This post was originally published on Outside Online in Summer, 2018. See it here.
Just south of Missoula, Montana, a little house stands against a backdrop of the Bitterroot Mountains. Through the front door, past a 35-degree, 12-by-16-foot climbing wall is a small, well-lit studio where Jessi Lewis makes jewelry.
The studio is chaotic, but that’s how she likes it. Hundreds of colorful stones, like turquoise, Montana agate, and labradorite, are scattered on one bench, and strips of old metal lie on another. It’s all spread out so Lewis can see what she has to work with, how it’s all going to fit together and be transformed into danglers, cuffs, and rings. Her favorite stone is desert jasper, she says, because it looks like tiny paintings of red dirt and blue sky. Most of the time, Lewis sets the stones in reclaimed silver, often etched or hand-pierced with a ridgeline, lupine, or even a pronghorn—things that remind her of Montana and the West.
The 36-year-old self-taught metalsmith first started hammering away 15 years ago, but in recent years, Lewis has gained a strong following (36,000 on Instagram and 3,600 on Etsy). Her business, Ruby and Revolver, is a one-woman show, so she can restock her online shop just once or twice a month. Most of the time, everything’s gone in five minutes.
A quick Google search for “mountain-inspired jewelry” will turn up more than ten pages of artists who use the natural world as inspiration for their wares. So what’s so unique about Lewis’ work? Well, if you’re looking for perfect, this isn’t it. Her stuff has nicks and scratches; it’s rugged, raw, and flawed. But the way she sees it, that’s how the mountains should be.
Lewis grew up in Missoula. Her family didn’t have a lot of money, but Lewis says despite that she was a happy kid and spent a lot of time outside. Her mother, Paula, was a painter, social worker, and teacher. The quiet kind of mom, Paula is introspective and sweet. Her father, Bernie, is the opposite. A blacksmith and welder, he is loud and full of fire. He was gone a lot, traveling for his job, while Lewis was growing up. “My dad is a rambler. A real wild man and free spirit,” Lewis says. “Even to this day, he’ll be in Alaska, then Montana, just all around.”
When Bernie was home, he was in his shop. He fixed things like boats and fences and did high-end finishing work for yachts or private planes. And he moonlighted as a gunsmith, using old-school blacksmithing tools and human-driven methods of forging metal to fashion revolvers that were works of art. Lewis would often find herself in the shop, fascinated with the big machinery, the laser cutters and steam presses. So Bernie would hand her a respirator and a broom, and she’d sweep and watch him work.
When Lewis got older, she did a bit of her own rambling. She started college at the University of Montana. She took breaks and traveled in Asia. She completed a yoga teacher training in Nepal and lived in New Orleans for a while. Eventually, in 2003, Lewis found herself back in Missoula. When she was 21, she began dating her husband, Kyle Neeley, a nurse and a man who loved the mountains as much as she did (and could climb 5.14—hence the climbing wall near the front door).
That was the same year Lewis started tinkering with metal. She picked up tools at pawn shops and read how-to books. “We had this little apartment, and I’d do it in my kitchen at first, which was disgusting,” Lewis says. “There would be metal in our cereal.” But it was not uncommon that she’d be walking down the street and women would come up to her and ask about the jewelry she was wearing. She’d sell the bracelet right off her own wrist.
“She is so passionate about what she does, and it comes through in her work,” Neeley says. “She has an infinite amount of ideas. That’s how you know you are in the right field of work—when you don’t have to look for inspiration, it’s just there.”
It took ten years of metalsmithing before Lewis was able to commit to jewelry full-time. She had secure jobs working as a yoga teacher and social worker for the state of Montana. “Because I grew up the way I did, there was always a part of me that was worried about money, so it was hard to let go of that security. And I was knocked up at the time,” she says.
Lewis remembers being really sick when she was first pregnant with her child, Indie, in July 2016. She was exhausted, working nights, and trying to run a small business on the side. “I was violently ill, but I’d get up every morning with the dogs and slowly go up this little mountain behind our house. One morning, I puked on the side of the trail and sat down. I was sitting there feeling pulled in all these different directions. I was like, I need to spend my energy in ways that matter to me right now. That was the real beginning of Ruby and Revolver. I was 33.”
Finding old pure silver isn’t easy, and figuring out how to turn an old shoe buckle into a necklace is even harder. But Lewis does it anyway because it feels like a contradiction to craft a mountain range out of materials that were possibly taken from earth in a less than ethical way.
Lewis reshapes and reworks old buckles, chains, cuffs, and broken jewelry into her own creations. “The metal I get, I don’t have endless options,” she says. “I don’t know its history before I get it. I can’t just do anything. I can’t make any size or any texture. I have to work with constraints. It’s not a clean slate.”
But as it turns out, her customers like her work’s imperfections. Currently, Lewis has 4,000 emails in her inbox. People who want her to create commemorative pieces for lost family members, friends, or dogs. Mothers write to say they’re nervous to take their kid outside and want Lewis’ advice. Young women who are trying to learn metalsmithing reach out to her.
“I struggle with this a lot, and it’s been coming to a head lately since having Indie because of my limited time,” she says. “How much time can you really spend online? I don’t want to look back on her childhood and be like, ‘Well, I got through all my emails.’ I don’t really have answers, but lately I’ve had to pull back from it. The world is not going to end. I hope people are gentle with me. I need to be honest with my limitations.”
When she’s not with Indie or her jewelry, Lewis is in the wild. The Bitterroots, the Sawtooths, and the Frank Church Wilderness inspire her work. So do hikes to the middle of nowhere, trips to the desert to climb, and the woods behind her house. “The ruggedness and structure of mountains just draws your eye in,” she says. “And the mountains are where I’m happiest; it’s where I draw the most inspiration. There is a lot of beauty in the natural world. My best self is in the outdoors.”
That’s why Lewis wants to take Ruby and Revolver on the road. She bought a Stealth trailer that she’s remodeled into a studio. She and Neeley also have a slide-in camper that will go in the back of the truck.
“How cool would it be to be in a place where you are really inspired and create right there? And I think out and about is where I am the happiest and where is my husband happiest. I think that rubs off on your kiddo. I want her to be able to hold on to the ability she has now to see the wonder in the world.”
They plan to hit the road in the near future. But for now, Lewis will be in her studio, with the back door wide open, listening to the sound of the creek as she crafts new stories with silver and gold.