It’s a sparkling clear Monday in July, and Phoenix Rogers’ husband Joe and fellow anglers are venturing offshore in search of tuna — without her. Rogers concedes she’d rather be fishing, but after a hectic holiday weekend, with the busiest month of the summer impending, she has to hit the studio to restock her booths at the Chilmark Flea Market and Vineyard Artisans Fair with a fresh supply of wampum jewelry.
“One of my biggest struggles in the summertime is fulfilling my need to go fishing and keeping my jewelry stocked,” Rogers said. She’s already gone through 700 pounds of quahogs this year, and still her wholesale buyers are sold out. Rogers’ Island Wampum designs — sleek tiled bracelets, silver bezel cabochons, and intricately carved fish — are currently available exclusively on her website and at local Island markets.
This summer marks 10 years since Rogers first began selling wampum jewelry professionally. She’s always admired the craft. She remembers her mother’s wrists clacking with stacks of wampum bracelets, and she still treasures the tiny wampum band she wore as an infant. Rogers said her own trade started when she was a young adult, “picking up wampum on the beach, just like everybody does.” She fashioned a few hair clips, began lacing together pieces with pre-existing holes, and eventually found that people liked her work enough to purchase it. “It quickly spun into carving my own jewelry and making my own beads,” Rogers said. Since those days, her craft has evolved quite a bit, expanding in scope and in volume.
Rogers spends at least three days a week in the studio to complement the three days a week spent selling her work at the fairs and markets. That’s on top of her full-time business providing therapeutic bodywork for Island horses, a trade she studied at Washington State. But Rogers is determined and methodical when it comes to her jewelry making. “I’m the kind of person where when I walk into the studio, I want to walk out with a finished piece,” she said.
She starts the process by sifting through the many pounds of accumulated quahogs. While she enjoys quahogging herself, she usually gets her supply from a friend, which helps expedite the process. Rogers spends the morning opening shells, assessing their color and patterns, envisioning their jewelry potential. “Sometimes they already have their destiny picked out as soon as I open them,” Rogers said. “When I open one that’s deep purple and has a thick shell, maybe it’s a big men’s tile bracelet. Or if it’s a smaller shell, maybe it’s a piece for a cuff bracelet set into silver.” The shells that aren’t suited for jewelry, Rogers steams and serves as stuffed quahogs. The rarest gems, the shells of the deepest indigo, Rogers covets, though perhaps a little too intently. “I always think I have to save these for something special, and I end up having this pile of great shells I almost can’t cut because they’re so beautiful,” she said.
As for how Rogers cuts and shapes each piece … that’s a secret. “All of us wampum jewelers do it in a different way,” Rogers said. “Those of us who are self-taught, we’ve all found our own way by trial and error.” It’s those little idiosyncrasies that help each wampum artist find their own style; each unique cut is akin to a signature. And most artists keep their methods as under wraps as a prized fishing spot.
Rogers won’t divulge her favorite fishing spot either, but she’ll gamely talk about her passion for hunting and angling. “I think that making wampum jewelry and the outdoor lifestyle definitely go hand in hand,” she said. “When we’re quahogging or even opening quahogs, it’s part of the same path of finding and foraging your resources.”
Rogers grew up fishing around the Island with her father, but it was Derby season seven years ago that really ignited her love of the sport. “When my husband and I first started dating, we both wanted to fish the Derby, so we fished together,” Rogers said. When fishing season was over and Joe absconded to the woods for hunting season, Rogers joined him there as well. “I loved it,” Rogers said. “He bought me my own bow, and it’s kind of turned into our lifestyle.”
It’s a lifestyle in every sense of the word, too. The couple booked their honeymoon fishing trip to Baja, Mexico, before they even planned the wedding. They arrange special trips off-Island so their English Lab, Zuka, can hunt with them, retrieving waterfowl. They primarily hunt for food, stocking their basement freezer chests with venison, fish, and game birds that keep them fed year-round. “Buying organic meat at the grocery store is really expensive, and harvesting our own meat is as close to organic as we can get,” Rogers said. “When I go to the grocery store, my cart is mainly full of vegetables, because we have all the protein at home.”
Over the years, Rogers has stockpiled enough recipes to prepare a different venison dish every night of the week. “Any recipe you can make from meat you buy from the store, I can make with venison,” she said. Venison meatloaf, tacos, and anything prepared in the smoker are some of her favorites, but she also has some more elaborate recipes up her sleeve to share with friends on those winter nights when “there’s not a lot going on on the Vineyard.”
Of course, not everyone gets this lifestyle. Rogers has encountered plenty of hostility toward her hobbies. One woman asked, “Why don’t you just buy meat at the grocery store like the rest of us?” Rogers shrugs it off. “I feed my family with it, and it’s an important part of our lives,” she said.
Rogers said in “an amazing community” like Martha’s Vineyard, she doesn’t get much pushback about being a woman in these sports, although that attitude definitely exists elsewhere. She credits social media with helping more female anglers and hunters be “seen,” although she is equally skeptical of photos sexualizing a scantily clad “huntress.” “As someone who hunts and fishes for sustainability, I don’t know if I want to be categorized as a huntress,” Rogers said. “One of the most important things for me is having a good image in the sporting world for young women to see.”
Rogers and her husband are also great examples that hunters and anglers can be stewards of the land and sea as much as anyone else. The majority of their fishing is catch and release, and they harvest only the select deer and birds they can eat. This year they’ve sworn off catching striped bass, a species vulnerable to overfishing.
So while she won’t be weighing in a prize striper at the Derby this year, Rogers is still hooked on the thrill of catching big fish. In the past few years, she’s taken up traveling to new seas. Last year, she nabbed a “grand slam” on a solo trip to Belize, catching a tarpon, a permit, and a bonefish in one day.
Those catches of a lifetime weren’t her only takeaways from her travels. In every place she visits, Rogers has been scoping out the local shells, looking for new colors, new textures, new mediums she can carve and gift to the locals. It’s one of the many benefits of getting out onto the water and into the woods, said Rogers: “I’m inspired by everything I see.”
Find Island Wampum at the Chilmark Flea Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9 am to 2 pm through Sept. 7, or at the Vineyard Artisans Festival Thursdays from 10 am to 2 pm through August 29. For more information, visit islandphoenix.com.