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Whitehorse's youngest goldsmith carves out a living

Growing up in a small town in Nova Scotia, Shelley MacDonald's idea of fun as a child was wrapping her father's fishing wire around rocks. “I was one of those kids that would come home from the beach and had rocks and shells in my pockets.

Growing up in a small town in Nova Scotia, Shelley MacDonald’s idea of fun as a child was wrapping her father’s fishing wire around rocks.

“I was one of those kids that would come home from the beach and had rocks and shells in my pockets,” she said of what has become her inspiration as an artist.

Now, she’s cast her own net by launching a jewelry line, which is inspired by the North’s landscape and wildlife.

Having moved to the territory about a year ago, she hasn’t experienced a shortage of ideas yet.

She recently carved the northern lights, a mountain range, and a tree line onto a silver bangle bracelet. It was a custom order for a client, a service she offers aside from the pre-made jewelry.

What also sets her apart is her age. At 28, she’s the youngest full-time goldsmith in Whitehorse. Considering the age-old craft and the value of precious metals, it’s no small feat for the self-identified workaholic.

But MacDonald’s path to launching her own business has been as winding as the metal wires she bends.

She paid her dues and worked diligently throughout six years of studies in jewelry design and metalsmithing at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

To save money, she ate a lot of Kraft Dinner. She sold her pieces in Halifax’s farmers’ market. She would stay at the college’s studio melting and moulding away until 4 a.m.

Eventually, she was known as the “studio mother,” as she would drive all her bar-stranded friends home after working till the wee hours of the morning.

Armed with her bachelor of fine arts degree, she moved to Vancouver in the hopes of getting hired as a goldsmith. After handing out about a 150 resumes, she settled for a position as a nanny.

She made the big trek north to try her luck in the Yukon. Still not finding work in her field, she became Carmack’s fire department clerk, a substitute teacher and a waitress.

After almost two years of sifting through odd jobs, she decided to give Murdoch’s a call. They asked for her portfolio and she was hired on the spot, MacDonald said.

She has her own display section in Murdoch’s. Clients are pleasantly surprised to be able to meet the artist at a jewelry store, so her pieces sell well when she introduces herself, she said.

Two weeks ago, she was officially on her own. She set up a vendor’s tent at the Atlin Arts and Music Festival, complete with a laminated banner with her business name: Seeking Simplicity.

MacDonald’s elegant displays of earrings, necklaces and bracelets stood out in the festival, with black cloths draped over tables contrasting with other tents’ colourful, bohemian and sometimes tattered merchandise.

She displayed an array of $25 earrings in the shapes of porcupine, moose, rabbits and elk. She sold rings with orchids popping out of them and necklaces with hen-and-chickens plants looking like they were blooming out of the silver wires.

MacDonald uses a technique called lost-wax casting to make her jewelry, which involves sculpting shapes out of wax before casting it with her chosen metal.

She’s currently working on a line of moose-antler-shaped pendants and earrings, moulded meticulously with the waxing process. For rush orders, she can also build and fabricate the design by hand, without the wax.

MacDonald currently works out of her studio in her apartment, where she moulds, solders and polishes her material. Then she sends her pieces to Vancouver to be cast.

Considering the dropping prices of gold and silver, MacDonald does not have to invest as much for her startup costs. She buys her metals from Umicore Precious Metals in Toronto, as local mines sell their products overseas, she said.

MacDonald will be teaching a basic silversmithing course in Whitehorse early next year. True to her persistent ways, she took the initiative by calling the city’s community co-ordinator Mia Lee and offering her skills. When Lee saw MacDonald’s work in Atlin, she decided to add the workshop to the winter program.

Asked what MacDonald would say to a neophyte goldsmith, she gave some basic advice. “Be passionate and patient because it takes a long time. Don’t do jewelry that only you like. You really have to listen to people.”

Her work may be found online on her Facebook page, Shelley Marie MacDonald. She can be reached at

Contact Krystle Alarcon at