Look! Over there! It's a bird, it's a plane . . . no, they're airplane parts. Yup, Catherine Kent's enigmatic, edgy jewelry is comprised of the bits and pieces that aircraft manufacturers don't have use for anymore. If you're in the market for jewelry made from alloyed metal parts that have been federally inspected four times, Kent's Take Off To jewelry line just might be for you. Surprisingly lightweight and graceful, her necklaces and bracelets are sold at Area 51 (401 E Pine, 568-4782) and from her Web site (www.takeoffto.com). Kent does custom orders and offers six lines with flight-inspired names such as Kitty Hawk, Catalina, and Gulf Stream.
A handywoman extraordinaire, Kent is also a carpenter and works as a set designer and stylist for clients like Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean. She creates her jewelry in her Capitol Hill home. Kent thrives on finding new and attractive uses for discarded objects—and airplane parts from stores in Georgetown fit the bill. She plumbs surplus bins in search of the next perfect object; what would be a toss-away to most jewelry designers is the Hope diamond to Kent.
Did you have to learn new skills to make this type of jewelry?
I'm self-taught, same with crocheting and knitting. No one was teaching me, I just learned by doing. It was mostly trial-and-error. And when I had my errors I would go to the jewelry supply store in Fremont to see what people were doing.
What sort of tools do you use? Do you attach the parts by hand?
I use flat-nose pliers so that I don't scrape my clasp and wire snippers to cut my wire, and I place the parts by hand. I also use S-nose pliers to make my S-hooks. I definitely use diamond metal files—I file the wires in my necklaces so they don't scratch people's necks.
How did you decide to focus on using airplane parts?
I went to a garage sale on Capitol Hill and found these colorful metallic parts. I didn't know what they were so I researched it out. I was making a lot of props for films at the time, so I was down in the industrial area. I started asking guys down there what they thought they might be and I finally found someone who'd worked at Boeing who told me what they were. I went to Boeing Surplus. The first time I went I bought the parts in bulk, stuff that was being discarded. But now, I go just to airplane parts stores. I use surplus parts whenever possible, the stuff that's too old or nobody bought.
What's your process like? Do you visualize a finished piece before you start putting it together or do things evolve as you work?
I'm always attracted to the colors first. When I first started I would put stuff together, play around and it would evolve that way. But now when I go look at parts I can pretty much see a final piece. I actually can see endless options.
What do the people at the parts store think of your work?
They think it's great. I go to this store in Georgetown. I've brought in my portfolio. I keep kidding them that I'm going to make it big and I'm going to need 2000 parts one day. So I say, "Can you supply me?" And he says, "Oh yeah, we can do it."
Do they make suggestions?
They set aside stuff for me. They'll say, "I saw this and maybe you can use it." Sometimes it drives me crazy because I can't get to all the parts . . . everything's behind a desk and I just want to get back there. Sometimes I'll say, I'd love to get something purple. And the guy will be gone for 15 minutes and come back with all these purple parts.
How do you come up with the names for each group?
Those guys in the store helped me with some of them, like with Catalina. I was telling them about the colorful, island feeling the pieces have. They said, "Oh yeah, you should call it Catalina, it's a puddle-jumper [small plane that hops to smaller destinations with fewer people]."
How has your jewelry evolved over the years?
It's totally different now. Back in the early '90s I was living in the country in southern Oregon and going to all these barter fairs. My stuff was a lot softer, more like what you see in stores everywhere right now—lots of glass beads and precious stones. Now my stuff's more cutting edge. Maybe it's more industrial because I live in a city. I guess my environment influences my work. If you could have seen my stuff two years ago . . . it was a lot heavier, less colorful, just weird stuff.
Now that the Concorde's been grounded, have you thought about renaming that series?
I hadn't thought about that. It used to be so much more prestigious to fly than it is now . . . when I'm flying on a plane, I always make jokes. I'll say, "Well, if we're going down, I've got the parts here."
It's no Rorschach test, but listening to people's reactions to Take Off To jewelry can be pretty interesting. Here's what some people, in the dark about the jewelry's origins, said upon seeing the bracelets.
"This looks like bike chains, but prettier. I would wear this if I was going to the Catwalk!" —Jennifer, 27; administrative assistant
"Jesus, these look like airplane parts—like they're recycled. No, like surplus . . . you can be fashionable by day and in the evening build your own airplane." —John, 39; aircraft structures engineer
"The blue ones look like aluminum rubbed with metal bluing and this one looks like a bicycle chain sprocket." —Kyle, 32; computer consultant
"Umm. These things look they're from a computer or an old TV [or] radio or electrical components." —Maralyn, 53; massage therapist
"From far away they seem industrial, but they're not very heavy. They almost remind me of wooden or porcelain beads, something organic. They're kind of fun to play with." —Jean, 37; ESL instructor
"Car parts or part of an engine or a dentist's hygiene machinery." —Craig, 24; artist, actor