snowballed from there. Within a few months, I quit my job and spent my time collecting. I bought my own equipment, graduated to a four-wheel drive pickup truck, and just went for it.
LEB: Where’s your favorite place to collect?
AJC: I haven’t done too much collecting in New Mexico; I’ve mainly been doing studio work. But I have found amazing fossils, petrified wood, and epidote around the Cerrillos Hills, just south of Santa Fe. All of southern NM is mineral heaven; you can find crystals everywhere. Most of the collecting I do is in Oregon or Nevada. I know Nevada really well, and it’s where I spend a lot of time offroad. It’s my favorite state.
LEB: I always imagined that the best place to collect rocks would be a drier, more desertous terrain, but I guess in Oregon that’s not true.
AJC: The problem with a lot of precipitation is that it grows soil, which is a rockhound’s worst nightmare. It covers everything. So the best place to collect in a wet environment is in a river bed. All the rock gets washed out. Especially at high elevations, the rivers will be rocky. Most of Oregon is high and dry, so there are a lot of good places to collect.
LEB: What’s your process for creating a new piece of jewelry? Where do you start?
AJC: I sit down in my studio and I stare at my rocks for hours and hours and hours. Most of the work I create doesn’t make it past my own personal inspection and quality standards, so I often recycle materials. Every piece requires a different process. I always keep a notebook on me and I doodle a lot, which is where I will start with specific designs. A lot of ideas come from my doodling and drawings.
LEB: How long is the process, from picking up a rock, to cutting and sanding it, to having a finished piece of jewelry?
AJC: Each piece takes between 3 hours to a full day to complete. I will take a rock home and cut it into slabs, and it will be a slower process if it’s a bigger rock. After cutting it into a slab, I draw on it and cut it into a smaller shape. Then I’ll grind the edges so they’re flush, glue everything together, and cut a cleaner shape out of that. I grind it down, drill a hole, pre-polish it, polish it, then hang it on a wire. A lot of rocks, whatever their size, might only produce three small pieces that I can use due to internal fractures. I drop many of my rocks before cutting them to make sure that it won’t break, and if it breaks I start over.
LEB: What other kind of other lapidary work do you do, or are interested in exploring in the future?
AJC: Making jewelry is something I really enjoy, but it’s not the ultimate goal with my art. In the future, I’m hoping to create more large-scale stone works, like large stone floor or countertop designs, tiling, and murals. A collaborative partner and I are working on traditional barn quilts made of stone. We’re playing around with the idea of interchanging stone with fabric and fabric with stone, and it’s interesting to see how far we can take that. Another goal is to open up my lapidary studio to the public and invest in more machines so I can teach classes. Once you begin to learn about them, you realize that rocks are very beautiful and important. Rocks are the beauty of the earth and they show us a picture of the world before our time.✶