Jessica Gilberton has been dreaming of the Fort Peck summer theater lately.
Back in her middle school and high school days, a friend of Jessica’s worked at the theater and Jessica spent afternoons digging through the costume closet. Little did she know, those summer hours planted a creative seed.
Fast forward to April 2020. Laid off from her full-time job for two months, Jessica found herself with unexpected free time and a refreshed longing for artistic expression. She’d seen some clay earrings on social media and dove into research and experimentation.
“I had no idea how much goes into clay jewelry,” Jessica said. “I did a lot of research on YouTube and reached out to clay artists on Instagram.”
She also looked for a used pasta machine to roll the clay, finding one on Craigslist for five dollars. Clay jewelry uses polymer clay, purchased in four-ounce blocks, that are then worked by hand and run through a pasta machine to smooth and remove wrinkles and bubbles. Jessica said the process is both relaxing and calming and a bit reminiscent of childhood.
“That’s part of what’s cool about it,” she explained. “It kind of reminds me of PlayDough.”
After it’s rolled and smoothed, Jessica uses clay cutters to make shapes for her earring designs. Then the clay is baked for around an hour.
“If it’s baked correctly, it should be hardened, but also pretty flexible,” she explained.
Ever committed to her craft, Jessica sands the edges of each piece before assembling the earrings. She’s experimented with different household items to create varying textures for her jewelry, a process that results in some hits and some misses, but every time, a new idea or design.
“I’ve always felt like a creative person,” Jessica said. “I’d been looking for a creative outlet for a while. This is so meditative and refreshing.”
Jessica said she’s experienced anxiety and depression in her life and credits her jewelry business with helping her cope and thrive throughout the past year.
“It was a really tough time. I had really worked hard to move up in my job and was laid off,” she explained. “Having a hobby to dive into and put energy toward helped keep me sane. I was really lucky. It was great timing, actually.”
Jessica turned a pandemic-lay off lemon into lemonade, launching Project Arcilla (a nod to her Mexican heritage; “Arcilla” means clay in Spanish).
“In the beginning, I thought, ‘If I ever in my lifetime sell ten pairs of earrings, I’ll be happy,’” she explained. “I did eight times that in my first month.”
Jessica thinks the past year encouraged people to shop smaller and more local. She’s participated in a few local markets, expanding her market reach and her connections with other artists.
“In Missoula we have so many incredible creators,” she said. “Missoula is so good about supporting local and small businesses.”
Jessica spends a lot of time dreaming up new designs, using inspiration from both her past and daily life to create new ideas for jewelry. She made custom pieces for a bridal party and made a pair of earrings to match her own outfit for a wedding.
“One night, I was getting dressed to go to a friend’s house for dinner. I pulled out a shirt and thought, ‘oh, this could look really cool as earrings,’” she said.
She uses social media to interact with followers and customers regarding upcoming jewelry collections.
“I try to be interactive,” Jessica said. “I want to see what people are interested in.” Interacting with customers leads to both inspiration and encouragement.
“Even if you can’t make a purchase, sharing a photo, commenting or sending a direct message means so much to me,” Jessica said. She strives to return that feel-good encouragement to others.
“I want people to feel like they can treat themselves to a fun piece of jewelry but not feel guilty about the expense,” Jessica said. “I always include a handwritten note and maybe some stickers or candy with each package. I want people to smile when they open it.”
Those smiles are an extension of her appreciation for her customers.
“Every time I get an order, I get a big smile on my face. I want my packages to reflect that: someone decided this handmade piece was worth purchasing. That means so much.”
Jessica is back to working full-time, separately from Project Arcilla, balancing a demanding full-time job with the hope to expand her jewelry business. And while the timing of that expansion is unclear, she’s thankful for the opportunity.
“Whatever ends up happening: if this goes full-time or not, it has meant so much,” Jessica said. “Even if this is the peak, it’s been worth it. It’s been an incredible journey.”
Find Project Arcilla on Facebook, Instagram and online at projectarcilla.etsy.com.