MARTHA STEWART LIVING • July 2000
Lucky for Lisa Hall, the lobsterman who used to mend his traps in the abandoned shack that was to become her jewelry-making studio had a penchant for drink. All the bottles he tossed onto the beach—broken into bits and tumbled smooth by the ocean waves that hammer ceaselessly against the pebbly shore—became a mother lode of sea glass, the "gemstones" Hall uses to make her jewelry. For most people, collecting sea glass is an idle pastime, but for Hall the fascination led to a career on Great Cranberry Island, Maine. It all began during summers spent on neighboring Little Cranberry Island, where her grandmother still has a house overlooking the harbor. Hall never once missed a summer; she remembers idyllic days with her mother combing the beach for sea glass, sandwich in one pocket, treasures accumulating in the other.
Twenty or so years later, a stroll down the beach is all in a day's work for Hall, who has lived year-round on the Cranberry Isles for ten years and has been in business for herself for two. Several times a week, she heads to one of three beaches—the best hunting is just a short walk from her studio—to gather the glass that is the principal part of her softly polished silver and gold bracelets, pendants, rings, and earrings. Foggy days are especially good for prospecting, since the mist settling on the surface of the glass causes it to glow against the gray background of the day. Walking the beach at the high-tide mark, Hall scours the shoreline for the treasures amid the lobsterman's cache: ethereal, greeny-blue bits of old glass Coke bottles; sky-blue fragments of Ball mason jars; the cobalt-blue remains of milk of magnesia and medicine bottles; pieces of bottles made with magnesium, which were once clear but have long since turned lavender from prolonged exposure to the sun; and the rarest of the rare—red shards of old nautical lights and, sometimes, even taillights of cars.
Sea glass is abundant in the region. Until the late nineteenth century, people who lived on the water thought nothing of throwing their garbage onto the beach. Fishermen tossed their leftovers into the sea and used corked bottles as buoys for lobster traps, which would bang against the hulls of boats and shatter. A good deal of the glass Hall finds is more than a hundred years old.
The path that led to the establishing of Hall's gem of a jeweler's studio, which lies nestled among the woods and flowers and fields, has been almost as serendipitous as the discovery of a piece of red glass among the pebbles. Hall certainly never sat down and drew up a business plan; she stumbled across her passion for metalsmithing "on a whim," when, after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, she went to Florence, Italy, and took a jewelry-making course. Back in the States, Hall headed for New York City to make a go of it as a jeweler. In short order, however, she realized she needed to live somewhere "clean, safe, quiet, and beautiful." There was no question in her mind where that somewhere might be.
She made a beeline for Little Cranberry and got a winter job as a sternman on a lobster boat, despite some initial resistance. ("I was a 'summer person' and a woman-not the usual applicant for the job," says Hall.) During the summers, she worked for Sam Shaw, a well-respected jeweler in Northeast Harbor, on nearby Mount Desert Island. Eventually, Shaw invited her to work with him full-time.
Although Hall learned a tremendous amount as Shaw's right-hand person, after seven years, the artist in her began to grow frustrated; she had long been making her own jewelry at nights and on weekends, and selling it at a few local gift shops and via Shaw, but, she says, "I never had time to make a complete collection." Shaw, who had become a dear friend, sensed that Hall wanted to start her own business even before Hall knew it herself. So did Hall's partner, landscaper and organic farmer Gary Allen, who gave her the push she needed: "If you quit working for Sam, we can take that lobsterman's shack and build you a studio."
The transformation didn't take much—a hardwood floor, insulation, a skylight, and a new coat of paint. A few months and only $1,500 later, Hall had a beautiful work space with a view of the sea, a little greenhouse, and a cat door for her four cats to come and go. To her surprise, as soon as she was open for business, the sea glass took off. "In this area, people seem to have found me. It's funny how much of the business has been word of mouth—friends of friends, friends of family, and gallery owners who see the jewelry somewhere and want to have it."
Initially, Hall thought of her jewelry as "tokens of the island" that visitors could take home with them. What she didn't take into account was the impact her designs would have on a broader audience. This February, she took the sea glass to the Baltimore Crafts show. People from all over the country, some of whom had never seen sea glass before, loved it. Galleries in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, have placed orders.
Simplicity is a big part of the jewelry's appeal. Hall's designs never overshadow the beauty of the sea glass. Each piece is one of a kind— "the nicks and dings on it are something you couldn't reproduce" —made special by a combination of current, wind, waves, stones, and sand that is particular to the spot where Hall finds it. "Sometimes people can't believe that you can put a price on what is essentially a piece of trash," she says. "But when you see these things, they're so beautiful, they have to be considered as gemstones."
As long as Hall lives and works in such an inspiring setting, it seems likely that she will continue to thrive. "When I was a miserable teenager, I'd think, 'Well, at least I have the islands.' I felt alive and at home when I was there. I didn't know what direction I'd take with my life, but I figured that by moving up here I would figure it all out. And I guess I have."
lisa has enjoyed running her gallery and studio in the village of northeast harbor since 2002. she splits her time between mount desert island and the neighboring cranberry isles with her husband gary, their daughter matilda, and the many family cats and chickens.