Meet the Maker – Portland Jewelry Designer Allison Bartline
Primal, iconic, and fierce. Allison Bartline’s jewelry leaves an instant impression with its bold lines and deep connection to our natural world.
We sat down recently with the Portland-based designer to learn more about the inspiration behind her favorite pieces, how growing up in Alaska influenced her creative process, and why her new store, Gem Gem, is going to be something really special.
You grew up in Anchorage, Alaska and now live in Portland. How have each of these cities affected your work?
Leaving Alaska was all I wanted to do growing up. It is far too remote and close-minded. I know that Alaska has affected who I am; I suppose that boredom drove me to creativity as a kid if I really think about it. I moved to Seattle for some years, didn’t finish a degree in art history, and then traveled in Europe. When I returned to Seattle, I started working in jewelry sales. I moved to New York City because I felt I needed to, I had a strong drive to live there. In New York, I got the opportunity to work more directly with successful jewelry designers and learn so much more about the business. My husband got a job offer in Portland and I was excited to change things up. I got to apprentice part time with a local jewelry caster and learned more of the processes in bringing my designs to life. Portland has given me the ability to afford to live and build a business making jewelry. Affording the cost of building a creative business is difficult, and we were lucky to move to a place where it was possible.
Your designs are influenced by how early man interacted with and interpreted the natural world. Which elements in particular fascinate you? Is there a religious/spiritual component to your work?
I wouldn’t say there’s a purposeful spiritual or religious aspect to my work. It is fascinating to me how man has viewed the natural world throughout history, how there has been a strong desire to explain, worship, control, stifle, harness, or destroy it. These desires have contributed to the birth of religion as a way to find reason in the power of nature. My work is more of an observation and commentary on the very human inclination of trying to explain the chaos.
What was the catalyst for you beginning to design your own jewelry, after working in jewelry sales previously?
I am an avid collector of jewelry. I started looking for specific pieces that I couldn’t find. I assumed that if I thought of it, the piece must exist out there. I couldn’t find these pieces, so I started designing them for my own personal collection. Friends and strangers started asking about them, so I started making more. It started very organically and unintentionally. I originally thought it would only be a hobby because I was far too self-critical to consider putting myself out there artistically.
What are the biggest challenges that you find with balancing the creative and business aspects of being an independent jewelry designer?
Time management! Everything takes longer than expected and there is never enough time. Prioritizing can be difficult too. All I want to do is carve wax and make jewelry, but what affords me the privilege of doing this as a job is all of the ‘boring’ business work too. I have to force myself to take photos, update my site, and do all of the other tasks required to sustain a business. Obviously, it’s a goal to get to the point where I can truly focus on design and have an employee to handle the day to day business functions.
Do you design for a specific person in mind, or do you believe your work attracts lots of different types of customers?
I design for myself, my friends, my family. I hope to attract many types of customers, but ultimately it’s the pieces I want to wear or see my friends wear. I have lots of ideas rolling around in my head, and sometimes it just takes a conversation with a friend about those ideas to get me excited to start carving. I’m lucky that there are people out there that like and want to support what I create.
Which of your pieces is your favorite, and why? Do any have origin stories you’d like to share?
I find so much inspiration from antiques and art. I look at nature, antique furniture, book prints, architecture, and armor. Sometimes its a more literal interpretation like the HERNE, KRIOS, or AMAROK. Sometimes, it is more based on something I’ve seen in travels or reading like the CETUS necklace which is based off of Roman fountains or the PULSAR and NEBULA bangles which are based on medieval images of comets and stars. My favorite pieces change constantly, right now its the CABALLUS lariat for it’s versatility. You can wear it long, wrapped shorter, or wrapped around the wrist as a bracelet. Ask me tomorrow, and my favorite will be different. I wear so many pieces at a time that it is hard to play favorites.
Why do you think jewelry resonates so powerfully with people?
Since ancient times, jewelry has been worn to symbolize so many aspects of our lives. It was made to last, to adorn, to represent, to pass down to future generations, or to be buried in. Only in the last 100 years has costume jewelry been readily made with the only focus to be an accessory to wear and dispose after the trend passes. Jewelry should be so much more than an accessory, it should last and be passed along to continue telling its story.
Your work is primarily made with sterling silver, is there a particular reason? Do you have plans to work with other metals in future?
Silver is my favorite not only for its color, but I love the way it changes and ages. I have worked with bronze in the past, but the finish just doesn’t have the longevity that finer metals have. I want my jewelry to last for years, pieces that you want to keep and collect, to become pieces that you pass down to younger generations. I have plans on working with more gold in the future as well. I have had the pleasure of working with gold quite a few times for custom pieces, and I want to create a collection of gold pieces.
Can you tell our followers a little about your new store, Gem Gem? What has that experience been like in the lead up to its opening in April?
Finding the space for Gem Gem was a bit of an accident. I had forgotten about ideas I had long ago to own a jewelry store that carried my work and the work of other respected jewelry designers. I moved from Seattle to New York with the idea of learning what I could from the jewelers I worked for an eventually owning my own store. The idea was lost, I burned myself out, and I thought jewelry wasn’t for me. Working some events, I met fellow designers Heidi Lieberman and Jessica Illahole and we started working together on throwing some jewelry parties. We worked very well with each other and we wanted to get a studio space together, which is what we were originally looking for when I found the space for Gem Gem. There was an empty storefront, and I couldn’t get the idea of a store out of my head. I was reminded of that idea I had 10+ years previous. Heidi and I decided to take on the storefront as well as the studio. We are excited to bring a new type of jewelry shopping experience to Portland.
Cover photo by Autumn Northcraft