A Michigan woodworker crafts striking earrings from local species. Like them? Plan to set your alarm on a Saturday to snag a pair. 

By Robin Pfeifer
October 16, 2020
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Credit: Courtesy of Jarrod Napierkowski

A rickety flight of stairs leads to a 10x10-foot Grand Rapids, Michigan, workshop that used to be a basement coal room. This is Brambles Woodwork. Under a small glass-block window, Jarrod Napierkowski sands another set of earrings to a silky gleam—and his adoring fans are already circling online. Interview with Robin Pfeifer.

RP What drew you to woodworking?

JN For 16 years I worked at a brewery, but all the while, I pursued woodwork as a side project. It’s not something I went to school for, but I grew up whittling and taught myself how to make tables. One day, a friend found a scrap on the workshop floor. She picked it up and said it would make a good earring. That sparked the idea. Momentum just kept building. In 2019, I said to myself, “You only have one shot at this to see what can happen.” I decided to throw it all in the ring to see if it could work.

RP Now your weekly sales drops are a total feeding frenzy!

JN They can get hectic! I make 20 to 40 pairs each week. As I finish pieces, I post to Instagram (@brambleswoodwork) to build anticipation. The sale begins on Etsy at 10 a.m. EST Saturday. Everything sells within 20 minutes.

RP Your customers seem to personally connect with your earrings.

JN I’ve always found the most beauty with wood grain in the places where the tree had to grow around an obstacle, struggle or heal from an injury. Similarly in people, these twists, turns, struggles, burls and brambles are where the most beauty can be found.

RP Your designs are so intricate. Do you go into each pair with a plan?

JN Sometimes I sketch out designs, but 80 percent of the time, it’s an organic process. I’ve learned to lean on the wood to do the creative talking. I’ll look at the swirl of grain and think, “How can I work with this?” My workbench has a lot of scraps and I’ll just sit with them, grasping the pieces and putting them together. Sometimes a piece will sit unfinished for six months. I listen to music and let it carry me through experimentation.

RP What are your favorite materials?

JN Holly is stark white, carves like butter, is nice and light, and doesn’t crack. I use it to accentuate colors and make pieces pop. I don’t dye or stain my wood. I collect it naturally. There’s a fungus that grows in Michigan called Chlorociboria aeruginascens. It stains oak a deep blue hue. If you pull a yew shrub out of the ground while it’s alive, then let it slowly dry out for a year, it will develop swirls of yellow, pink and purple. It’s different every time, and it’s a mesmerizing sight to behold. I have one from June 2019 that I’m excited to crack into.

RP Gender stereotypes die hard. Has your choice of work surprised people?

JN At first, I had to swallow my pride when guys ribbed me, saying, “You make earrings?” But it’s allowed me to experiment with art in a way that could be shown, worn and experienced by the most amount of people. It doesn’t just hang on a wall or need to be sized appropriately. It’s for everyone—men, women, 19- to 65-year-olds. Wearing something bold and unique gives them all a sense of confidence.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Credit: Courtesy of Jarrod Napierkowski

Why a 2.75-inch-long earring? “It’s hard to say goodbye to a beautiful grain swirl or color swoosh, just to knock off a half-inch,” Jarrod Napierkowski says.