JAY EM – It’s all because of the alphabet and a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Eric and Melissa Nelson were on one of their periodic sojourns aboard their trusty Iron Horse while working as educators in Custer, S.D. They were actually bound for the Fort Laramie National Historic Site on an A, B, Cs of Touring trip through the national Harley Owners Group.
The idea of the trips is to find, and photograph yourself, with your motorcycle and the sign bearing the name of the city or town you happen to be in. The goal is to end up with at least 26 photographs – one for every letter of the alphabet – logging your travels. Some letters, obviously, are easier than others, Melissa said.
“We visited Fort Laramie – Eric’s family had visited when he was young, and we found Yoder and Veteran” on the map, she said. “‘Y’ and ‘V’ towns are difficult to find.”
On that same trip, they swung north to tiny Jay Em. By the time they finally found the post office to photograph themselves, they’d fallen in love with the community.
“We rode up here and something just grabbed us,” Melissa said. “We’re kind of these old, picture-how-it-used-to-
“At that same time, there was a ‘For Sale’ sign in the yard of this house,” she said. “We started having magical dreams.”
And those dreams are definitely coming to fruition. This tiny northern Goshen County community is home to Emmy’s Beads, the Nelson’s custom jewelry, beadwork and hand engraving business, run out of their central Jay Em home.
It’s definitely a challenge running a small, home-based business in a town without Internet. A good deal of their business is done via mail order.
“Thank goodness for the Post Office,” Melissa said. “There’s a lot of travel involved otherwise, which eats up a lot of time.”
Melissa specializes in high-end beadwork jewelry. This definitely is not the stuff you did at summer camp as a kid. She uses carefully cut and polished, semi-precious stones and, combined with Eric’s expertise in metalworking, silver- and gold-smithing and more, the couple create one-of-a-kind pieces.
Most of their sales now are through art and craft fairs around the country. They also do commissions, with Eric splitting his time between doing metalwork for Melissa’s creations and repairing, customizing and redesigning old jewelry for customers.
He remembers meeting one woman at a craft fair in Casper, who said she had a box of her mother’s old jewelry. It had great sentimental value to her, Eric said, but the style just wasn’t what she liked.
She returned with a large box filled with different pieces, Melissa said. It took about three years, but Eric re-mounted, redesigned and combined pieces to give her mother’s old jewelry new life.
Eric and Melissa met while they were both teaching in Independence, Mo. He taught high school industrial arts and Melissa taught middle school English. They shared a love of the outdoors, climbing, hiking and camping. But in the Kansas City area, there are a lot of miles to travel to pursue those activities.
“We went on a vacation to Custer, where we found a little climbing store,” Melissa said. “The couple that ran it were both teachers.
“We fell in love with the Custer area and it happened the school the couple taught at had an opening for an industrial arts teacher beginning in the fall,” she said. “That’s how we ended up in Custer and taught there for 22 years.”
Through it all, there’d been their crafting. And they tried just about everything, from knitting to doll house miniatures.
“We were always searching,” Eric said. “We’d go to a fair and see someone spinning and think, ‘Wow, that’s neat.’ But now we’re on a totally different level.”
They never really had the time to pursue their interests in the arts while they were full-time teachers. Now that they’re “semi-retired,” jewelry making has become their full-time job.
They didn’t really retire, though, they said. They just changed bosses.
“I read something a long time ago that said really creative people tend to go from one thing to another because they’re so adept at learning things,” Melissa said. “They achieve a level of mastery so quickly, then it’s no fun any more.
“But, with Eric’s hand-engraving and stone setting, it’s never ending,” she said. “I think Eric has struck on something now that’s really going to be long-term, because it’s so varied.”
And, on some level, there’s a sense of satisfaction to the work, seeing the look in a client’s eyes, after Eric has breathed new life into old or broken family heirlooms.
“I like getting a piece done,” he said. “If I can sell it, I don’t have any love lost, but I do have the money so I can make another one that isn’t like the one I just sold.
“That’s the final step in the creative process, having someone else say, ‘Yeah, good job. I’ll fork over my hard-earned money for something you’ve created,’” Eric said. “It’s the satisfaction of people who appreciate your work, what you do.”