Joan Eagle of Chipita Accessories started her craft in Taos, New Mexico, back in 1972. Originally from New Jersey, Joan and her husband Ben fell in love with the open spaces and community of great people in New Mexico and Colorado. After setting off to pioneer their way on horseback to Canada to homestead, Joan and Ben ended up falling for Colorado and embarking on a wild journey with their jewelry business in their own community.
Tell me about your beginnings in the the Midwest.
In the summer of ‘71 we decided to visit New Mexico and totally fell in love with it. We bought some horses and started making our way to Canada to homestead; camping along the way, riding our horses from place to place. My husband Ben learned to hunt small game and I would gather herbs. We would trade our goods at markets for staples and fencing or other supplies. Ben got dysentery as we were heading up the San Luis Valley, so we came over the pass into the Huerfano Valley and down to the clinic in La Veta. There were a lot of people from the East Coast because of the whole back-to-nature movement. We made a lot of friends and connections there.
In the summer of ‘72 we had an opportunity to go to Europe. We had some connections to the Whole Earth Catalogue and they invited us to come out, partly because of what we were doing, making our way to Canada to homestead. After we came back, we started making jewelry. We went up to a valley near the Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Their traditional jewelry really struck me. Growing up, I had learned how to sew, knit and embroider, so I started working with them slowly, learning how to make an exact earring. Then eventually we took it to Taos, New Mexico. I couldn’t believe how well the jewelry sold.
By the end of that summer, after we had gotten back from Europe, it was too late to keep on our trek north, so we waited till April of ‘73. We started north again and made it as far as Paonia, Colorado, when it was time to stop again and look for work and for a place to winter. We realized during that winter how much we loved and really connected to the area and to the people. So we made our way back the next summer to Durango and the following spring of ‘75 settled over near Walsenburg on some land and made a homestead.
Working as an artist in Walsenburg, how did you gain exposure?
Well, we started out going to different cities, from Taos to Aspen. After doing business in Aspen, stores there would request things and I’d make bigger pieces, leather work, purses, and it would lead me to the next step and my work would really evolve. In the late seventies, we took a trip back to the East Coast and decided to try out a booth at a market in New York. We ended picking up a few accounts and stores there. It was just bursting in New York and things were opening up for us. We would continually get reorders, but where we lived, we didn’t even have a phone! So we’d have the post office take our messages. We picked up a big store in Greenwich village and that’s when I started getting help, showing cousins, friends, teachers how to put together pieces. In the wintertime, when my husband didn’t have much work, we’d travel and sell our jewelry from Tennessee to Louisiana, down to Florida and up to Georgia, stopping into shops along the way asking if they wanted to buy our jewelry.
What kind of role have you played in your community?
In the late 70’s, we got a little storefront in Walsenburg. Our first big market was in 1979 and we had discovered the bead district in New York. We started buying bulk beads at wholesale. We kept coming out with new styles and colors and when some big department stores started picking us up, like Neiman Marcus, Saks, and Nordstrom, there was a lot of excitement with our friends and family who wanted to help. At that point in time, beginning of the 80’s, the mines around Colorado weren’t hiring anymore and farms weren’t producing. We needed a lot of help and had a line out the door of people coming to help make jewelry. We had 200 workers helping all the way from Albuquerque. We had families, teachers and even the UPS guy helping bead at night! So many people were working and it was becoming this phenomenon. We were basically supporting the town and so many families around us, it was a special time. There was such enthusiasm from the community.
What kind of challenges have you faced in the industry?
Well, we got interviewed by a local paper in the early 90’s and the story was so popular, it spread up to a news station in Denver. A man from the labor department saw the story and came to check in on us. Almost all our helpers worked from home and it turns out there was an old statute from 1941 that was in place to protect children from child labor in the home and injuries with machinery at home, as well as a massive amount of unrecorded hours. It was a law that was no longer relevant to us in the 90’s. People worked from home on their computers all the time and we were paying our helpers really well. It really was a detriment to our business, and the International Ladies Garment Workers were against getting the law changed because they didn’t want to lose control. We fought for three years in a Federal case to get this law changed and we weren’t going to give up. Finally, after a lot of hard work, we were successful and the law was changed. It is legal now for all knitters, weavers, embroiderers, garment workers and jewelry makers to work out of their homes – a new law with updated restrictions.
I saw an Elle magazine you were featured in, tell me about that.
It was back in 1999, and they featured us in their magazine for “Ten accessories you can’t go into 2000 without.” And one of them was Chipita earrings! We weren’t on the cover exactly, but it was still cool!
Where do you find your inspiration? Do you draw inspiration from a certain tradition?
We definitely lean towards a more ethnic look, but you have to be careful with that. I try to make sure it’s tasteful and original. I also like a modern look and I take inspiration from Japanese to Celtic design. I love North African silver and Indonesian and Thai silver. Learning about a culture and understanding how certain traditions of jewelry making came about, that definitely excites me. The challenge, I think, is not to stay big, but to stay good.
Where in Colorado can we find your lovely jewelry?
I’m in stores in Aspen, Denver, and Colorado Springs. Terra Verde in Colorado Springs has a great selection of my jewelry. And of course we have a storefront here in Walsenburg!