Vitrice McMurry combines precious stones and metals to craft one-of-a-kind pieces.
Photographed by Cheryl Gerber
Jewelry designer and metalworker Vitrice McMurry graduated from Louisiana State University with a bachelor’s degree in English and a passion for metals. Although she left with a degree in language, it was her undergraduate studies in metal that portended her future career.
At LSU, McMurry studied metals and completed numerous workshops with renowned metalsmiths; it was only a matter of time before she started making jewelry in 1971. By 1972, she was selling her wares at shops and craft fairs. McMurry continues her academic career, now in front of the class, at Metairie Park Country Day School where she has taught metalworking part-time for many years. She also continues her work as an artisan, creating beautiful pieces of jewelry from her studio near New Orleans’ Bayou St. John.
Her operation is small, currently comprising a “staff of one –– me!” she says. But well-versed in myriad modern and Old World metallurgic techniques, McMurry succeeds. Using her training (and thousands of years of history), McMurry crafts jewelry from silver, gold, 18-karat gold-plating, cloisonné enamelware and gems, materials she acquires from various companies and East Coast stonecutters. But gathering materials can almost be referred to as the easy part. Once she accumulates all of her accouterments, the work has just begun.
“Most of my necklaces … have at least eight to 10 steps in the construction process,” she says, noting that, on average, such a necklace takes four to six hours to complete.
Amongst the most complex methods McMurry uses is a process incepted in 250 B.C. by Kushites along the Nile River in North Africa. This genre, cloisonné, is characterized by use of colored enamel fused with thin strips of precious metal. From Meroë, the Kushite capital city, this type of art spread through the ancient world –– notably the Balkan peninsula and China, subsequent producers of some of the genre’s best-known examples of art –– and on into the modern day.
These days, though, McMurry says, “[Cloisonné] is such a rarefied field because it’s so labor-intensive.”
She thinks the effort is well worth it, though: “With cloisonné enameling, I can incorporate all the colors of the rainbow in my designs and accent them with silver and gold. I love to mix shapes, colors and textures.”
Over the years, cloisonné pieces have gained value and respect, but the process of creating such pieces remains a painstaking endeavor.
McMurry begins by creating intricate, stylized paintings –– featuring at least 16 colors –– in powdered glass. After applying powdered glass to a metal surface –– six to eight layers to build an illusion of depth –– she bakes the object in a small oven at 1,500 degrees. Next, she uses six to 10 different gradations of sandpaper to polish the object to stone quality and then sets it within a metal design (most commonly gold or silver) to complement the enamel.
“When I was sanding by hand, I developed some weird wrist problems,” she says, sympathizing with the Old World craftsmen who worked without power tools.
Like the craftsmen of days gone by, McMurry draws much of her inspiration from the world around her –– only now it’s a much bigger world.
“My five collections encompass the wide range of my inspirations,” McMurry says. “I fell in love with Mayan design when visiting sites in Mexico; Deco designs in New York spurred my love for that idiom. The eternal elegance of Asian design encouraged my Zen group, and the ultimate inspiration for all artists, nature itself, inspires my Organic group.”
McMurry has come a long way from her days as a kid in Jackson, Miss. A New Orleanian since 1969, McMurry shares her love of New Orleans and the arts with her husband, guitarist/vocalist John Rankin. The couple’s daughter, Anne, is still in high school but certainly comes from the right stock to be an artist, too! The family is rounded out with pets, including a dog, a cat and two finches. In her spare time, McMurry enjoys reading (for which she started a book club), watching movies (for which she started a movie club) and gardening.
McMurry’s adornments are for sale at Symmetry Jewelers, Rhino Contemporary Crafts Co. and the Arts Market of New Orleans at Palmer Park (held the last Saturday of every month), and some of her wares may even pop up at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
To learn more about McMurry or her work, visit vitrice.com.