How to Make it as a Jewelry Designer in Montreal

Julie Verfaillie has a problem. She can’t stop creating with her hands. Every time she comes up with a new jewelry design she’s already itching to create another one. “I suspect it has something to do with Attention Deficit Disorder,” she says, “but as a multidisciplinary artist I also recognize that my non-stop desire to create something new is a good thing.”

The Montreal jewelry artist, who has a certificate in Visual Arts from Concordia University and creates beautiful nature-inspired, ethical, and eco-friendly jewelry, goes by the name of Femme Mecanique Designs.

“I started off as a singer and performer in the late ’90s alongside my boyfriend David,” she says. “I would perform as a mechanical doll, it was all very theatrical… and I was known as la Femme Mecanique. When I launched my jewelry company I honestly didn’t know what to call myself. I thought it would be pretentious to use my own name as a brand so I decided to stick with Femme Mecanique and add “Designs” to it because I eventually also want to start designing clothes.” Her studio, a no-frills artist’s loft in a non-descript building on the outskirts of Mile End is where she works daily on her designs.

Inspired by the outdoors

Acorns, samaras (more commonly known as maple keys), twigs, branches, leaves, and other organic matter found in nature all provide the inspiration for her work. Her goal is to transform all the abundant organic life around her into wearable art by crafting pendants, earrings, rings, bracelet cuffs, knuckle rings, necklaces, and more. Many of her designs are also very minimalist, focused on simple lines and shapes, like rustic circle pendants or chevron rings.

Her foray into jewelry making was slightly accidental. After injuring her larynx and suffering from chronic pain, she had to stop singing and suddenly found herself with more time for other pursuits.

“I was really interested in researching projects and discovering how things are made, so I started teaching myself a few jewelry techniques and watched a lot of YouTube videos about the actual process,” Verfaillie says. “I started with metal clay, then I moved on to making different casts with silicone, and later, in 2012, started working with traditional metalsmith techniques. It took me about two years to become self-sufficient.”

As a self-taught artist, the process of self-discovery and personal research is one that agrees with her. “I find it’s more freeing for me to learn by myself and to do my own thing, because then I can figure out what I really like, instead of trying to please someone.”
By 2013, Verfaillie felt confident that this could be her career. “I became addicted to it,” she says. “With jewelry, you have immediate results. With music and visual arts, I find it takes more time. What’s funny is that I initially thought that jewelry making would finance my other passions, but then it became my full-time passion and addiction.”

Often found scouring the grounds near the bike path by the CN railway tracks or Maisonneuve Park, Verfaillie collects whatever catches her eye and waits to be inspired. Samaras, their texture, and the way they remind her of her childhood initially fascinated her.

“I think I’m so interested in nature because I’m vegan, and when I dealt with injuries and chronic pain I managed to heal myself physically and mentally with natural remedies,” she explains. “The process of taking the time to pick up the leaves, designing items inspired by them and then giving it all back in the form of jewelry that people can wear… There’s just something really beautiful and empowering about that.”

She works with sustainable silver and gold (partly recycled from old jewelry), as well as brass and bronze. “Some men are surprised that I like working with tools and a solder, or can’t believe that I did everything myself, which is strange since there are so many women making jewelry these days.”

Creating in Montreal

The Montreal artist acknowledges that while it’s easy to find materials to work with, it can often be hard to get into the best artisan shows – like Puces Pop – because so many people are vying for a few select spots. Nevertheless, thanks to Etsy (her shop currently represents about a third of her revenue), and selling wholesale in stores across Canada, the U.S. and Europe, things are moving along nicely. As an independent, self-financed artist, what’s often hard is finding the funds to purchase new machines to work with and the often-costly materials (like the ethical diamonds she’s recently started working with) she needs to have in stock when people order a design. The cost of promoting herself doesn’t run cheap either.

“I usually participate in about six big shows over the course of a year and these shows cost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 just to get my own booth, which represents a huge expense for me,” she says. “My profit margin isn’t that great and I’m not that good at business. It’s hard to put a price on what you do. I’m becoming more and more comfortable saying ‘this is what’s it worth’”.

Despite having studied visual arts Verfaillie doesn’t draw anything before she starts making it. “If I had a dream or an idea for a design I come to the studio and I just start working on it immediately,” she says. “Sometimes clients give me an idea and I like the challenge of coming up with something based on it.”

Her next big show, Plein Art, takes place from August 1-13 in Quebec City’s Old Port, while she continues to have an annual booth at the Salon des Metiers d’Art, Montreal’s traditional pre-Christmas arts and crafts show in December. In the meantime, her Etsy shop is where you can find Femme Mecanique Designs online.

“When I travel people are always interested in and moved by my nature-inspired designs because they feel that they’re very Canadian and they remind them of their childhoods,” she says. “People have extreme reactions, particularly to the maple keys. Either they love them or they immediately get upset because at some point they had to pick them up from their yards.”


Words by TOULA DRIMONIS | Photos by MICHAEL GANNON

This article is part of Issue 2: Outdoors