Arctic Metal Arts

Since 2015, I have been involved in jewellery history course development and instruction at Nunavut Arctic College (NAC) in Iqaluit, Canada. I blend media-rich lectures with studio work in introducing NAC Metal Arts students to cross-cultural explorations of past and present jewellery-making techniques.

NAC Jewellery History Highlights

Enameling – Imitation Coral – The Frozen Museum

In 2018, I introduced first-year NAC students to the ancient art of enameling – a technique for decorating metallic objects with a colored glass layer that has been fused to the metal surface.

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Imitation Coral
…and The Frozen Museum

Imitation Coral and The Frozen Museum are two hands-on jewelry history workshops that I led at Nunavut Arctic College.

These experiences showed me how teaching history is socially relevant to a frontier community, and that jewelry making is a powerful expression of heritage and reconciliation.

May in the Canadian Arctic - Donna Bilak
out of the Ivy and into the Arctic


Before I became a historian, I was a jewellery designer and wax model-maker in Toronto, where I had learned my trade at the George Brown College of Applied Arts and Technology (you can check out the program here).

Fast-forward to February 2015, when my former classmate from jewellery school Beata Hejnowicz called me out of the blue…

…saying that these past ten years she’s been the Senior Instructor in the Jewellery Department at Nunavut Arctic College, and that she’d love to bring me up north to hold a jewellery history workshop for her students in the Metal Arts program.

I totally wanted to do this!En route to Iqaluit

At the time I was a postdoc on the Making & Knowing Project at Columbia University, and I was keen to see how our ideas about reconstruction and history of science might apply to an Arctic vocational school with different learning goals.

Three months later, I headed to Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit, the capital of the province of Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic.

I ended up leading two workshops.

The first took place May 2015 and we made imitation coral based on a recipe from Ms. Fr. 640, a French manuscript of artisanal technologies compiled around 1560, which the Making & Knowing team had reconstructed in our lab at Columbia a year earlier. The second occurred in January 2016 and is documented in The Frozen Museum, our online exhibition of the Arctic cylinder seals we made.

Imitation Coral

This workshop was based on directions for making imitation coral given in this recipe, folio 3r in Ms. Fr. 640, written around 1580, likely in or around Toulouse:

Here’s its translation:

One needs to first make the branches of wood or take a bizarre thorn branch, then melt a lb of the most beautiful clear pitch resin and put in one ounce of subtly ground vermilion with walnut oil, and if you add in a little Venice lake platte, the color will be more vivid, and stir everything in the resin melted over a charcoal fire and not of flame, for fear that the fire catches within. Next dip in your branches while turning, & if there should remain any filaments, turn the branch over the heat of the charcoal

So, you’ll notice that this recipe isn’t exactly explicit about things like time, temperature, measurements (the kind of specific directions we expect today from, say, a culinary recipe). However this is totally in keeping with how recipes were recorded in the early modern period. (If you find this sort of thing interesting, definitely check out The Recipes Project.)

You may have also found some things perplexing, like the suggestion to dip a “bizarre thorn branch” into the resin mixture “while turning” — as did the Making & Knowing team when we reconstructed this recipe in the lab at Columbia University.

In the M&K experiment, we just followed the recipe without having a clear idea what would result. We combined vermilion pigment and walnut oil into resin that was heated until it liquefied, we dipped in quince twigs (definitely thorny)…M&K imitation coral

… and we were amazed at what we produced.

Turns out that the “turning” motion of the thorny branch in the liquefied resin evenly coated all of its awkward angles, and the mixture hardened into a brilliant red upon cooling, which took moments. “Coral” seemed to appear in our hands.

Basically, we had created a thick red varnish that looked a lot like coral, though it didn’t feel like coral, which is cool and stone-like to touch. This had a plastic quality.

Arctic “coral” Imitation coral at Nunavut Arctic College

Our imitation coral version was made using caribou antler (finding any branches in the Arctic is challenging, let alone the “bizarre” thorny kind called for in folio 3r).

I chose this recipe for the Arctic workshop because of how the process of making the “coral” demystifies the recipe’s text.

Also, for me, this particular recipe is a fascinating window into a bygone world of collecting practices and ideas about natural history.

We started our Arctic Imitation Coral reconstruction with a media-rich discussion that considered early modern ideas and practices based on extant images objects like this 17th-century coral-handled spoon at the Victoria & Albert Museum, this stunning statuette from ca. 1570 of Daphne turning into a laurel bush, this 1599 print of Ferrante Imperato’s museum, and this 1576 print of a goldsmith’s workshop — its details, amazingly, bear a lot of similarities to tools and workshop organization still used today.

This historical contextualization was followed by our hands-on experience making imitation coral in the NAC jewellery studio based on the text in folio 3r.

This was such a fun and thought-provoking experience! It didn’t occur to me going into this workshop that most of Beata’s students had never seen or heard about coral, almost all of them were from Inuit communities throughout the Arctic — this sparked a spontaneous and really lively discussion about materials and technologies used in Inuit and Western artisanal traditions, enhancing the students’ connection to the examples I used in the lecture before our studio reconstruction.

Interestingly, Columbia students who take the Making & Knowing lab-seminar are versed in theory, but they don’t necessarily have hands-on experience, so much of our work is dedicated to teaching them how to work with each other and with tools and materials. Conversely, 2589 km north in a classroom at Nunavut Arctic College, a seemingly simple recipe from 1580 led to unexpected questions about biodiversity. However once in the studio the Metal Arts students readily conceptualized the process by adapting their experience with artisanal practices, needing little direction in executing the reconstruction tasks (mulling the pigment with oil, melting the resin, combining the materials, and dipping the antler).

In each case, neither group knew what to expect from reconstructing the recipe for imitation coral, and both were fascinated by the swift transformation of the thick dark red mass of heated resin into brilliant red “coral” upon cooling. It appears that wonder transcends distance.

*Note: vermilion is made from mercuric sulphide; all students were instructed in health hazards associated with this material, and handling limits of this material; MSDS information was provided in advance of both workshops. Pigment from Kremer Pigmente.

The Frozen Museum

Eight months after “Imitation Coral,” I held a two-week jewellery history workshop at Nunavut Arctic College that we ended up calling The Frozen Museum. This class project is documented at The Frozen Museum – please do visit!

The Frozen Museum features stories of lived experience in the Arctic by four Inuit Metal Arts students, carved into cylinder seals from regional stones. The stories, told by Gary, Simon, Juna, and Peter, are of family histories of forced relocation, Inuit cosmology, reverence for the land and its stewardship, and joy in creating art from the stones, plants, and animals of the Arctic.

… and why the cylinder seal? Because it is an excellent medium for storytelling, an integral part of Inuit culture that links each generation to the next. The Arctic cylinder seals that Simon, Gary, Juna, and Peter carved and curated in The Frozen Museum innovate an ancient form of communication, as the cylinder seal is a pictographic message reverse-carved on the surface of a cylinder-shaped hardstone, whose meaning emerges when the seal is rolled across a malleable surface. The ancients used clay, we used Plasticine.

The Frozen Museum presents a material expression of Arctic culture communicated in a virtual space, where the curators unroll their stories to us through their cylinder seals.



© Donna Bilak and (2012–2021)