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Casting Impressions

Handmade Tales: Karen Klinefelter


Published June 4, 2008 at 12:53 p.m.

Karen Klinefelter
  • Karen Klinefelter

Jewelry designer Karen Klinefelter’s Pine Street studio in Burlington is filled with the specialized tools of the trade — a soldering torch, a Crock Pot containing an acid called “pickle,” a hanging drill that can be fitted with sandpaper drums, polishing buffs and a dozen more tiny attachments. But on a recent weekday she is simply sitting in the sun-filled space behind Conant Metal & Light, studying pieces of cast gold on the table before her. The artist is at work in her mind.

“When I try to design a new piece, I take other pieces and put them next to each other,” Klinefelter explains — and inspiration comes when it comes. The process is a metaphor, she continues, for her attempt to bring her love of jewelry making and her humanitarian efforts into a fruitful alliance. The 45-year-old recently returned from a visit to Bhimpokhara, Nepal, with a friend who set up a fund to send the rural village’s children to school. By the end of her trip, Klinefelter was completely taken with both the kids and “this amazing part of the world.” “I think I adopted a village!” she exclaims.

She put a link to the fund on her website, donated some of the proceeds from a recent show, and connected Nepalese weavers in the village with a Katmandu women’s cooperative. But Klinefelter wants to do more, she says — something that will give larger significance to her work.

Meanwhile, she’s looking over photographs from her trip for hints of new designs. Klinefelter’s previous travels abroad — to India, Thailand, Chile and Haiti — have inspired whole lines of jewelry. Her Thai Collection, for example, features 18-carat gold or sterling silver earrings and rings whose appealing, contemporary shapes juxtapose curves with linear touches. Is there a Nepal Collection in the works? “I think it’s coming,” she says with a laugh.

Klinefelter opened her studio in 2005 and is already showing her work at large juried affairs such as the annual American Crafts Festival in New York City, as well as at Grannis Gallery in Burlington and the Weston Historical Society’s annual fundraiser. But it wasn’t so long ago that Klinefelter was still deciding between making jewelry and pursuing a Master’s in counseling.

Born in St. Albans, Klinefelter earned her Bachelor’s in psychology after “bouncing in and out of” the University of Vermont, Castleton State College and Burlington College. During those years, she struggled with an eating disorder, she reveals. That experience led her to work after graduation as a counselor in a local outpatient program for similarly affected women.

Though she chose the artistic path professionally, Klinefelter remains devoted to women’s issues; she has served on the board of the Women’s Rape Crisis Center and sells a woman’s ring she calls the “Circle of the Spirit.” Cast in gold or silver, it resembles a female body wrapped around the wearer’s finger. “I think, culturally, there are a lot of ways that women’s self-esteem gets knocked down,” Klinefelter says. She overcame her own doubts about starting a jewelry business when she participated in the Women’s Small Business Project in Burlington.

Klinefelter got her start helping a “jeweler to the trade” — a producer for stores that lack their own designer. This experience allowed her to learn her craft on gold rather than — as jewelers typically do — on silver. She also gives immense credit to Burlington goldsmith Timothy Grannis, with whom she apprenticed for 12 years and who taught her bench-work techniques and how to organize a production schedule. “He was very open to showing you how to do things, even sharing his designs,” Klinefelter recalls.

Receiving such support bolstered her determination to give back. “I feel grateful that I got to do what I like to do,” Klinefelter explains simply. “That’s such a gift.”

Click a photo above to see the location.