Saija Lehtonen turns elk hooves into shiny pieces of jewellery

Designer Saija Lehtonen is fascinated by making an imprint – there is no mass production in the nature.

Designer  Saija Lehtonen is fascinated by making an imprint – there is no mass production in the nature.

Photographer Ossi Piispanen, interviewed for this series before you, said he appreciates people who have the courage to think and be different. He was impressed by the materials and techniques you use. How does this sound to you?

It was really nice to hear someone share my consistent idea of the many techniques and materials that I use.

How did you end up designing and making products of nature’s materials?

Perhaps I’ve inherited the inclination. My mother and grandmother both made traditional rya and raanu rugs, and my father fixed engines. I’ve grown in a DIY culture. If we need something, we use what we have to create it. These days people talk about creative fields, but in the countryside, creative means survival. The stores are far away and people cannot afford to buy the things they need. I come from a remote location outside Karstula, and nature is my soulscape. I didn’t mind to be alone in the nature; it developed my imagination.

Fish skin used for jewellery is a side product of fishing.

What are the things you make?

I make jewellery of mainly fish skin, elk hoof and silver. In addition, I craft, for example bows, ties and small purses of burbot skin. I use game skin to make mittens, earflaps and hats. I also make by order. One of my customers ordered a present for his brother: a tie made of the skins of the burbots they’d fished together. I am studying to become a visual artist, and I use the same materials in my art: fish scales, elk hair, wood. I apply and teach old techniques, such as making shoes by felt-weaving.

Natural colour variation in elk hooves makes every piece of jewellery a unique object.

How did you come up with the idea to make jewellery of elk hooves?

I’ve been making elk hoof jewellery since I went to school. Elk is an important animal to me, the King of Nordic nature. Its majestic appearance and my own encounters in the woods have strengthened our connection. As I was working on some elk bones, I noticed the hooves. They are black by nature, light and durable and therefore a fine material for jewellery. Hoof can be used to make massive pieces, too. Historically the hooves have been used for instruments and toys, maybe combs, too, but making modern jewellery is a new application.

Miniature sculpture Kopes is made of bronze. Its form originates from traditional fishing floats and weights.

What fascinates you in this toilsome process?

I studied to become a textile designer in the design academy of Kuopio. When I was doing my internship in Iceland, my interest in natural materials increased. I’m interested in combining ecology with traditional skills – making something old but completely modern at the same time. It’s meditative not to have things done in a short moment. Spending some time working on an object introduces me better to the material as well as the making of it. The maker becomes more one with their work compared to using a machine. I am interested in how to impact the object and leave a handprint. All of my works are a little bit different, I cannot help it. It’s a reflection of the world: there is no mass production in the nature.

What inspires you?

Cliché or not, the Nordic nature. It’s an amazing experience to be part of nature, to understand that we are all part of the whole. Everything I do relies on my respect for nature and this unity.

This necklace is made of fishskin. With her work, Saija Lehtonen strives to respect life and nature.

Who do you admire or follow?

Elina Korri, a designer of ecological clothing made in Finland of recycled materials; I would like to call her a fashion activist. Her clothing brand is called Mea. I like her stylish and clear idiom and tidily finished details. All of her making is guided by her ideology. This means all the material is recycled and all phases of the process are designed so that new clothing and fashion can be created in a way that is as environment-friendly as possible. She promotes this “message” by presenting in public and by hosting workshops. Her positive, friendly energy follows her to many other interests, too.

Saija Lehtonen is part of the Masters of Saimaa visual art exhibition at Gallery Forum Box in Helsinki from 19 June to 14 July. (Ruoholahdenranta 3 A).

Photos: Ossi Piispanen and Jyrki Luukkonen