Senior Fellow Explores Jewelry’s Power to Send a Message

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At the age of 12, Michelle Berlinger ’13 broke her back doing gymnastics. The injury immobilized her for months, but she found a silver lining—making jewelry.

“When I couldn’t do anything active,” says Berlinger, “I started beading.”

Michelle Berlinger

“I try to make pieces that make someone feel protected or empowered,” Michelle Berlinger ’13 says. (Photo by: Eli Burakian ’00)

She hasn’t stopped. In fact, her interest deepened at Dartmouth—where this past spring she wrapped up a Senior Fellowship studying and creating jewelry.

For her fellowship, Berlinger researched the modern relationship between women and jewelry. Her project involved interviewing jewelry designers, studying the messages women’s jewelry can send, and creating jewelry that, she says, can give women a sense of empowerment.

After an extensive application process, fellows spend their senior year working on a project that goes beyond the offerings of the existing curriculum. They are not required to enroll in classes during their senior year or complete a major.

Berlinger heard about Dartmouth’s Claflin Jewelry Studio during her first year at the College, and she spent much of her free time working there. The studio is a great resource for students, she says.

“It’s unbelievable that we have these free spaces to make things—whether it’s the jewelry studio, ceramics shop, or wood shop,” says Berlinger, two sets of earrings—one pair gold, the other leather—dangling from her ears. “Everything I know about making jewelry, I learned at that studio.”

Michelle Berlinger

Michelle Berlinger ’13 creates a piece of jewelry in the Claflin Jewelry Studio at Dartmouth. (Photo by: Eli Burakian ’00)

After she discovered the studio, Berlinger considered pursuing a jewelry project for a Senior Fellowship.

For the first part of her project, Berlinger interviewed 20 jewelry designers to examine the types of messages that jewelry can convey. As they pointed out, there are many messages displayed on fingers, ears, wrists and necks. The messages can come from the person wearing the jewelry, but also from the person who bought jewelry for the wearer. For instance, she says, pieces such as diamond engagement rings, to some people, symbolize a sense of “ownership.”

After doing the research, Berlinger spent the next portion of her fellowship trying to create a new kind of jewelry.

“I try to make pieces that make someone feel protected or empowered,” she says. Berlinger says she crafts leather armor pieces as well as a gold birth control pill collection to emphasize a woman’s strength and choice.

She’s found a demand for her jewelry. So much so that the Los Angeles native will move to Brooklyn this month to develop her online jewelry business, which went live last week.

Berlinger, who mostly works with gold, silver, and leather, says her pieces can take two days to three weeks to complete. She will mainly sell custom pieces.

“What is so amazing is that I’m able to take this project with me after graduation,” says Berlinger. “I wouldn’t have had the confidence start this business without the experience of the fellowship.”