Wampum Arrowhead Pendants
Oct/Nov 2015

A Fresh Take on the Ordinary Wampum Shell

By Diane Alter

There is an incredible amount of talent packed into Martha’s Vineyard 100 square miles. To be sure, the MV artistic scene is always alive with talent, old and new. Artists of all kinds flock to the island inspired by its unrivaled beauty, lush landscape, and distinctive peacefulness. All conspire to create an atmosphere that nurtures creativity and drive. While MV is a coveted destination for artists from all over the globe, for those lucky enough to be born here, inventiveness and originality is innate. Phoenix Russell is a prime example.

Born and raised on MV, Phoenix is one of those multi-talented individuals who knows no boundaries. Her full time job is working with horses employing a hands-on type of bodywork that focuses on muscles and connective tissues. It’s not a stretch to call her a horse whisperer. About seven years ago, Phoenix started toying around with wampum. A symbolic shell, wampum boasts a long and rich history. American Indians gave wampum as a means of indicating peace or friendship. Sometimes, a man presented wampum to a woman he wished to marry. Other times, wampum’s purpose was storytelling. Phoenix has her own story to tell about how she became interested in the legendary shell and started creating unique jewelry pieces with it.

1524164_950715261610410_8575295531180783639_o“I was given a wampum bracelet when I was just a few months old,” Phoenix said, her voice has an earthy cadence that immediately draws you in. “As I got older, I would often pull out the bracelet and hold it. I didn’t know all the legends of wampum, but I knew what I was holding was special. It would be many years before I started making wampum jewelry. But I guess you could say I got my start at birth. I made a lot of ugly stuff at first, and it was a lot of trial error. My first piece was a simple wampum piece strung on silver. I have since gotten the hang of it.”

Phoenix is being modest. Her unisex bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and rings are true things of beauty and extremely intricate. All of Phoenix’s wampum comes from shells she and her boyfriend, Joe Rogers, painstakingly collect on MV. “First you have to find the shells,” Phoenix explains. “Then you have to clean them, cut them, sand them, and polish them. Wampum is delicate. Working with it requires patience and persistence. I used to make 10 pieces and walk away with five. Now, it’s consistently 10 for 10.”

10599355_951816284833641_1013093326269623471_nPhoenix’s specialty is making pieces in a various shapes and in vivid hues. Right now she is focused on fish designs in prominent purple tones. Customers are particularly drawn to Phoenix’s mermaid, star, and hummingbird creations. Pieces are frequently accented with turquoise, which Phoenix says nicely compliments wampum, adds some eye-catching splash, and makes her collection truly one-of-a-kind.

Artists are constantly motivated by the world around them. Indeed, the eye has to travel as they say. “My creative process begins with the shell,” Phoenix shared. “When I pick up a shell, I already see what it’s going to be. Yet like any good designer, I am always open to new ideas. A lot of people are working with wampum these days, so I know the key to success is making it my own. I can make almost any kind of design. Plus, I keep my prices affordable. I want people to be able to enjoy my jewelry and the symbolic shell.”

941115_504500262938606_1445414531_nIn an age of mass production, Phoenix’s handcrafted wampum pieces are a delightful change. It’s obvious that Phoenix leaves a piece of herself in each design, a bit of her heart. Every item is created with an emotion from the get-go. Every piece comes with a story, and stories make you dream…

Phoenix’s website, www.islandphoenix.com is expected to be live in November. In the meantime, you can find some of her exclusive, custom-made by request bracelets, earrings, and pendants at CB Stark in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown.