You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but the pearlescent bead on Morgan Di Martino’s bracelet is made out of her breast milk.
Di Martino, 34, is a local jewelry designer. Her company, North Faun, specializes in breast milk and cremation jewelry. She can also transform other ephemera — a lock of hair, a baby blanket or a placenta, perhaps — into beautiful, wearable keepsakes. Talk about precious stones: Di Martino is quite literally working with the most sensitive material there is. Milk and birth, ashes and death. Lives already lived and those just beginning, both immortalized in clear, museum archival-quality resin.
Di Martino is a mother herself — to two girls, ages six and two — and had been working with resin for a long time. When her eldest daughter was an infant, she came across a website selling breast milk jewelry. While locks of a baby’s hair have long been the stuff of scrapbooks, the idea of preserving breast milk in something that could be worn resonated with Di Martino.
"I really liked the idea of being able to capture a short period of time," she says. "It’s a little bit different than saying, ‘Oh, these are my wedding flowers I preserved.’ You’re still capturing a moment, but it’s not quite the same. This is something that otherwise is really intangible."
What could be found online, however, was mostly ugly. So, she decided to make her own. It took a year to figure out how to do it — it’s a trade secret, she says — but she and her friends were having babies, so there was no shortage of interest (and supplies). When her eureka moment came, "I felt like a genius," she says with a laugh. "I really did."
Di Martino knows that some might be squicked out by the premise, especially in a culture in which breastfeeding remains taboo and breast milk itself is often considered 'gross.'
"And that’s fine — it’s not for them," she says. "But the people who are into it find it really special."
The variations in colour, from bright white to buttery cream, are beautiful to behold on their own, but these pieces are about more than the source material.
"Lactating in and of itself isn’t terribly special because we’re mammals," Di Martino says. "But that time period can be really special.
"Right now my six year old is kind of a jerk sometimes — and, like, I have a piece of when she wasn’t," she adds with a laugh.
Di Martino doesn’t just do breast milk. Her six-year-old daughter wanted to take her baby blanket to school, and now she can: Di Martino made a piece of it into a pearl that she can wear every day. The soil from Di Martino’s childhood home is embedded in a charm worn by her sister. She’s currently extracting hair from curlers worn by her mother-in-law’s sister (and best friend) who recently died for a piece that, even if unworn, is a more lovely tribute than a box of curlers in a garage.
Her passion lies in cremation jewelry. "I really love being able to give people something to commemorate loss by. I feel really strongly about it."
Di Martino wears a bead that includes her father’s ashes. "It was really hard," she says. "That took me weeks to complete once I decided to do it. But I’d rather be able to wear this bead on a necklace than have him sit in a container on the shelf."
The work she does is sensitive, and she says she doesn’t feel right promoting it. You’ll notice a distinct lack of advertising and self promotion for North Faun on Facebook. Instead, she relies mostly on Instagram and word of mouth. "It feels a lot more intimate," she says.
It’s not easy work, either. Di Martino recently made a pearl for a mother mourning a stillborn baby. The mother wanted her to use his newborn hat to add to a necklace she wears. Di Martino had to cut a piece out of it.
"I was terrified," she says. "I couldn’t cut this thing. I couldn’t cut into the only thing she had of her baby." Eventually, she talked herself into it. And the mother ended up loving the piece.
Di Martino is under pressure every time she does a new piece — "There are no do-overs in this jewelry," she says — but the payoff is worth it.
She recalls another recent client, another local mom whose adult son passed away a few months ago.
"To be able to give her baby as something to carry with her — and now I’m going to cry — it was really meaningful."
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Updated on Monday, January 4, 2016 at 6:41 PM CST: Corrects spelling of jewelry to conform with style guide
January 5, 2016 at 9:32 AM: Corrects spelling of jewelry throughout, adds photo