I am often asked how I got into gems, minerals, and wire-wrapping jewelry, and my path into this world started on a bright sunny Saturday in the Little 5 Points square in Atlanta, GA. There, an artist from Louisiana was selling her paintings to make a little extra money. Times were rough, and that artist was homesick. That girl was me.
When I was 21, I left Shreveport, LA, and moved to Atlanta after my mother had left a year earlier. She was working but homeless and encouraged me to join Job Corps although I’d graduated high school. However, I’d be safer there. I’d transferred to Atlanta to find her when she went missing. She’d gotten too ill to work and didn’t qualify for any type of aid—she was barely walking when I found her after two years of her being missing.
While exploring the city all alone, lost, innocent, and a bit naive, I stumbled into a place that felt like home, although I’d never been there. Strange, yet familiar. There were musicians playing and artists selling various types of art.
Although I am shy in front of a mic or on the camera, I am not afraid to walk up to a stranger and ask questions. One of the artists, who is now a friend, had an oxygen tank hooked up and was making glass. He lit incense, which I later found out was called Nag Champa, and that scent is forever associated with that vivid sunny day.
He invited me to try, and although I wanted to, I was a bit afraid of the open flame. Another artist who was next to him, a photographer, struck up a conversation, and I told them that I was also an artist.
“Bring your stuff and come sell. We’ll be here tomorrow, too,” I was told. At the time, the square was open to artists who wanted to set up and sell as long as the businesses were cool with it. This was before the city began requiring permits.
The following day, I brought a few of my paintings and had no table, not even a blanket to spread out and sit on. However, I had my art supplies and a water bottle, so I began painting. I think I made around $50. This became a weekly habit until one of the shop owners, whose shop I was not anywhere near, came and began verbally attacking me.
Back then, I wasn’t quick to stand up for myself, and I thought she was just crazy. Before my artist friends could intervene, I was saved by a vibrantly beautiful woman wearing a flowing sarong who told the other woman off. The other woman left, and the vibrant woman stuck out her hand to me and said, “Hi, I’m Denise.”
She told me she’d seen me before and admired my artwork.
“You should come to my shop. My husband’s an artist, too.”
That day, my life changed forever. The other artists knew Denise and Daryl, her husband, and encouraged me to go, promising to watch my paintings and if anything sold, they’d make sure I’d get the money. I was very trusting, and yes, there were sales. I tried to share the money made with them, but they refused.
I followed Denise to her shop, and we chatted. She was a fashion designer, and her husband was a musician, and when he wasn’t on tour, he was in the shop making jewelry. At the time, I didn’t know that her husband was a Grammy-winning guitarist.
She bounced as she walked and spoke of her love for fashion and music and her husband’s art. I felt like I’d met her before—perhaps in a past life. I followed her to her shop, and when I entered, I walked into a room with many gemstones and minerals surrounded by handmade fashion and accessories. The smell of Nag Champa greeted me, and I stared wide-eyed in wonder.
Her husband, Daryl, looked up from his jeweler’s bench, and he started talking about crystals and their magical properties. I thought they were nuts, but I thought, why not? I was not in the best place mentally or financially back then. So, why not believe, for a moment, in the magic of a crystal?
That moment changed my life forever, and it wasn’t the magic of a crystal but that of human connection. I would later return to that shop many, many times to learn about the different stones and minerals. And eventually, how to do what Daryl was doing: making jewelry from them.
I was pretty good with Facebook, which was all the rage back then, and Daryl, who was well-loved in the Little 5 Points community and known as the Maestro, needed a Facebook page. He offered to pay me with jewelry, and I thought I’d never owned a piece of jewelry with real stones before. It was a win for me.
So I helped him start his musician page, and as I typed up his bio and discography, I recognized familiar names. I learned he was the son of a saxophonist, Lucky Thompson, and that he also won a Grammy for his part in the album Anthem by Black Uhuru.
I worked odd jobs, taking care of my mother, who was sick, and trying to keep us off the streets. While enduring this, Denise and Daryl taught me a lot. Then one day, Daryl took me aside and said, “Johnna, I can’t make jewelry for you forever. You’re going to have to learn this.”
I didn’t think I could do it and didn’t have the money to pay him for his classes. My hands were clumsy and his jewelry pieces were masterpieces. I didn’t believe I could do it. Daryl believed in me and wouldn’t take no for an answer. And he told me that he wanted me to be his student and would teach me at no charge.
He taught me about the tools.
“You have to hold them a certain way,” he said.
I learned about the tools, the wire, and why some pieces of wire were thinner than others. I learned about the metals to wrap with and the difference between rough and tumbled stones, and why these were important in wire wrapping.
Some of my earlier pieces were disasters, but he keep pushing me.
“You will own a business one day. This will make you a lot of money. Keep at it,” Daryl told me. “You will be surprised by the path this will lead you on.”
His customers became friends of mine, and eventually, my wrapping improved. However, it wasn’t until I was with my mother while she was in the emergency room that I actually sold my first piece of jewelry. It was a quartz crystal that was, in my opinion, badly wrapped. The nurse loved it and paid me $10 for it. I was shocked.
I started listing things on Etsy and selling them to Facebook friends or customers at the pizza shop I was working at. And eventually, I made enough money to buy 14K gold-filled wire and a ruby. I’d never wrapped with 14K gold-filled wire and was incredibly nervous—worried I’d mess up.
That year, my mother was in hospice, and I sat there by her side, wrapping the ruby. When it sold on Facebook for $100, I was floored. It was then that Daryl’s words began to ring true in the back of my mind. He later told me that he couldn’t tell the difference between my pieces and his own, although he was much more advanced than mine. But I will never forget that compliment.
After my mother died, I struggled again and kept going. My wire wrapping skills improved throughout my hardships, rough marriage, and bouts of homelessness. And my love for gems and minerals grew.
I began blogging and although I no longer use my first blog, it’s still up and is cited as one of the sources for Daryl’s Wikipedia page.