Mixed-Metal Alchemist Did What They Said Couldn’t Be Done

Julie Louise Merrill does amazing things with metal.
Photo by Colby Rabon

You have to be flexible when you work with metal. So says Julie Louise Merrill, who has been forging, fusing, pounding, soldering, and even reinventing one of the world’s toughest materials for 20 years. She has made everything from chain mail to steel furnishings, but her primary focus is mixed-metal earrings, necklaces, buckles, and cuffs. 

Merrill was born in Asheville, raised in Hendersonville, attended UNCA for a couple years, went to Africa for a study-abroad program, fell in love with African dance, traveled, and by the time she returned to Asheville, had no interest in going back to school. As she pondered her next move, she got a job at a bead store downtown, where her life took a turn with a chance encounter.

One of the jewelry artist’s proprietary cuff designs.

“I had started doing some beaded jewelry and was curious about chain mail. Someone who came into the store often did metalworking and would ask what I was doing with my designs,” she recalls. “He inspired me to sign up for a class with master metalworker Bill Churlik, and then gifted me with the first few levels of silversmithing classes. It felt like everything kind of fell in front of me and was supposed to be.”

Silversmithing, blacksmithing, coppersmithing: Merrill has an unusual gift for alchemy.

Merrill did a work-trade program at John C. Campbell Folk School in 2007, got into blacksmithing, and then enrolled in the two-year metals division of Haywood Community College’s Professional Crafts Program.

Photo by Colby Rabon

 “I started getting really clear about my style and design at Haywood, and when I finished the program, I got a full-time job with an Asheville jeweler and was able to use her studio space for my own work.”

That arrangement ended, which pushed Merrill to start JLMerrill Metalworks, initially working from a bench in Churlik’s studio in the River Arts District, and, as she got her bearings, from a studio of her own. 

Her jewelry is primarily mixed metals, and she has finessed a technique for cuff designs that even the master Churlik doubted could be done — fusing Argentium silver to copper. 

“There’s no solder in the process,” Merrill explains, “and Bill said it couldn’t be done, but I do it all the time. There’s like literally a second to fuse the two; if you keep the heat on a second too long, the silver will melt and flood and destroy the shape. It’s a very specific process, and there are still times I mess up, but I have gotten better at it over the years.”

The artist traveled the world and went through various programs gathering inspiration, and says she was able to forge her personal style while at Haywood Community College’s Professional Crafts Program.

Some of her work also incorporates gemstones, animal and snake bones, teeth, claws, talons, and quills from African porcupines — as big as 10” in length and thick as a pencil — and from daintier North American porcupines. 

Asked about her sourcing, she laughs. “I get material from taxidermists, from the woods, and along the side of the road. I’ve had people at shows look at my work, tell me they have a bunch of random wildlife bones and do I want them? I always say yes.”

Julie Louise Merrill, JL Merrill Metalworks — Sacred Jewelry, Weaverville, studio appointments available: see jlmerrillmetalworks.com and on Facebook and Instagram (@jl.merrillmetalworks). Merrill will exhibit at the 76th Annual Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands at Harrah’s Cherokee Center Asheville (87 Haywood St.) July 20-23. Her work is carried at Woolworth Walk (woolworthwalk.com), Grovewood Gallery (grovewood.com), and at the Southern Highland Craft Guild shops in Biltmore Village (26 Lodge St.) and the Folk Art Center (Milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway), craftguild.org.

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