Sabrina Melendez, Leslieville Goldsmith: Turning Wood into Gold

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Ring in 10k gold and Bocote, $1,250 plus tax by Sabrina Melendez
Ring in 10k gold and Bocote, $1,250 plus tax by Sabrina Melendez

One crisp March morning in Leslieville, I visited with Sabrina Melendez, who showed me her collection of precious wood. Sabrina is the Master Goldsmith at On the Other Hand Jewellery at 1015 Queen Street East, Toronto where she helps Karen MacRae makes custom engagement rings, but in her spare time and when Karen isn’t busy, Sabrina likes to use wood to decorate or accentuate earrings and necklaces of her own design.

Sabrina inspects her wood collection at On the Other Hand Jewellery in Leslieville
Sabrina inspects her wood collection at On the Other Hand Jewellery in Leslieville

Sabrina Melendez’s jewellery wood collection includes blocks cut from trees on every continent. She hides it on the top shelf in the back of her Leslieville studio, and when I arrived, she got out a step ladder and fetched the wood down for inspection. First up were her Snakewood samples.

Sabrina Shaves Snakewood To Show Off the Grain

Shaving snakewood will show the red snake-like bands across the grain, photo by Rob Campbell
Shaving snakewood will show the red snake-like bands across the grain, photo by Rob Campbell

Years ago, Sabrina was given Snakewood samples from a knife maker who no doubt used the wood for handles. His supply, and now Sabrina’s stash originates from Brazil. The more common red coloured Snakewood we sometimes see in craft shops in Canada probably comes from Peru or Bolivia where there’s more of an industry. Prized for its deep red flesh and distinctive snake-like bands in the wood across the grain, Snakewood will oxidize (dry out) if not shellacked or varnished immediately after cutting, and even then its bright red colour will fade over time. The wood’s crimson flesh and stripes will darken to a less pronounced but still lovely reddish brown.

As I watched Sabrina struggle to scrape away the drier wood and expose the rich red wood below, I came to understand the density and oily texture this wood. The material must be equally challenging for carpenters as it splits easily and can make nasty splinters. But on the bright side, Snakewood ‘turns’ well and polishes up beautifully, and I suppose that’s why its most commonly used to make cereal bowls, vases, and pool-cue butts.

Sabrina Has Two Blocks of African Blackwood

African Blackwood is so dense that it is very difficult to work with. Photo by Rob Campbell
African Blackwood is so dense that it is very difficult to work with. Photo by Rob Campbell

All the way from Kenya, Sabrina has blocks of very heavy jet-black wood called, not surprisingly, African Blackwood or in Latin, Dalbergia melanoxylon (the wood is also called grenadilla, or mpingo) and is from a sweet-smelling flowering tree native to East Africa.

This wood has been used for centuries in the manufacture of musical instruments and fine furniture. Because of this dense wood’s great weight, it was sometimes used in place of stones as ship’s ballast. The advantage being that northern populations would buy the wood and use it to make household kitchen items like rolling pins and knife handles. To this day two German knife companies. Wüsthof and J. A. Henckels continue to make blades with blackwood handles because of the wood’s moisture repellent properties.

Sabrina uses her African blackwood to contrast the metallic luster of gold and silver in earrings and necklaces.

Sabrina Has Red Coolibah Burls from Australia

Red Coolibah Burls from Australia, photo by Rob Campbell
Red Coolibah Burls from Australia, photo by Rob Campbell

From the remote floodplains of the Australian outback, Sabrina has two blocks of richly textured orange wood that are cuts from a Red Coolibah tree or more accurately, from a ‘burl’ that formed on the side of the trunk. This tenacious tree is from the Eucalyptus family, but it is quite rare and the logs are much too mean and snarly to make decent timber.

Coolibah burls have historically been traded throughout the British Empire and were used to make musket stocks, salad bowls and wood ornamentation of every description. Australian Red Coolibah is a very peculiar; its highly-figured wood whose rarity adds to its expense. But as Sabrina will tell you, burl wood in general is very hard to work with using hand tools or even on a machine lathes, because its grain is twisted and interlocked, and this causes the wood to chip, and lathes to chatter.

Sabrina Proves Beautiful Jewellery Can Be Made from Wood

Ring in 10k gold and Bocote, $1,250 plus tax by Sabrina Melendez
Ring in 10k gold and Bocote, $1,250 plus tax by Sabrina Melendez

Sabrina Melendez also makes silver rings that are cast around a hand carved wooden inlay of Bocote, which is a jewellery wood from Mexico. The rings nicely exhibits Bocote’s wild grain patterns with curved lines and swirls while the color is a stunning golden brown with yellow tints. Bocote is a hard, heavy, and dense wood, strong and stiff, with a medium texture. It polishes well with wax or polyurethane, and will take a moderately high natural gloss.

Another gorgeous specimen, this Sabrina Melendez original silver ring has a Fiji Mahogany wood inlay. The most common jewellery wood in Sabrina’s collection, Mahogany is the world’s oldest and most elegant project wood. The color of its heartwood ranges from pinkish to pale brown, with reddish brown streaks. Evidenced here is the yellow brown sapwood that could still darken a little more over time; as the ring and its wearer age they both gain more character.

These Musical Bangles Are Made from Wood

Wood bangles made from Bubinga Yellow Heart and Tineo, $80 plus tax each by Sabrina Melendez
Wood bangles made from Bubinga Yellow Heart and Tineo, $80 plus tax each by Sabrina Melendez

A set of three, these hand-carved wooden bangles were also available for sale at On the Other Hand Jewellery that day. They are composed of three more exotic timbers from Sabrina’s collection. The bright one is Pau Amarello which is Portuguese for Yellow Wood. Sabrina calls it Yellow Heart and its a lovely yellow softwood that’s ideal for carving and lathe work. The second bangle is made from wood called Tineo, or more scientifically, Weinmannia trichosperma from a tree that once grew in Argentina (or less likely Chile). This wood is prized for its colour and grain and is considered a ‘precious wood’ in the furniture industry. The third and darkest bangle is Bubinga, which is also luxury-wood used in furniture making. Bubinga is part of the Guibourtia tree family, and is a mighty towering giant found in the swamps of both Africa and South America. It flourishes in lands that are underwater certain times of the year.

Sterling silver ring with Bootee inlay, $450 plus tax by Sabrina Melendez
Sterling silver ring with Bootee inlay, $450 plus tax by Sabrina Melendez
Gold, silver and wood rings made by Sabrina Melendez, photo by Rob Campbell
Gold, silver and wood rings made by Sabrina Melendez, photo by Rob Campbell

Sabrina Melendez is an inspiring artist who proves everyday that beautiful jewellery really does grow on trees.

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