Artist turns fish ear bones into jewelry

  • By ALLIE NIELSON
  • Saturday, August 9, 2014 9:50pm
  • News

JUNEAU — A local artist’s work allows you to wear fish ears on your ears.

Sandy Darnell, a retired commercial fisherwoman, continued her love of fishing and now creates earrings and pendants out of the hard, roughly circular fish ear bones called otoliths.

“I bought my first boat out in Elfin Cove in about 1985,” Darnell said. “That summer, I helped run the fuel dock with a few other ladies and that’s how I got interested in otoliths.”

Otoliths have distinct shapes and sizes, depending on the type of fish they’re extracted from. And, much like rings in a tree, otoliths provide scientists with the information needed to determine the age of a fish. These differences cause natural variation in Darnell’s jewelry, which she sells at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center and the Bear’s Lair downtown.

In the beginning, Darnell would primarily get her otoliths from fishermen who would trade fish for the finished product. She affixes gold nuggets and different gems to the otoliths to create unique looks.

“I would get rockfish from guys that would come in from charters or the lodges,” Darnell said. “I would do customer orders from fishermen and the fish they caught. They would pick out the design and the (gems) that they liked.”

Eventually Darnell opened her first shop in Elvin Cove where she would continue to receive otoliths from both fishermen and cold storage.

“I get a lot of my halibut otoliths from cold storages,” Darnell said. “The interesting thing with halibut is they don’t get terribly big. The biggest I’ve seen from a 200-pound halibut was about the size of a nickel. Rockfish, however, get proportionately bigger. A pair from a large rockfish is almost like a potato chip.”

It is because of the otoliths’ varying sizes that Darnell is restricted to using only those from halibut, rockfish, cod and eelpout.

“Salmon (otoliths) are very small,” Darnell said. “The only ones in salmon that are big enough come from 40- to 50-pound fish and we don’t come by them too easily.”

The process of retrieving an otolith from a fish isn’t easy, either. When fishing season is in full swing, Darnell tends to have somewhat of a otolith shortage for her craft.

“(The reason is because) it takes some effort,” Darnell said. “Like at the cold storage, they cut where they head the fish is very close to where the (otoliths) are. So often they will fall out but most often them get scooped into the garbage. But it takes time to get them out, wash them, dry them off and save them. It takes some effort and in the thick of the season they don’t have the time to devote to do that.”

While Darnell may be experiencing a temporary shortage, her earrings and other otolith jewelry is still found around town.

“It’s an enjoyable business, not a very big business but it’s been worth staying in,” she said. “Folks seem interested. Occasionally I’m at the JACC rearranging, bringing in new products, and there will be tourists there and they get a big kick out of it. I have a lot of fun with those folks. I enjoy any tiny part to enhance their experience while they’re here.”

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