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Remember that broken necklace at the bottom of your jewelry box?

Those obsolete silver cufflinks in the back of a drawer?

The tacky, hand-me-down brooch that somehow you got stuck with?

They are all treasures in the eyes of “ethical metalsmiths,” people who use reclaimed materials and artistic imagination to create new jewelry from old.

For them, re-purposing materials is a creative challenge to take on — and, more importantly, an environmental statement to make. Rather than use newly mined materials stripped from the earth, ethical metalsmithing relies on sustainably sourced metals or the concept of recycling and re-use.

Graduate students at UW-Madison have joined the movement – and they want your cast-off baubles.

Radical Jewelry Makeover Wisconsin, billed as “a community jewelry mining and recycling project,” is looking for donations in drop-off locations around the state. In Madison, unwanted jewelry can be donated at the UW-Madison Art Lofts, 111 N. Frances St.; the Kohler Art Library inside the Chazen Museum of Art, 800 University Ave.; room 6241 of the UW-Madison Humanities Buliding at 455 N. Park St.; or the HYART Gallery at 133 W. Johnson St.

The donations to RJM Wisconsin can be “anything and everything – whether it’s precious like gold, or it’s costume jewelry,” said Chloe Darke, a second-year graduate student in the metals and jewelry department at UW-Madison.

“It can be plastic or stuff that’s stringed together – anything.”

Trinkets. Flatware. Bling. (For a past Radical Jewelry Makeover, someone even donated a set of sterling champagne glasses.)

Giving up the past

The donations will be pooled with others from across the state. Later this month, Darke and other UW-Madison students will meet with some 200 other student artists and instructors from UW-Milwaukee and UW-Stout to sort, divide and then take home a hodge-podge of elements they’ll use to make new pieces.

Their creations will go on display in an exhibit at UW-Milwaukee’s Union Art Gallery from April 13-May 11. The new jewelry pieces will be for sale, with proceeds benefiting art student scholarships and education efforts of the artist-run non-profit group Ethical Metalsmiths.

Donors will not see their jewelry again. But they’ll receive a discount coupon toward a new piece in the RJM Wisconsin show, depending on the value of their donation.

They’ll also be asked to share a story about the piece they’re giving to the effort.

Some have told RJM they’re gifting a late relative’s jewelry in that person’s honor. Others made the gesture to say goodbye to the past.

A donor from a past Makeover, for example, gave up a ring after a stormy domestic break-up. A RJM artist melted it down, then created a new ring — featuring a tiny tornado, with an even tinier house inside it.

Makeover idea spread to 14 locations

Founded by Wisconsin native and UW-Madison alum Susie Ganch, now interim chair of the Department of Craft and Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Ethical Metalsmiths co-founder Christina Miller, the first Radical Jewelry Makeover took place in 2007. Since then the concept has traveled to 14 locations, including Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; San Francisco, California; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Brisbane, Australia; and now Milwaukee.

More than 200 college students and instructors are expected to participate in RJM Wisconsin, said Chelsea Nanfelt, an undergraduate in jewelry and metals at UW-Milwaukee and curatorial assistant at Union Art Gallery.

Though it started as a student exhibit, the idea of RJM Wisconsin quickly spread, Nanfelt said. The ethical metalsmithing message spawned a college course, a project to document RJM, and a schedule of workshops, open studios, an April 4 talk by Ganch, and more.

Artists and jewelry donors will be invited to an RJM symposium on Feb. 24. Museums and galleries in Milwaukee, Racine, Brookfield and Madison are pitching in by collecting unused jewelry for the makeover.

RJM encourages collaboration across institutions, which is why UW-Milwaukee organizers were urged to mobilize fellow students from Madison and Stout, said RJM co-director Kathleen Kennedy.

Kennedy, who earned her MFA from UW-Madison and now lives in Virginia, recalls the startling fact that made her reconsider where the metals she works with come from: It’s estimated that for every gold band on a person’s finger, 20 tons of mine waste is created, “which is just kind of unfathomable to me,” she said.

“With donations that come into RJM, we get both precious metals like silver and gold, which can be melted down and re-cast, and we get costume jewelry – plastics and pot metals, which are really just bad for the environment,” Kennedy said.

“They’re created not to last a lifetime; they’re created to last a season, until it’s the next season and they’re no longer fashionable. So how do we address the waste that that causes? How can we transform those materials to something that is not just going to collect dust in the bottom of the jewelry box?”

For students, RJM Wisconsin also presents a rare chance to meet and network with other young artists in their field, a fact pointed out by both Nanfelt of Milwaukee and UW-Madison’s Darke.

“Connecting with my metals peers from Milwaukee and Stout — I think that is going to be a lot of fun,” Darke said.

Through RJM, “I’m learning a lot about where the metal we source comes from,” she said, “and also how much of an impact that mining has on the earth and our environment – and just different ways that we can support companies that source things responsibly. I think it’s about being a smart consumer and artist, making the smart and ethical choices.”

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