Bead by Bead

A winding path led jewelry maker Sharon Herrick to her latest passion project

It takes a steady hand to stitch together intricate beadwork. Jewelry designer Sharon Herrick uses emerald glass beads to create her Everlasting Circle pendant.

A career is made up of a lifetime of experiences, a series of steps that lead to meaningful work. Sharon Herrick, a 53-year old jewelry designer from South Portland, has crafted a creative career from a background that includes documentary filmmaking, artisan baking, online media development, and public health. On paper, it’s hard to connect the dots, but once you get to know Herrick, who is effusive and unafraid of risks, it’s clear she’s gleaned the best from each of these divergent paths. Her willingness to fully explore her interests is what makes her the successful woman she is today. “I think curiosity has always been my driver,” she says.

Her jewelry business, Illuminated ME, is on the top floor of her home. A cozy yellow room contains shelves of books that have spoken to her over the years, magazine photos for design inspiration, and small Ziploc bags of jewelry-making supplies. In one corner, a dress form displays a blue-green feather scarf Herrick purchased in New York’s Fashion District, along with one of her newest and most popular pieces, a whimsical statement necklace filled with rainbow-colored nonpareils.

We sit hovered over a table. Two adjustable lights, designed for close work, are positioned on either side. I’m curious to learn about Herrick’s beginnings, and she regales me with stories of her life as a Boston University film student. She points to a few Bill Moyers books on the shelf. “At 14 years old, I watched Bill Moyers interview Maya Angelou, and I just knew I wanted to do the same kind of work.” Herrick’s film school thesis, titled “Leave a Message,” explored the creative lives of three women—a Latina music student, an Asian-American poet, and an African-American painter—whom she met by passing out fliers throughout Boston in search of female artists with diverse backgrounds.

After film school, she met her first husband. The couple eventually settled in the university town of Sewanee, Tennessee, where Herrick began baking, teaching herself to make pitas, batards, and bagels. She opened a bakery called Gaia’s, named after the Greek Goddess of Life, and served bread made with organic ingredients wrapped in biodegradable bags. “I was ahead of my time,” she says with a smile.

Herrick believes she inherited the ability to thread tiny beads from her father, who was a dentist.

Running a bakery, combined with a young marriage that was struggling, proved to be too much. Herrick decided to leave Sewanee for Nashville, a city known for its burgeoning creative economy. While in Nashville, Herrick returned to documentaries, creating a film called “Women on the Inner Journey: Black and White Building a Bridge.” The film centered around Noris Binet, an artist from the Dominican Republic who offered workshops on race and gender. While the work with Binet was fulfilling, Herrick longed to return North. “I grew tired of hearing, ‘You ain’t from around here.’ I had a lot of adventures, but I was beginning to feel landlocked,” she says.

Her film experiences led her to a job as a producer for the New England Research Institutes (NERI) in Watertown, Massachusetts, where she developed media for medical professionals. Most of the projects she worked on were related to aging, and while she didn’t realize it then, her work at NERI would lead her to a whole new career in public health. While at NERI, she also met and married her current husband, Peter Herrick.

The newlyweds celebrated their union with a trip halfway around the world. After suffering and recovering from a nagging illness that began in India and led her to medical care in Australia, Herrick decided to change career course. Once her health improved, the couple returned to the States, where Herrick began volunteering at Hospice of Southern Maine in Portland. With some real-time experience under her belt, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in social work at Boston University. The following decade would lead Herrick to some truly meaningful and challenging projects. Back in Maine, she spearheaded the Elder Justice Project, which implemented multidisciplinary statewide training for professionals working with older adults to prevent—or intervene in—incidents of elder abuse. The work was beneficial, but Herrick says it took its toll. “There is so much injustice in social justice,” she says. “My heart couldn’t handle it. I wanted to help people, but I realized I had to find another way.”

To unwind, she took jewelry-making classes at Caravan Beads in Portland, an experience that was transforming. “Working with beads was incredible. I was totally in the zone,” Herrick says, as she pulls out a gorgeous piece of jewelry. “This was my first project, the North Bohemia cuff.” The handwoven bracelet, which is a combination of turquoise, metallic, and delicate shimmering beads, is stunning. I marvel that this could be her first piece, and later learn that Herrick’s father was a dentist who often performed small surgeries. “We weren’t close when he was alive, but I feel close to him now. My sewing beads is not unlike his precise suturing skills,” she says. “I’ll often use his instruments to do close work.”

Herrick’s friends were equally impressed by her talents and encouraged her to open an online shop. At the time, she was also working at University of New England in Portland as a project coordinator and grants manager for a program called CHANNELS. The program provided the immigrant and refugee community with connections to healthcare providers, educated health professionals and UNE students, and expanded community outreach to help navigate healthcare. The three-year project wrapped up in 2015, just as Herrick was beginning to turn toward jewelry-making. “I was like, ‘Queue it! Queue the third career!’” she says with a broad smile.

To kick-start her business, Herrick enlisted the help of several agencies in Portland, including the Coastal Enterprises Inc. Women’s Business Center, the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), and the Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Through her work on CHANNELS, she also connected with the Portland Jobs Alliance, an organization that pairs immigrants and refugees with jobs that match their skill sets. The connection led her to Nabaa Alobaidi, a multitalented creative from Baghdad with a background in small business and interior design. “There’s nothing she can’t do,” Herrick says. “She’s an amazing artist.”

With Alobaidi’s help, Herrick was able to have the space and time to create new products, meet deadlines, and get her business off the ground. Since then, Illuminated ME continues to thrive. She’s had two successful collaborations—one with Venn and Maker, a Portland-based shop that sells high-quality, locally made goods—the other with Anthony Manfredonia, a New-York based fashion designer. In addition, her most recent line, the Silk Road Spice Collection, has become her most popular to date. Each piece is made with herbs and spices, such as rich, dark cacao nibs, delicate threads of saffron, and tiny sesame seeds. Herrick artfully arranges each particle, often adding a pinch of shimmering mica, and then carefully sets them in resin. Her latest addition to the line is nonpareil sprinkles, which, she says, has been a hit with all ages.

Made with colorful nonpareils, the “sprinkles” necklaces are a favorite among customers.

Most importantly, she continues to keep her business mission-driven, sourcing her supplies in New England whenever possible. She’s also continuing her good work, passing along the knowledge she’s learned along the way through the launch of the Museum of Beadwork in Portland (opening in 2021), and acting as an ambassador for the Maine Access Immigrant Network, where she helps staff and clients find opportunities for jobs, education, housing, and more resources. Reflecting on all she’s done over the years, I ask if she thinks jewelry-making is her final stop, “Yes,” she says, without skipping a beat. “I want this to be my last move.” For someone who has forged her own unique path, there’s beauty in finding the perfect place to stay awhile.

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