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It Started with a Spark: Jewelry Designer Rachel Stenman, aka Paloma Wilder

Jun. 8, 2022 at 2:36PM

What is a bond? In the case of the popular BOND Bar pop-ups in Milwaukee, two definitions fit the bill. 

  1. Goldsmith Rachel Stenman, aka Paloma Wilder, welds a metal jump ring to patrons’ wrists; bonding gold chain to create “permanent” bracelets.
  2. Bracelets serve as a bond between friends, family, and lovers as a grown up nod to childhood “best friends” necklaces.

If you catch the pop-up in the wild, you might notice a line of girlfriends and sisters giggling with the air of nervous anticipation you might have for a tattoo. The process involves placing your wrist on a velvet heart-shaped pillow as Stenman measures out patrons’ choice of chain with a little piece of leather propped underneath. Then, she lowers her welding goggles and a brief spark from the mini-welder is all it takes to “bond” the jewelry. The process is painless, but the performance aspect of the weld and the permanence gives it an adventurous feeling.

History of the Artist

I’ve known of Rachel Stenman for about a decade, under different monikers and mediums but always a true artist. Watching her work evolve, I was curious about how she went from Craftsmaster at the Milwaukee Rep to her current work creating custom fine jewelry alongside the popular new Bond Bar experience.

Studio visits to Paloma Wilder are always a treat, often clients are planning custom engagement jewelry or other heirlooms, so champagne and little sweets are always stocked around an inviting set of vintage settees and plenty of floral. The studio is lush, filled with thriving greenery and seasonal moth and butterfly visitors including a mini-greenhouse inside the large space. The studio also houses her precious metal foundry equipment and beautiful display cases sparkling with finished works of gold, sapphires, diamonds, and other natural luxuries. Sketchbooks filled with flower studies, oddities such as a preserved snake, and large vintage machines and filing cabinets offer something new with every glance around the eccentric, curated space.

I ask about the jeweler’s origin story. Born and raised in Milwaukee, she is invested in nourishing the art scene here rather than moving away like she’s watched other artists do out of necessity for growth: “It seemed really important to keep some of that here.”

Stenman holds degrees in Philosophy and Fine Art, and worked a job at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater “cocktailing” her way through school eventually landing her in the costume shop.  She explains, “That was it, my fate is sealed. I’m just going to work in theater. I love this, this is where I belong.” Starting in the costume shop as a crafts artisan, she worked up to Craftsmaster. She adds, “I didn’t only work at the Rep, I worked at the Children’s Theater, the Florentine Opera, and down in Chicago at the Goodman. I was freelancing for a while there, too but it was always working in the crafts part of the costume department. That means I was doing things like millinery (hat-making), shoemaking, all the accessories … anything that you’re wearing on stage that is ankle down, wrist down, neck up.”

That is her base motivation for falling into working with precious metals, but Stenman has a more romantic way of telling the story, “I always say I got into doing fine jewelry because I was making all of this temporary jewelry on stage. To make something that had more permanence seemed really enticing.”

“For the theater you spend all this time making things, tacking a million rhinestones on or whatever, and then you have to literally take it apart after the run of the show, all the pieces back in their separate boxes. Stage jewelry is like that, it just lasts for that moment on stage. I have nothing against costume jewelry or things you’re wearing just for fun but there is something special about making pieces that last for a long time. Which is also why I love the BOND Bar.”

The permanent jewelry pop-up is not the only lasting style Paloma Wilder creates. In fact, the designer is most known for her custom heirloom quality jewelry. The studio releases sculpted engagement rings, sometimes resetting inherited diamonds and other fine stones, as well as their own fashion lines. 

I asked how she made the jump from learning to craft silver for the stage, to working with gold. It started as a passion project in her off time. Jewelry making is a costly endeavor, so Stenman bought tool after tool for a couple of years until she got word of a goldsmith’s son selling off a collection. Making the investment set her focus into gear, “Okay I’ve gotta start making stuff and selling it, because I invested all this money.”

“I was obsessed. I was working all day. At that point I had moved from The Rep to the Florentine Opera; that was my full-time job. I would work all day at the Florentine. I love the Opera, but it’s very cold. You’re sitting there rubbering 100 shoes, freezing your butt off. I would do that all day, then come home and work from like six o’clock until one in the morning making jewelry obsessively.”

She adds, “I wasn’t even making jewelry at that point, I was carving wax and I wouldn’t even cast the stuff. I spent so much time just carving, and I would re-carve and re-carve, working on my skills.”

After months of making and selling silver jewelry, she created a custom ring for the daughter of a goldsmith which led to an apprenticeship with Powers Jewelry Designers. Stenman continued building her skills, eventually adopting the Paloma Wilder moniker. 

“Everything that’s made at Paloma Wilder is 95% carved and cast in-house. Before I was buying pieces of metal that I was cutting and soldering together, building on the bench. I moved from bench fabrication to a more sculptural process. Designing a custom piece is very personal, especially for symbolizing nuptials.”

“I like to have this immersive process. When I’m working on my own project or working with someone else, I like to get in their world or into the work I’m investigating. Doing a drawing ahead of time is also a part of that process. If I’m working with someone, part of the process is to sit and talk with them to do a little bit of looking at their life, what I can find online, ‘Let’s do some research. Let’s talk about your grandmother …’”

As far as what’s next for the artist, she tells us, “I’m pulled into a soft maximalism all the time. It’s an interesting thing, I don’t think that maximalism and very detailed work that I’ve fallen in love with is always on trend. I’m trying to follow my own vision and aim above trends.”

If you want to share a bond with a friend or with yourself, discover the BOND Bar process here.

More Articles by Amelinda Burich

About the author

Amelinda Burich

Musician, music journalist, artist,and accidental actress with too many hobbies.