Cynthia McGrath: An archaeologist of an artisan

A rare red-taillight sea glass ring. —Cynthia McGrath

“I feel like I’m an amateur archaeologist,” said Cynthia McGrath, describing her ongoing search for reclaimed jewelry-making materials. “The older something is, the more excited I get about it. My favorite part is discovering the history of a find.”

Ms. McGrath utilizes lots of found objects to create her one-of-a-kind pieces. Bones, sea glass, wampum, pottery shards, and other scavenged items are her stock in trade. She transforms all kinds of found treasures into attractive necklaces, rings, earrings, and small works of art. Her line, Original Cyn, is as visually appealing as it is fascinating in the story of the pieces’ origins.

Just browsing Ms. McGrath’s display at the Artisans Festival, Chilmark Flea, or any of the many other places that the jeweler shows her work can provide an education in itself. Like any good archaeologist, Ms. McGrath will happily describe the provenance and the history of each little treasure. That’s because she does her homework. On a recent visit to the Artisans Festival, she explained to a customer that a chunky piece of brown sea glass had originally come from an old whiskey bottle. The many clues each piece divulges — color, thickness, quality of material, faint marks, or bits of writing — help her to determine, through online research, the history of her finds.

Prices, which range from a modest $15 to up to $200 for a piece made from an old red taillight, are based on rarity as well as size and color. One of Ms. McGrath’s recent sea glass finds illustrates just how thorough she can be. “I found a purple piece last weekend,” she said. “It was super-thick. I could tell from the bottle base how old old it is. I’m guessing that it was the base of a flask. It must have been clear and turned purple from exposure to water and UV rays.”

Ms. McGrath has been making jewelry since her Deadhead days in the 1980s, when she sold seed-bead necklaces to finance her frequent pilgrimages to Grateful Dead concerts. She began experimenting with gemstones and other types of beads when she worked at Beadniks, formerly located on Church Street in Vineyard Haven. Necessity drove her to focus on found objects. “I started to use sea glass around the time that the price of silver went really high,” she said. “When things started to get super-expensive, I decided to use whatever I could find. I had always collected sea glass. I would collect anything, actually. My husband bought me a Dremel drill and told me to do something with all of this stuff.”

Ms. McGrath still uses stones and beads in her work. However, she’s very particular. “I love gemstones,” she said. “My favorite lately has been watermelon tourmaline. I go through color phases. I go to trade shows and gem shows. Some things, like clasps, I can order online, but when it comes to stones, I need to look at it, to see how it’s drilled, and see the true color.”

Although the sea glass pieces — necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and glass ornaments and bottles filled with tiny bits — are her most popular repurposed stock, Ms. McGrath also uses scavenged bleached-out bones to make jewelry.

“I love bones,” she said. “When I worked at Beadniks, I started to study how they’ve been using teeth in Africa for hundred of years. Bones are so strong. Snake vertebrae will last for years. I bring home deer vertebrae and all kinds of bones. I get all excited when I find teeth.” She coats or decorates bones to use in artwork, or leaves them in their natural state to create jewelry.

Ceramic bits are another favorite material source for Ms. McGrath. During her frequent travels with her family, she seeks out old landfills and other treasure-laden spots. “I always try to find the oldest part of a city wherever I go,” she said. “Every town we’ve lived in, I try to find out where people used to get rid of their trash. I’ve found old compacts, buttons, bullets, bullet shells. It’s the history behind it that’s really special. And the thrill of the hunt.”

You can find mixed-media prints by Cynthia McGrath at Pathways at the Chilmark Tavern. Original Cyn jewelry and artwork are available at the Vineyard Holiday Gift Shop on Main Street, Vineyard Haven, through Dec. 24, and at the Chilmark Flea Market at the Chilmark Community Center on Dec. 10. For more information, visit