Gwen Nichols, born and raised on the Island, was exposed to the art of wampum at a young age, and has continued her passion for 24 years. Wampum is created from the vivid purple swirls inside quahog shells, which are commonly found around New England. Native Americans used the precious shells as a form of currency in the 1600s, and the shells are still considered valuable; their crafting is a popular hobby for Islanders.
Ms. Nichols started collecting quahog shells in a rowboat with her sister, Candice Ann Nichols. When Gwen turned 18, she obtained her clamming license in Vineyard Haven. Her sister is still involved in the harvest, and they have enlisted the help of Ms. Nichols’ nephew, Edward Cisek. He assists the ladies with the collecting and opening of quahog shells. Quahogs have a hard shell, difficult to crack open, and the process that goes into making beautiful wampum from the original quahog is extensive.
Ms. Nichols has a little room in her house with three tables dedicated to different stages of the wampum process. She has one for cleaning, one for grinding, and one for adding beads. After the quahog shells are collected, they need to be cleaned and opened. Ms. Nichols looks for specific patterns and hues of purple to use in her collection. “Not all shells are created equal,” she said. While some people prefer the whole wampum to be purple, Ms. Nichols searches for a specific striped pattern. All of her pieces are a deep shade of purple with a swirl of white seeping through. Her collection includes wampum bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. No two pieces are alike, since every shell has a unique pattern. The jewelry comes in a range of shapes, incorporating the Island’s love of fish and the shape of the Vineyard itself.
In recent years, Ms. Nichols started designing mosaics. Originally, these pieces were composed from sea glass she collected, but often there was not enough sea glass to source. Ms. Nichols orders sheets of glass, which she uses in her mosaics and Island-shape necklaces. The artist’s first mosaic was an image of the Island’s now retired ferry, the Islander.
Ms. Nichols sells her product at the local open markets. She is located in Oak Bluffs at Washington Park on Sundays from 10 am until 2 pm. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, she sets up at the Chilmark Flea on North Road from 9 am until 2 pm. Her collection offers the perfect opportunity to take a little piece of the Vineyard home.