An advertisement for jewelry centred on the basic bicycle form has led me to email the Harbourfront Centre. I may be a tomboy, but handmade jewelry is just the berries! Heather Rathbun responds immediately. She works at the Harbourfront Centre, widely recognized as the greatest opportunity for emerging artists.
Workspaces for textiles, glass, ceramics and metals fields line the east wall. There are windowed, floor-to-ceiling sliding doors that welcome curious pedestrians. I leave Miss Jackson at a lock-up on this wall. Heather’s workshop is at the end of an elevated hallway. To enter the work area, I must pass through a chain gate and descend a set of stairs. In the metals space are two very pretty women working determinedly away, in silence. Heather—surprisingly confident for her youth—is wearing a spectacular black dress that I might reserve for Christmas functions. She has long, auburn hair: I wonder how people resist burying their face in it, it is so beautiful.
Heather begins by telling me how she got into designing jewelry. “I haven’t any math or engineering training, but I’ve always been mechanically inclined. I tend to work on a visual level.”
“The burning question is, ‘Why bikes?’” I press. For Heather, bikes are a consistent thing. They have a functional quality that’s easy to work with, and the sprocket and roller combination is almost limitless. The idea of cycling is also inspiring. Unlike any other form of transportation, there is an immediate awareness because you can hear the chain move and feel the gears clicking into place.
When she first moved here from Halifax, she discovered an enthusiastic cycling community and what she describes as “accommodating aspects to the city”, like the BIXI program and the reassuring bike lanes. Heather begged her parents to bring her bike when they visited. When she had a brief moment of fear, one of her coworkers assured her. “Don’t worry! It’s just like learning to ride a bike!” For her first trip, she did what any sanguine woman would do: she took the bike shopping.
“Tell me about your bike!” I beg her.
She hesitates, embarrassed. “My bike has five speeds. And it stays on the lowest speed.” she grins. This charming woman, so technically precise and savvy, cannot tell me the bike brand.
“I have infinite respect for those who cycle here now,” she tells me. “I went from intimidated to exhilarated overnight, because in this town it’s easy to get over the fear.” Heather has also fallen in love with Toronto. “The landscape here is lovely, in its own way. There is something beautiful in this city. It has a cultural beauty that mirrors the aesthetic beauty of the landscape.”
Heather pulls out a jeweller’s board. Gently, she removes jewelry from small bags. Each piece is breath-takingly beautiful. One necklace has hollow sprockets, where the chain moves on a non-pulleyed mechanism. A brooch is shaped like a standard bike, down to the miniature lever—the pedal. Turning the lever moves the gears. Heather works in stainless steel, fourteen karat gold and silver.
Around her neck is a lovely Penny Farthing form—one small and one much larger spoked sprocket, each with its own pulley mechanism. A chain is threaded through the entire piece. There is no clasp. You hold a wheel and pull the chain to adjust its length. Her jewelry is meant to function when worn.
Each item is delicate, glamorous and stunningly attractive. You could wear these pieces with a t-shirt or against evening wear, as Heather has done.
We shake hands very warmly, and she treats me to one more of her warm, east coast smiles. I begin to leave by the stairs and through the chain guard, when she stops me.
“Oh! Unless you want to walk around, you can also go out that door.” She points to the floor-to-ceiling sliding doors, and I notice for the first time a windowed door inset into the wall. Staring in at us through the window is Miss Jackson, in her parking spot. Well, she is a girl.