Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio
with Michale Dancer

January 5, 2018

Michale Dancer in her Bay Area studio, photos by Emily Hodges

From fallen leaves found during nature hikes to pasta bow ties that just so happened to be dinner for the night, there’s nothing that Michale Dancer can’t dip in 24-karat gold… or copper, or silver! Michale is a creative director, product developer, and jewelry designer extraordinaire based in the Bay Area of Northern California, and the one question she’s constantly asking herself is, “Can I dip this in gold?” Usually the answer to that question is, “Why, of course.”

When I visited Michale’s studio, I was shocked to see so many random items, objects we usually take for granted, carefully tucked away or patiently waiting for their gold/silver/copper makeover. Four leaf clovers, coffee beans, peanuts, sand dollars, maple leaves, dog biscuits, and pieces of kale are just a few items Michale has learned to perfect transforming over the years into stunning jewelry pieces or soon-to-be heirloom ornaments. Michale says, “Truthfully, we can’t stop designing. We have to control ourselves as we already have so many [designs]!”

Prior to my visit, I knew that Michale dipped the actual items and didn’t replicate shapes through a molding process. But seeing the pieces right there in front of me—a peanut’s natural “before” state and then its glamorous “after”—I definitely started to feel skeptical. “So, every single piece you work with… it really is the actual item behind the gold?” I asked. Michale smiled and nodded her head. “Every single piece! It’s real. Shake the gold peanut necklace you’re holding right now.” I followed Michale’s directions and, sure enough, I heard the little peanuts inside bounce around the walls of the shell. From that moment, I truly understood that Michale’s inspiration is literally… everywhere, which can be a blessing and a curse. “I’m always stopping. Whether I’m hiking right outside my house or going to the market or cooking with natural spices, I always find something that I know I can potentially use as a design.”

We’re used to nature decaying throughout the seasons or eating and throwing away food every day, yet Michale gives a second life to certain items and elevates their beauty for others to treasure as a keepsake for years to come. Read our Q&A below and find out how many hours it takes Michale to complete just one design from start to finish, plus why Steve Jobs keeps her motivated every single day.

What are your most essential tools?

Natural raw materials that can take my plating process and my precious metal finishes. The metal finishes I work with are 24k gold, antique 24k gold, sterling silver, antique sterling silver, raw copper, and an iridescent copper. I’m always looking for new precious metal finishes that would accentuate the raw materials.

Where do you find inspiration within your space?

Taking walks in nature and generally being outside. I love finding new raw materials on beaches, mountains, deserts—on all types of terrain. I also find inspiration within food and spices.

Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?

We generally have become a friend/family type of company. It’s actually fun to work here! Many of our staff have worked with us over 12+ years. One of our staff has four kids and sometimes brings them to work. We all stop what we’re doing and play with the babies and kids. This isn’t a stressful environment. I left the corporate structure long ago for that very reason.

What was the toughest lesson you learned in your 20+ years of experience?

To design for our client’s needs and to let my clients make their own decisions. We work with both large and small companies that want us to design specifically for them. It’s difficult for me to leave personal design concepts out of the equation.

How exactly did you come up with the concept of your products?

As naturalists, we were hiking one day and noticed a leaf decaying and saw the lovely, lacy vein structure. We realized it was ephemeral and wouldn’t last long. It was then that we came up with a technique to preserve these beautiful and delicate objects by using precious metals. Since then, we’ve developed our process. I love elevating nature’s designs and bringing natural beauty into people’s homes as keepsakes and heirloom gifts.

What is the process of making your products?

When one sees leaves on a tree, they don’t necessarily recognize the species. However, when you see a gold, silver, or copper natural product—one’s eye tends to look at it more closely and notice the differences.

At right, Olivia Harvey, who has worked at alongside Michale for 14 years.

Harvesting only the most beautiful of the species, leaves, botanicals, and other natural elements are selected first and foremost for their overall appeal. Our collection contains only perfect specimens, with careful concern to harvest without insect holes or tears. Our unique drying process ensures our product will not “weep” and contaminate the precious metals.

Our leaf’s filigree process is a tedious method, accomplished by rubbing a solution on each side of the leaf, then washing it off. As the skin is thinner than the veins, when washed, the skin dissipates, which exposes each leaf’s vein structure. The main veins are then hand painted with a thin brush carrying a copper solution. Leaves and botanicals are then bathed in a molten copper to stabilize them, then hung to dry.

To finish a subsequent plating occurs in the precious metals: 24k gold, silver, or a variety of copper patinas. We use only the purest of each metal to eliminate any additive alloys. Our antique process constitutes an additional plating bath.

Each leaf and botanical takes approximately seven hours to process after harvesting and drying. Based on this technology, our artisans then create gifts, ornaments, nightlights, bookmarks, tabletop accessories and jewelry.

How often do you come up with new designs?

Truthfully, we can’t stop designing. Nature is so interesting and has so much available to us that we continue to come up with new ideas daily. We have to control ourselves as we already have so many [designs]!

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?

Since our products are handcrafted with exquisite care, it takes approximately seven hours to complete the full process on each item. I would have given a longer lead time to our vendors. I learned the hard way and sometimes worked off hours to get the jobs done on time.

How do you set goals for yourself?

I use a calendar to designate the design categories we will be working on for the year. Some ideas are timed to work with products needed, such as summer and fall weddings, Valentine’s Day, and St. Patrick’s Day. By the end of the first quarter of the year, we have to submit our new designs to our larger clients. So they must be completed on time or we lose the entire year in that category.

Describe a perfect day in your studio.

When we arrive in the morning we sit for a brief meeting to see what we’re going to work on that day. The orders are designated to the correct department such as jewelry, ornaments, nightlights, and custom products. We each have our own responsibilities. If there’s only work to be completed by one department, then we share the balance of the workload to help each other out. We are definitely a team, and work as such. This creates a harmony so we don’t have to worry about getting the job done. Sometimes at the end of the day, if we have the time, we meditate together for 15 minutes. It’s really calming and we all feel very connected—and leave the workplace content.

Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?

Olivia, my Design Assistant, and I collaborate many of the designs. We respect each other’s taste, designs and concepts. We all help each other with the workload. It makes no difference which department as we all have the ability to complete the tasks at hand.

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?

When we come up with a design with consistent re-orders, we know we’ve hit a home run.

What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?

Steve Jobs said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” It’s so easy to be swayed by others’ thinking. As the Creative Director, I learned to listen to my own inner thoughts and trust my ideas.

What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?

Flowers are very difficult to work with. I am trying to work with more delicate products such as rose petals and other flowers or flower segments. I’m also trying to create items of several elements for centerpieces and wall hangings.

How do you recharge your creativity?

I simply walk out the door and see so many natural elements. I’m fortunate to have creativity be part of my personality and my personal endeavor. I have trouble stopping myself from trying to see how I can design each new natural item I notice.

See more of Michale’s nature-inspired creations here »

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