A love of nature and travel inspires Elissa Hastings and her boyfriend, Caleb Skelton, to create hand-crafted, statement pieces for their jewelry company, Wildfoot Studio. By Jillian Kramer
Watch them work across a wooden table from one another—an iPhone playing a soft, banjo-ed tune, a candle burning a woodsy scent, heads bent in concentration—and it’s clear within seconds Elissa Hastings and Caleb Skelton have the kind of easy, breezy rapport only a couple who’s been together some eight-odd years can enjoy.
Hastings is picking through a pile of jade-colored stones, oblong and round, large and small, and placing them on a 12-by-12 artist’s notebook, where she traces their outline with a Micron pen. On a smaller notepad, using a pencil, Skelton is drawing a tiny horseshoe over and over again until he’s created a custom cross for a customer.
Hastings and Skelton are toiling on two parts of Wildfoot Studio‘s business: Creating new lines of hand-hammered, metal-smithed jewelry, and designing custom pieces for customers who come to the duo for their bold and intelligent statement pieces.
The couple has come a long way—literally. In the last nine years, they’ve traveled the state and the country in search of inspiration and to hone their skills, only to come back to Northeast Ohio to launch one of its most recognizable jewelry brands.
And now, settled into a new studio as of October 2018, the couple is finding new focus in the 250-square-foot space, ready to roll out several new collections throughout 2019.
Today—as she sits in their Willoughby studio, a room inside a brick building on the town’s main drag—Hastings is designing a new collection inspired by Mexico and the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, which they unveiled this week. She envisions the island’s lush jungles as she stacks a turquoise gem above a moonstone and traces around them, drawing a ring with sun-rayed etching from its top to bottom.
“A lot of our inspiration comes from our travels, or where we want to go,” Hastings explains as she fills in more detail on the sketch. Their designs are heavily inspired by the U.S. landscape, by islands, by rugged terrain—and, no matter the destination, by their love of the wilderness and of being wild, free spirits able to roam around.
“Growing up, Caleb and I were always outside, never wanted to wear shoes, always running around,” Hastings, now 25, describes. “And my grandma called me ‘wild foot’ when I was little because I never wanted to wear shoes. It was just kind of a funny joke. Caleb was actually the same way. He never wanted to wear shoes, would always be outside, and so when we met, it was funny because everyone would be like, ‘you guys never wear shoes. You’re always outside. You always have dirty feet.'”
You can see, then, how the name Wildfoot Studio was born.
Hastings grew up in Euclid, in a home on Lake Erie. She would walk through a field to the water, and collect stones and rocks and shells that had washed up in the sand.
From those pieces, she’d make jewelry, like bracelets—even though she was just 6 years old, she says. “I always liked creating,” Hastings says. “I always liked making.”
By the time she met Skelton as a senior at Mentor High School, Hastings’ love of nature was as much a part of her as her hands or feet—in other words, essential.
On their first date, Skelton took Hastings fishing on the East Chagrin River and for a hike along the water. “That was kind of the starting point of a little tradition for us, which was going on a hike, and we’d always collect stones” Hastings says. They’d scan for rocks and gems on the shore during summer swims in the river’s waters.
“We’d be sitting on the shoreline together, and we’d be talking, and we’d just pick up stuff around us—looking at different rocks, finding little fossils—and we’d be like, ‘Oh, look at this one! Look what I just found!'” Hastings describes. “We would bring a little hammer with us, and we’d break all the rocks open, and we’d look for different types of minerals and gem stones.” Hastings and Skelton found crystals and quartz, and soon, they were transfixed with the beauty they could find and create at home.
“Once we saw how pretty the insides were, and what we were finding, then we were like, ‘Okay, well we should make this a little art piece, like wire wrap it, and that way we can wear them, and tell people,'” Hasting explains. With no training, they began wrapping the stones with thin silver wire, and wearing their creations around town.
“Once we started doing that, we were making them for friends, and family, and just for ourselves,” Hastings says. “Then we started traveling.”
When they were 19 years old, Hastings and Skelton moved to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, just outside of the Olympic National Park. After graduating from high school, “We wanted to go do something fun,” Hastings says. “We did a big road trip on the way there. So, we went to all kinds of national parks and camps.”
When they arrived, they lived on the 10-acre property of a Chinook Indian, who gave Hastings and Skelton a small cabin in exchange for their labor—like cutting wood and painting. The lifestyle afforded the duo the time to explore the national park and the nearby beach. “We’d always be beach-combing and going into the park and going on mini-little trips while we were out there, like camping trips and stuff like that, and collecting more stones and adding to our collection,” explains Hastings.
But it wasn’t until they moved back home that they seriously began metal-smithing.
“I knew how to wire wrap—because Caleb and I had been doing it—but we wanted to basically just learn more about it, increase our skills,” says Hastings. So she and Skelton ordered some books, and watched a few YouTube videos, and took a class at Lakeland Community College that delved into the basics of soldering and metal.
“After that, we started setting up a home studio so that we could continue teaching ourselves from home,” Hastings says. “We slowly started buying all of our tools.”
That’s when, Hastings says, they started to work with silver and learn to set stones, using a collection of turquoise Hastings had been saving for the last several years.
“We’d come home from work and be making jewelry pieces together at night, just in the living room, watching TV, and just making something—and then slowly, we taught ourselves more and more, and got better and better,” she says. They worked in private for three years, before they said, “Let’s try to make this a business.”
Hasting and Skelton quit their jobs in 2016. “We went full-force at it,” she says, “and we’re like, ‘Just put everything into it.'” They launched a website. They opened an Etsy shop for their creations. And they applied to be a vendor at the Cleveland Flea.
“We were so nervous,” Hastings recalls of that first Flea. “We had no idea if it would work, if people would like it, if we’d sell anything. But we did really well that day.”
Today, business is booming for Hastings and Skelton. They have their studio. They take custom orders. They create bridal jewelry. And they plan to take their designs on the road, traveling to shows across the country this year to sell their pieces.
But their growth doesn’t mean they’re sacrificing quality. While they may no longer hunt for stones themselves, Hastings and Skelton still search for the highest-quality gems, traveling to Colorado to purchase from a stone collector or buying from catalogs of gems in Arizona and New Mexico. “They’re all hand-cut and hand-polished,” Hastings says, adding that, “We don’t have any pre-calibrated stones.”
Not using pre-calibrated stones or premade settings is what makes Wildfoot Studio unique, Hastings says. “We want those quality, good, perfect, beautiful stones to work with because a lot of my inspiration even comes from the stones,” she says. “We want to make sure everything’s totally [done] by hand and is ethically sourced.”
They’ve even recently began cutting their own stones and making their own tools. “We have these little wooden hammers that we use for crafting different pieces,” Hastings says. “We will customize the tips of [the chisels] by hammering them out.”
Wildfoot Studio‘s pieces aren’t what you’d call fast fashion; in fact, as you can see, there’s nothing “fast” about Hastings and Skelton’s design process. But that’s OK.
“I wanted to make things that you don’t normally see in the store—pieces people could wear, and feel like they represented them, were one of a kind, handmade, and well made, and something they could keep forever, and pass down for generations,” Hastings says. “Those are all things that I connect with when it comes to jewelry.”