When Dexter Nerny passed a pair of stingray skin earrings in St. Martin his first thought was, “I should get those for my wife.” His second thought was, “I think I can make those.”
“I started thinking, well we’ve got a lot of fish here [on Martha’s Vineyard],” Mr. Nerny said. “I thought it would be good to make use of something that was of no use and was going to fill up the landfill or [get] thrown into the ocean.”
Thus began Mr. Nerny’s path toward tanning fish skins and turning them into jewelry and art. His curiosity piqued, he took to the internet to find the best method to tan fish skin. It took several tries and plenty of spoiled batches, but eventually he found a method that worked. Three years later, he is still hard at work making beautiful things from fish skins.
While the process involves some secrets, it’s pretty straightforward. Mr. Nerny takes the skin remaining from filleted fish, cleans it of remaining pieces of meat and soaks it in a salt brine for over a week. The brined skin is then rinsed and soaked in a bath of acetone, denatured alcohol, and glycerine. Next, the cured skin is coated in a tanning liquid and pinned onto a piece of wood to dry. The skin can then be colored with fabric dye or is ready to be worked.
“My wife gets mad at me cause I [clean skins] in the kitchen sink when it’s cold out,” Mr. Nerny said. “But she kicks me outside when it’s hot because it makes such a mess. I mean, it smells and the scales are all over the place.”
Once tanned, the skin is stiff and can be sewed onto garments or belts, be softened up with baby powder and worked into a piece of cord, or cut into shapes and epoxied for pieces of jewelry.
Mr. Nerny has found several uses for his fish skins, including earrings, necklaces, bracelets, belts, belt buckles, adornments for hats, decorations on a money clip, and pieces of nautical art. When dyed, epoxied, and set into a necklace, the fish skins start to resemble a gem or well polished stone.
The wackiest part of his story is that his sister-in-law, who lives in Rhode Island and East Chop for part of the year, took up the same hobby, tanning fish skins for art, unbeknownst to either of them. “How is that possible?” Mr. Nerny asked. “I think we’re the only two in the world who are doing this with fish skins.”
Most of the fish skins Mr. Nerny gets are donated from the derby, but
sometimes he uses skins from fish he catches himself. This time of year is great for gathering his materials. He received 25 pounds of fish skin from the weigh station after one busy weekend.
While Mr. Nerny enjoys what he does, it’s mainly a fun hobby he does after work. “I just enjoy making them, I don’t enjoy sitting for 8 hours selling them,” he said.
Dexter Nerny’s fish skin jewelry can be found at MV Gifts in Oak Bluffs, Jason Widdis’s Wampum Shop in Aquinnah, and Pathways in the Chilmark Tavern.