There is no mistaking what draws loyal clients to Francene Yorko’s jewelry. Handcrafting her jewelry in lead-free pewter gives her pieces an industrial look, with light catching each detail, from the crystal embellished premolars of a cat jaw to the groove of an owl’s eye socket. It’s this level of craftsmanship that makes it easy to fawn over Yorko’s work. However, for some observers, it takes time to get past their macabre twist. Especially since all of the pieces involving bones, including a bracelet of human teeth, were casted from the real thing.
Under the name Martha Rotten, Yorko’s work can be found in various shops, including both Kiki Hughes and the Eyes Gallery in Philadelphia. She is one of many artists with a passion for merging organic materials with wearable art. Another Philly-based artist, Beth Beverly, who makes taxidermy wearable’s, said that she recently heard the term “wildlife art,” which she feels sums up the craft. Though Yorko, Beverly, and artist Dominick Triola, who also bones in his jewelry, are all motivated by similar materials, sometimes even of the species, their individual backgrounds and approaches in using these materials are vastly different.
“I always was really compelled to make things, but the main thrust was wearables,” said Beth Beverly in an interview. Being shy at a younger age, she said that her interest in wearable’s stemmed from her desire to express herself, visually. She also said that it seemed “boring” for art to be confined to a wall. She began working with natural fibers, such as snakeskin and pieces of beehive. Later on, when going to school for jewelry design, she decided to teach herself taxidermy, taking dead birds she found on the street and experimenting with ways to include the full animal into pieces of wearable art. “I just always felt like if nature’s casted away, something should be done with it… I see it as a way of honoring…honoring nature.”
While both Yorko and Triola’s art present darker shades of inspirations, channeling Metal and gothic design, Beverly’s wearables have a much softer look. She stated that recently, she’s been playing with the way that birds’ claws lay across the chest. This is reflected in several necklaces from under her professional title Deep Tooth Taxidermy, one of which is an asymmetrical design with a dried chicken’s claw, clutching a yellow glass ball, held by three strings of pearls. Her hats also present a classic 1920’s style with a little extra taxidermy kick. “I have a hat that I actually made from a goat fetus, which just looks like a really, teeny, tiny goat,” she said. I got to see the little one up close, laid across a flapper hat with cream-colored fur lining and a pale, olive green bow. “He’s my little sweety... He never took a single breath. He was a stillborn, so he was…he’s been immortalized by costume.”
Francene Yorko’s views on honor and memorializing the dead are fairly similar to Beverly’s. In fact, several pieces involving snake vertebrae and ribs, including a highly ornate, gothic-style necklace adorned with Swarovski crystals, were casted from her old pet boa of over twenty years, named Simon. Yorko’s interest in these materials is also rooted in a more scientific fascination. “Along with the animals, it’s just from my love for anatomy… It fascinates me the differences in the vertebrae between the different animals… Every vertebrae has a different story,” she said. Of course, some of her pieces’ stories are closer to home than others. The wisdom teeth bracelet and necklace were casted from an unfavorable ex-boyfriend, for whom she had to pay for an extraction. She said, “People love the fact that even though he was an awful boyfriend, I made my money back.”
Francene Yorko did not always intend to go into this industry. Her family had been in the funeral business for decades, and until they lost the business to a fire that’s what she expected to grow into. “At twelve and thirteen, I thought that I was going to be a beautician, working with the bodies,” she said. Though one might not expect it from Martha Rotten’s hauntingly beautiful jewelry, Francene Yorko began casting in pewter in her late teens, more out of necessity than passion. “Mom and I were desperate,” said Yorko, discussing early financial struggles. However, this was during the 1980’s, when the jewelry industry was booming in her home state of Rhode Island. Yorko took a position with Swarovski, learned to solder in six months, and was later convinced to take an apprenticeship with the company.
“I came in at the perfect time to make it happen. It was the higher ups that wanted it to happen,” said Yorko. In a craft that was traditionally passed down and dominated by older men, she was a figure of an evolving industry that the company hoped to represent. There was some adversity, early on, both from her age and sex. “I was twenty and looked fifteen,” she said. It also didn’t help that one particular man, whom she had turned down on several occasions, later became her boss. However, she stated that the added pressure only helped to toughen her up. There were also many individuals to encourage her along the way. “I had such amazing father figures… I was surrounded by family,” she said. It was at Swarovski where Francene Yorko was eventually introduced to her love for design.
Dominick Triola shares Yorko’s anatomical fascination. However, his immersion into the jewelry industry was vastly different from either Beverly or Yorko—and was probably the most random. “Before 2012 I've never made a piece of jewelry other than a friendship bracelet in summer camp!” he wrote to us. This is because before delving into jewelry, he held eight professional licenses, as a mortgage banker in five states, a NJ real estate agent, and he had two NJ insurance licenses. He said, “My decision to start this business wasn't inspired by a love of fashion or jewelry it was more of a business decision. In fact I dress terribly.”
His lack of formal background in artistic design is in no way related to any lack of skill. His pieces range from simple designs, such as the black bearded tomb bat necklace, which displays an open-mouth bat skull mounted on a pendant, to intricate designs, like the raccoon rib necklace, with two ribs, facing inward and symmetrically wrapped in chains. Much of his jewelry is in the style of Goth and steampunk, which harmonizes with the bones to stunning affect. “I am most proud of my work that combines species. I make pendants that combine snake vertebrae with skulls from other species such as bats, rats or lizards. Although they are two different species the end result is quite natural in appearance,” he said.
Some might see “wildlife art” as purely for shock value. “It is to be bold,” said Yorko, “…but not negatively.” For Yorko, it’s about embracing inner fears and taking something that would frighten you and gradually developing a new relationship with that object. She has what she calls “starter pieces,” which can be something as simple as a pewter rose necklace. She said there were numerous accounts of conservative people who would be taken back by what they would initially deem as “shock imagery,” but would return later for more daring pieces. “A shift has happened. It’s one more thing that they’re not afraid of, or are afraid of it less,” she said. “The stories like this are endless and has allowed me to keep going full force.”
The clientele basis is also more wide-ranging than some might think. For Beverly, she has several loyal female clients who she said, “want to project a very unique image when they go out.” Yorko stated that nearly 50% of her client basis is over fifty. Many older women were drawn to her 1980’s Punk Rock skulls but sometimes bones, as well. “It was an empowerment thing,” said Yorko. “They always lived holding back… They’re done worrying about what people think.” Dominick Triola also discovered that his own interests spread further than expected. “You know, when I started out I thought my target market was teenage metal heads… This theory was quickly proven to be untrue,” said Triola. “The only commonality is that everyone has the same fascination with life, death and the wonders of nature. That curiosity seems to be universal.”
Currently, Francene Yorko is excited to be adding an exciting new theme to her line. “I thought it was long overdue to bring the gray alien back,” she said with a laugh. However, she said that while 1980’s jewelry with the alien was often gaudy, she plans to put her usual sophisticated and feminine twist on the sci-fi creature. She is also sculpting a pewter pitbull head for a necklace and a ring, to be worn by either sex, for nonprofit organization Pinups for Pitbulls, which raises awareness against Breed Specific Legislation and Breed Discriminatory Laws.
One might recognize Beth Beverly’s name in AMC’s new Project Runway-style taxidermy competition show “Immortalized.” However, with taping over, she’s focused on several projects. As an avid lover of The Great Gatsby, she is working on a new series of era infused hats for the spring, which she hopes to have photographed on her website in time for the upcoming film’s release. One can also observe her various pieces on display throughout the month of March at Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
Though Dominick Triola does not wholesale to any shops in the Philadelphia area, he does exhibit throughout the east coast. His schedule can be found on his Facebook page, and his pieces can be viewed and purchased through his websites: bonejewelry.net and odditiesstore.com. As for new upcoming pieces, Triola prefers to keep it under wraps. “You’ll have to stay tuned to my social networks for product updates,” he said.