Artist Spotlight: Jabebo Earrings
Miniature images highlight nature and art
Nature reminds us on a daily basis that no two things are alike, and it’s that natural beauty and diversity that makes everything so unique. That’s the philosophy that lead Kevin Abbott, creator of Jabebo Earrings, to transform mismatched images and used cereal boxes into colorfully detailed earrings with educational themes.
Two layers of cardboard are sandwiched together to provide a sturdy base for the color image applied on the front. Each design features differing but complementary left and right images, and together they illustrate narrative ideas about the world.
Someone might wear butterfly earrings because they really like butterflies,” Abbott said. “Ours takes another step by depicting both the larval and the adult as a pair in specific detail that a naturalist would appreciate.”
Abbott didn’t start out as an artist, but rather acquired a degree in Wildlife Ecology and worked several years as field biologist, and later in museum education at the Smithsonian. He always dabbled in artistic projects to enhance his professional work, and the seed for Jabebo Earrings sprouted when his wife Mary suggested that he make her a pair of “mismatched” earrings with a sun on one side and a moon on the other.
“I didn’t know were to start, but I made some sketches and reduced them down on a photocopy machine,” Abbott said. “We didn’t have color copiers at the time, so I painted them by hand and glued them to some thicker paper. With a bit of wire they became my first pair of earrings. Needless to say, Mary liked them a lot and our coworkers and friends and I began responding to a number of requests.”
Today Abbott supervises a crew of two to three individuals who assist with the production of between 400 and 500 pairs a week and they’ve built their collection up to more than 200 different designs. Because every plant and animal is somebody’s favorite, they’re never short for ideas. It becomes a matter of choosing what to work on next.
“I try to balance different regional or specialized requests with those that are more general and come up frequently,” Abbott said. “We have done designs of regional interests, as well as ones that apply across the board, and also developed some really fun designs that appeal more to laboratory-based science.”
The designs they have in production are all made by hand, but it’s a very streamlined process so they can produce the quantities efficiently. All the creativity goes into the design and development stage. Once the subject is decided, they develop a theme and choose a pair of images that can communicate something interesting about it. Animal behavior, morphology, male/female dimorphism and life cycle metamorphism are all great for consideration.
The artwork is prepared and finalized on a computer, they print the actual images used in the earrings and then glue those to the cereal box paperboard. Next they cut out each design using a die cut that is made to match the design. A wire is attached to the back side of the earring piece and the whole thing is soaked in shellac for a few moments to seal and protect it from elements. After hanging the earrings on French ear wires purchased from another manufacturer, they are ready for packaging.
“We chose shellac as a finish because it is less toxic and safer in the studio compared to the modern polyurethanes,” Abbott said. “It’s non-toxic and hypoallergenic when dry and it protects the printed images from UV light as well. The resin itself is a renewable resource harvested in India from lac beetles and their host trees.”
They made their first wholesale to the gift shop at the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase, Md. in 1998. The visitor center at the Patuxent and Chincoteague Natural Wildlife Refuges also began buying from them around that time. From there they set out to create more designs that would appeal to refuges and natural areas across the country.
“It simply worked out that the niche market that I first turned to responded right away to our ideas,” Abbott said. “If that synergy did not become immediately apparent, I probably would not have developed the business. But I could see right away that I could be creating a product that not only earned myself an income, but also helped to raise money for places and causes that I supported.”
The largest portion of their business is with non-profit associations and working with the National Wildlife Refuges gift shop/bookstores. Another large component is bird observatories located in key sites along migration corridors.
“Not surprising,” Abbott said, “but many of the end wearers of our jewelry have traveled to some special place to go bird watching and found our earrings in the gift shop as an added bonus. But I am also hearing back from educators, scientists and many nature lovers about their experiences wearing them and showing them off.
“People often do ask if we make any other jewelry pieces to go with our earrings and I always say that I am trying to work on it,” Abbott continued. “However, the paired yet mismatched images seem to be what makes our work so interesting, and every time we try to explore a new idea, it comes back to earrings.”
They’re creating around 20 new designs every year, but their latest endeavor is a small retail shop attached to their new studio space in downtown Bellefonte, Pa. Here Abbott is bringing in work from other small companies and artisans, and is particularly looking for work that is scientifically and environmentally inspired. If there is something really interesting about the process by which the work is achieved, then that’s an additional selling point they can share.
Abbott said there is a lot of excellent and affordable work being done by individuals, and he’s interested in who else is out there and would like to bring some of it back to his own town. Of course, all of their own designs are available at the store, and you can also see first-hand the process of how they are making them.
“In my store, I am trying to highlight the source of and story behind the product,” Abbott said. “It is really great when you can get into a conversation about this with the customer. I think other makers can also come forward on this point by incorporating more of their story into their products and developing interesting background material to go with it.
“There is a good deal of fun in thinking creatively and acting on it, and it is a blessing to know that one’s creativity and hard work is appreciated,” Abbott continued. “That is a great reward, in addition to making a living.”
By Abby Heugel