JOCELYNN BROWN

Handmade: Pieces of history come together

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

At first glance, one might think the beaded jewelry Margaret Gerner makes is typical of beautifully hand-crafted body adornments, but upon closer examination, it’s clear that her one-of-a-kind pieces are designed with small ornamental glass components that have endured the test of time. In fact, they’re centuries old, and, if beads could talk – what a story they’d have to tell!

“I use antique European glass beads for my jewelry,” said the Beverly Hills resident. “Most of the beads I use were made in Venice, Italy, in the 1800s. Because the Venetians have dominated the glass-making industry since the 14th century, their beads were carried by explorers, missionaries and traders as gifts or objects for trade as they traveled all over the world. A great number of beads made their way into Africa, where they were bartered for gold, ivory and slaves.

“Others made their way into the New World where glass was still unknown, and was thus considered a rare treasure brought by the Europeans,” continued Gerner. “Still others made their way to the Far East, including the Philippines, where I found my first antique beads many, many years ago now. All these bartering and trading of beads gave rise to the term trade beads.’”

Born in the Philippines, and later relocating to Paris as an adult, where she met her husband, Gerner, 41, had amassed quite a collection of antique beads by 2009, the year she became pregnant with her first child, causing her to be put on bed rest and needing something to pass the day.

She said, “I thought maybe I’d try to do something with my beads,” so she taught herself to make beaded jewelry by reading books. In the beginning, she gave the pieces away as presents, but after receiving such a “positive response,” she was motivated to start selling her work at art and craft shows throughout France. She says customers thought it was “a great idea” to reuse the beads for their intended purpose – to create wearable art to be seen and appreciated. She later established a business under the name De Petites Merveilles (French for “little marvels”).

“It’s like piecing the history together,” enthused Gerner about stringing the rare beads to form necklaces, bracelets, earrings and anklets. “I think they’re special and they should be worn. It fascinates me that these beads have traveled so far and been worn by so many people. I study a lot and I go to a lot of museums to study them up close. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet people who have written books on the subject, so this kind of information is invaluable to me because I can be more accurate when I explain to people where the bead was made. That sets my jewelry apart from all the other jewelry out there.”

Gerner, who’s lived in Michigan with her family since 2013, continues to collect beads during her travels abroad. “Whenever I travel, I try to find antique shops and flea markets – wherever they have old things. And, anybody who comes with me gets dragged around,” she remarked. “I could try to buy them online, but you can’t tell what’s real and not real. I don’t want to misrepresent what I’m selling. I go back to Paris a lot. I have shops I go to there, or when we go to Italy, I try to go to the antique markets there.”

Although making such jewelry can be “quite expensive,” Gerner designs her pieces with reasonably priced beads. Individual items range from $35-$150 each. “I try to be conscious about the price. I don’t want to make it exorbitant,” she said. “The point is for these beads to go on and make someone else happy, and not sit in a drawer collecting dust.”

Gerner sells her unique jewelry on her website (depetitesmerveilles.com), and she’ll be among vendors at the Ann Arbor Annual Arts and Crafts Show – Crafting with Grace (Oct. 8), the Rochester High School Holiday Bazaar (Nov. 5), and the Birmingham Winter Market (Dec. 2-4).

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, jbrown@detroitnews.com or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.

Contact De Petites Merveilles at depetitesmerveilles.com.