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A Feeling in the Bones

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Setting a mood: Hickey and Peasant jewelry - BRIAN KALDORF

Never finding what you like can be a powerful boon to creativity. But then so can finding a skeleton on a railroad track, as Michael Hickey discovered on a train-hopping adventure in the summer of 2007.

"We found this dog skeleton on the track," recalls Hickey, 29, of Friendship. "It was complete, and bone-dry. It had been there for at least a decade. I took a tooth. We were in this house and I took a nail out of the wall, a hand-forged nail. There was a hole in the tooth so I stuck some twine through it and tied on the nail. People were like, 'That's pretty rad.'"

Hickey thought so too, and realized that he'd created something he'd been seeking for years. "I couldn't find anything that I could wear with [the clothes I liked] -- everything was shiny and tribal."

An L.A. designer came sort of close, once: "They made this antler charm ... it's manly and guy-ish but it's still ... shiny," he says. "I could totally come up with something better. Why not wear the antler, instead of the charm?"

Thus was born Peasant, Hickey's found-object jewelry line. The line was initially called Nale and Bone, after the components of his first necklace. But that too closely recalled the Christian-rock record label Tooth and Nail, and also hearkened to fashion line Rag and Bone, which makes workwear-inspired Americana pieces. So Hickey chose a different name, one that reflects the line's flashless appeal.

"I've always been into clothes, more avant-garde menswear," Hickey says. At a coffee-shop meeting, he's in a T-shirt and hoodie, but the hoodie's sleeves come to a point at his wrists instead of being cut straight across. They're emphasized with brassy buttons. The effect is understated, but details like this are what set good designs apart.

The same aesthetic is pretty clearly seen in Hickey's jewelry, which today includes a necklace of a cuckoo-clock chain, a tiny Sacred Heart of Jesus medallion, and what Hickey says is "some kind of rodent vertebrae."

A critical-care nurse by day, Hickey is a completely self-taught artist who uses strictly found objects in his necklaces and bracelets. He finds them mostly at flea markets.

"My mom and grandfather are super into antiques," he says. It's an interest he shares, along with a fascination for "primitives, odd objects."

Finding those objects isn't always easy. Flea markets are rare in winter, and at thrift stores, "all you can really come up with are chains." But Hickey finds caches by word of mouth, and after all, "This is a good area for weird community and junk stores."

Christian iconography appears time and time again in Peasant pieces. Deconstructed rosary beads, for example, appear frequently.

Don't mistake it for some grand statement for or against religion, though.

"I'm not religious at all, I wasn't raised in a religious family," he says. But religious objects "have the look -- old, something soulful going on. It works well with what I'm going for. I like darker, moodier stuff -- that's where the religious stuff comes through. I don't have a dark outlook on life. Religion is so old -- period -- it works."

He worried a bit about offending religious sensibilities, until some devout customers bought and loved the pieces.

The line is available at six boutiques in five cities. In Pittsburgh, you can find it at Jupe, on the South Side, and Pavement, in Lawrenceville. It's also sold at locations in Austin, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia, and some items are available at www.weareallpeasants.blogspot.com.

Hickey first approached Pavement in 2007, with stuff he says makes him cringe now -- a flattened baby spoon, a key ... things that were safer than his "gnarly" aesthetic. When he contacted the store a month later, it had all sold.

"I cater to those places," he says, and he customizes his wares accordingly. Jupe and Pavement get cuter stuff that makes use of advertising buttons from the '40s and '50s. The Cleveland boutique, the only menswear location he deals with, gets clunkier, more masculine pieces. The truly dark stuff goes to Austin.

"I do 100 percent consignment for everyone," Hickey says. "If it doesn't sell, I'll just take it apart and reuse it. It's a good way to learn from mistakes. Nothing was meant to be this in the first place."

And none of it's making him rich now

"It's not a money thing. It's a hobby," he says. "I'm lucky it sustains itself. I barely break even. I have a lifestyle this would never support." The average piece costs "like $70 or $80, which I don't think is bad for a one-of-a-kind handmade piece. I'd rather have less money and make it for kids like me."

He's even given away pieces on the road, to other folks who get his decaying Rust Belt skateboarding aesthetic. "I'd rather have people that want it wear it."

Hickey says he takes commissions, and some of the most successful have resulted from people mailing him a box of old memorabilia and doodads. If they don't like what he comes up with, it can all be broken down and reassembled. But whatever else it is, every piece is one-of-a-kind.

"I think that's why people like this stuff," Hickey reflects. "It's unique: 'No one else has this; it's mine.'"

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