Up Close and Personal
No bones about it
You may look at a dead raccoon and just see a carcass, but Aarika Whittle sees 300 potential pieces of unique, delicate jewelry. She has always collected animal bones, but it was only about a month ago that she turned it into a form of expression. That was the start of Whittle Bones, which offers a cruelty-free line of jewelry using pieces of animal skeletons. We’re not talking skull and crossbones here. Many of the pieces are dainty and “whittle,” with a feminine flair. They cost as little as $5 or more, depending on how ornate they are. These unique items can be found on the Whittle Bones Facebook page, at the brand-new Etsy page, etsy.com/shop/WhittleBones or at NEPA Tattoo Club on South Main Street in Pittston. Aarika says her handmade jewelry would make a special Valentine’s Day gift, not only because each piece is one-of-a-kind, but also because of it’s deeper meaning — you are wearing something that was once full of life. Making art out of animal bones is not for the faint of heart — it’s a long process and takes years of research. Meet Aarika Whittle …
Can you tell me how you got started collecting bones?
When I was little, my grandmother and I used to go looking for things like shark’s teeth and she’d take me fossil hunting with my aunt. We’re just really into collecting and observing specimens. So it’s just kind of been around my entire life. For the past four years I’ve been researching how to properly handle and clean specimens, to keep my family, my friends and my customers safe. I kind of like the idea of giving something a life after death. It’s like the last bit of you that doesn’t really go anywhere, it kind of hangs out and if you can make something and give to someone to appreciate or take with them through life, it’s a really cool concept.
When did you decide to make your interest into a business?
It happened randomly, I guess. I’ve always been very hands-on and very creative, so jewelry seemed like a happy medium. The bones are a whole new medium to work with and that’s really exciting. And it’s working out. Whittle Bones was very well received. The page got more than 200 likes within 24 hours — it was very overwhelming. I’ve already made tons of sales. I’ve been asked to participate in a lot of different vending events. It’s going over really well. I’m excited that it’s so well received and supported.
How long does it take to make these pieces?
It really depends on the condition of the specimen … there are many different ways I’ll get things. Sometimes I’ll get a hunter who will donate the parts he doesn’t use. I’ll go scavenging, hiking, pick up roadkill — it’s kind of weird, but … (laughs). Most of the time, the jewelry I make comes from naturally cleaned bone. I don’t do very much work in the way of removing actual flesh or tissues. But it’s a very long process. It can take months, depending on how much tissue is left on the specimen. If it’s just bone, though, I’ll go through a process of whitening and sterilization. But after that, you can pretty much handle the bone, craft it any way you please. It’s a very sanitary process and it takes a very long time.
Is all that hard work worth it?
It’s definitely cool to see it come together in the end. I’ll go out and find, say, a dead raccoon on the side of the road. I’ll bring it home, clean it, be able to start crafting it into something, like this ring with a raccoon vertebrae with a tiny, jade polished bead. I just kind of go with it. I don’t really have a method to my madness. I just pick a specimen and start wrapping it with wire, or say this bead would complement the color of this bone. There are no rules to what I do.
So you’re always coming up with new things to make?
Always. None of my two pieces are ever the same. I’ll never recreate a piece. I can do a custom variation of a piece, but I’ll never make two of the same. No two bones are alike, no two animals are alike, no two people are alike, I don’t think it would be fair to mass produce a certain style.
I feel like that’s nice for customers.
They get a one-of-a-kind piece, no one else will ever have it. The two biggest compliments that I keep getting are, ‘Wow, they’re so unique and they’re so different,’ and also that they’re so dainty and so much better looking than even online, which is a really exciting thing for me, because I think they look really good online. I’m like ‘Oh wow, I made that?’ (laughs)
Why do you think these would make nice gifts for Valentine’s Day?
I feel like they’re worth so much more. They’re coming from something that lived a life. It’s coming from the essence of something else. And it’s unique. You buy your significant other a ring or a pair of earrings, you can be happy knowing that no one else is going to have it, and there’s a story and a life behind the piece, be it all the work I put into it, or all the work that being put into it’s life.
How do you design your items?
I try to keep everything simple. I try to keep everything small. Obviously it ranges depending on the type of specimen or bone that I’m working with, but I generally try to use small pieces. I stick to the femininity of jewelry. Like a pearl with a bone just makes it more girl-friendly, rather than sticking a bone on a hunk of metal. It opens up a whole market, it makes other people interested in the product, or at least gets them to ask questions. Obviously it’s a very taboo thing that I do and not a lot of people understand or look at it the way that I do. They look at it as very disrespectful or dirty or things like that. I get a decent amount of negative feedback. I’m just trying to create something from something. I’m trying to continue the appreciation of that object. It’s a mix. I get a lot of love, and then I get a decent amount of ‘Oh, you’re messed up in the head.’
What do you like about the scavenging part?
It’s really exciting. Being outside is my zen. When I get outside, I’m just overwhelmed by my feeling of comfort, of excitement, of zest for being outside. I’ll just wander around, kicking over things, turning things over, checking things out. It’s not just about the bone, it’s about being outside and taking in the geometry of nature. It’s a lot of fun. You never know what you’re going to find.
Are you originally from NEPA?
I was born and raised in Dallas, but I moved around to Alabama and Florida a lot. Now I’m based in Pittston. It’s just not the same elsewhere. I appreciate the little things about the nature here. In Florida, they don’t really have dirt or rocks, they just have clay. I like the smell of dirt, I like the woods we have. We have mountains and beautiful sights. Our local arts scene is extremely alive. If you get out there and look around, there’s so much to do, it’s just mindblowing. And it’s very personal, because this area is large enough to be amazing, but small enough to be a family.
What’s next for Whittle Bones?
I’m hoping to expand within the next couple months into actual bone carving. It’s a whole other medium and style, but I think it’ll be the next step. I want to make plugs for stretched ears and beads for dreadlocks, just little things like that. Staffs, pipes, just various things, you can make anything out of a bone.
— kirstin cook