For whatever reason, countless jewellery designers seem to think that using animal bones, feathers, and taxidermy in their work is the most revolutionary thing ever. What they don’t realize is that this only appeals to a small contingent of pseudo-hippie students and out of touch fashion bloggers. What you really want to do is use real human bones, crafted into necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Columbine Phoenix runs a company called Sunspot Designs that specializes in creepy, gothic-looking jewellery, but it’s her Churchyard line, which is made from human remains, that's really interesting. I had a chat with Columbine about where she gets her bones and who it is that buys her jewellery.
Columbine modeling the metacarpal bone necklace and finger bone earrings.
Vice: Hey Columbine, how are you today?
Columbine Phoenix: Great, thanks! I’m taking a whole weekend off and in times like these that's a huge luxury. I'm spoiling myself.
Nice. So, when did you first get in to making jewellery?
Well, even as a little kid I loved shiny things. My brother and I would play pirates, stealing our grandmother's collection of rhinestone buttons back and forth from each other. I tried all the high school trends - embroidery-floss friendship bracelets and seed beads woven on a loom, stuff like that, but I quickly lost interest in anything that everybody else was doing. I'd make jewelry out of sea shells, feathers, anything from nature I could really. I've always loved fine detail and shining a spotlight on beauty that's already there, rather than gilding lilies, if you will.
I guess human bones were the next logical step then, right?
Yeah. A friend in medical school told me that his department was consolidating its collection and asked if I’d like to buy some small bones for my work. He showed them to me and it was love at first sight—homegrown ivory! It was like seeing the astronauts' first pictures of Earth from space, like, "This is us, this is all of us. Every last one of us is a living, breathing miracle".
So would you say your jewellery is more a celebration of life rather than death?
Yes, definitely, although I don't see them as opposites. Death is a part of life. You can't die unless you're alive and if we weren't going to die eventually, a whole lot of us would never get around to living.
Ha ha, true, I guess. Have you always been into spooky stuff or are the bones a new passion?
Oh, no, definitely! I grew up two doors down from a fairly old graveyard and loved to take rubbings and photos of the older graves. I wrote songs and poems about mermaids, gargoyles, and ghosts. I've always been fascinated by the supernatural, but in a respectful way. Chasing ghosts and raising ancestors just for the spookiness of it is distasteful to me.
Were you into goth or black metal or any of the other stuff that usually goes along with hanging out in churchyards?
Definitely goth. I even promoted concerts for a couple years, but with my Klingon-esque–yes, I love science fiction too–sense of honor, I couldn't make it pay because I insisted on playing clean. I was always more into the ethereal, neoclassical side of it, although, I certainly enjoy some of the more rocking bands too. I also enjoy early music, though, Baroque and old ecclesiastical stuff. Who doesn't like a bit of Hildegard von Bingen, am I right?
I’m sure you are. Back to bones, where are they from? You haven't been out grave-robbing, have you?
No, no! I get them from educational suppliers who in turn get them from medical schools and museums that are either consolidating and updating their own collections or going over to more uniform and less high-maintenance acrylic models. It's great to donate your skeleton to your alma mater, but if you smashed your ankle skateboarding when you were 12, it might not be the best illustration for a new anatomy student.
Oh, so I assume there’s no record of whom the bones belonged to?
Exactly. I do have people occasionally ask, "do you know who this was?", but I don't even know if it was a man or woman. The only thing I can tell is that they were probably from a comfortable family, as they had the opportunity to pursue higher education.
How do you mean? It was the educated who donated their bodies to science?
No, these weren't donated to science, but to education. Either institutions of higher learning or museums. So, I figure at least most of them have been exposed to good learning resources like that.
I noticed the jewels you place inside the jewellery are all symbolic of something to some extent. Which means the most to you?
Well, it's not really planned, to be honest. Sometimes a bone will suggest a particular stone, or a stone will want to be part of a bone piece. If you take your time and are respectful and quiet, beauty has a language of its own that will speak through touch and image. Although, I guess one of my all-time favorites was a slice of watermelon tourmaline—a favorite stone of mine which crystallizes in concentric rings of beautiful color—suspended in the center of a vertebra, where the spinal cord would be. I called it Signal and may make another like it soon. It was like the primal messages of life - from survival to awareness, to things like dancing and working - stuff that we all share as human beings.
Right. Who usually buys your products? Do you have any key customers?
I think most of my bone jewelry is actually bought by doctors, imaging specialists, and other medical professionals, because they appreciate the human body as the gorgeous masterpiece of engineering that it is. But other customers have included a soldier who wanted to scare the bad guys and, of course, people who want to wear it to a goth club.
Do you know if the jewellery is popular in Pagan circles?
I don’t think so, no. A lot of Pagans are actually quite uncomfortable with it. The thing is, the bone pieces aren't my most popular designs and it really does take a special sort of person to be able to appreciate it. It's like the famous old New England gravestone: "As I am now, so you shall be" and that doesn't really appeal to everybody. Not everyone has the leeway to live totally for today and that's not a comfortable thing.
Have you ever had custom orders? People sending in bones of loved ones or something like that?
Only once. A friend wanted earrings of her ex's wisdom teeth and, actually, that was the only instance in which I knew anything at all about the donor. She opened up the package and I immediately went, "Uh-huh. Right", and we put them in a little cauldron of salt while I went and got some incense. We gave them a nice smoke bath to release the jagged energy. It hadn't been an amicable parting. But once they were cleared they made lovely earrings.
Do you have to clear all of the bones you receive before you craft them into something?
No, that was the only time where I felt there was anything off about them. I've often been offered a better deal on bones, which I never accept because they'd most likely be grave-robbed. Those, I suspect, could be infused with some seriously unhappy energy and, of course, I don't want to encourage that sort of behavior. But, for the most part, the bones I get were doctors, nurses, scientists, professors—probably not superstitious enough to end up as ghosts. I've never felt anything that needed to be released from bones that I get from a reputable supplier.