Breast milk baubles: Victoria's 'DNA jewelry artist' creates works from human tissue, fluids
Published Thursday, May 30, 2019 3:26PM PDT
Last Updated Thursday, May 30, 2019 6:13PM PDT
Some jewelers put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into their craft. Others favour breast milk, dog hair, placentas and cremains.
Victoria jewelry maker Sandra McMullen falls into the latter camp, calling herself a "DNA jewelry artist."
"I've got a freezer full of other people's breast milk," says the former healthcare worker turned full-time proprietor of Sacred Life Jewelry. "And cremation ashes, hair, pet fur, placenta, umbilical cord."
McMullen's homemade handiwork is apparently in high demand, netting client inquiries from across Canada and as far afield as the U.S. and U.K.
Her business's origin story begins at birth, specifically the birth of her first child, now four years old.
"I really wanted a piece of breast milk jewelry myself and kept hinting at my husband but he wasn’t picking up on it," McMullen tells CTV News.
"In the Victorian era they used to take hair and make hair jewelry so it's kind of the same."
Lacking spousal support on the endeavor, she took matters into her own hands, spending a full year teaching herself how to process and preserve breast milk in jewelry-ready resin.
She consulted with pharmacists, wrote to scientists and even visited a local industrial paint and plastics manufacturer. At every turn, she says she was met with the same disgusted look.
But after a whole lot of trial and error, and "a little bit of science and a little bit of sorcery," she struck gold, finding the right alchemical combination to turn her own breast milk into pendants, medallions and rings.
Years later, she still has a backlog of her own frozen breast milk just waiting to be tapped given the right inspiration.
"I've got a nice 2015 vintage in the freezer, some 2016, 2017," McMullen says. "Now I get breast milk in my mailbox every day, mailed to me from all over Canada."
Despite finally perfecting her process, which allowed her to quit her healthcare job and put herself – literally – into her work full time, she still encounters the same taboo against her art.
"I've done a couple markets where people have looked at the jewelry and said, 'Oh, I love this. How much?' And I've said, 'Well, actually that's my grandpa, or that's my placenta."
Her "grandpa" is a portion of his cremated body entombed, partially, on a disc of abalone she crafted into a prized ring.
"When I wear my grandpa, I feel like he's with me all the time," she says. "I feel extra powerful."
While breast milk, hair and cremains have become McMullen's bread and butter, she also gets requests for jewelry made from teeth, blood and fetal tissue.
"It's like a blood diamond but totally ethical," she quips.
But her work isn't all gee-whiz curiosa. Much of it today is commissioned by people looking to memorialize a dead family member.
"When I'm making my memorial pieces especially, I like when people give me a picture of that person or their favourite music," she says.
"I'll listen to it, I'll look at that person while I'm working with them. It can often be quite emotional, especially if it's a small child."
While it's hard to gauge just how large the market for such artistry might be, the fact that her business is driven almost exclusively by word of mouth – she has no storefront, no website – is a strong indicator she's at the forefront of a niche but growing fashion trend, and perhaps even a growing social acceptance for our bodies and the things they produce.
"For things like placenta and breast milk even, sometimes the older generations aren't as receptive to that," she says. "Maybe you don't want your bodily fluids or a loved one put into a piece of jewelry."
Still, others obviously do.
"I would love to expand," she says. "I think if it's going to get busier and busier I'm going to need to hire somebody."