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BUSINESS MONDAY: Spotlight on Cheshire Glassworks

In the heart of a quiet, small Berkshire town, this colorful and creative glass shop is turning up the heat.

“If you had told me then, that I was going to have a business doing what I do in Cheshire, I would have said ‘yeah, right.'” Jill Reynolds, local artist and owner of Cheshire Glassworks, laughs thinking about how far she’s come in the same town she grew up in. The glass shop sits nestled on South Street, just past the intersection of Route 8 in Cheshire, adorned by an array of flowers out front; an eye-catching storefront for anyone who passes by. Born and raised here, Jill knows this town well; “I’ve lived in the same area, the same two square miles, my whole life.”

In 1994, Jill began focusing on jewelry-making by creating hemp necklaces and a lot of macramé. “I loved going out and collecting beads, and finding different things to use,” Jill says. She’d always been captivated by the glassmaking process and was often inspired by artists’ work. “I had seen a couple of pieces that people had made that I was fascinated by, and I wanted to learn about how it was done. It’s so beautiful. So, when I was maybe 20, I took a two-day glass bead-making class down at IS183 in Stockbridge and learned the very basics of bead making. And I loved it. I wanted to make my own beads for my jewelry, so that was my motivation.”

Glass beads ready to be made into jewelry
An assortment of handmade beads, ready to be made into jewelry. Photo by Jill Reynolds

From bead making, Jill began creating anything she could at her bench. “What I do is called lampworking,” she explains. Her specific process of glassmaking involves using a torch, which is better for smaller sized pieces, as opposed to making larger pieces with different methods and a furnace. “When I took the class, it was a soft-glass class, which is a little bit different from what I do now with pendants. A lot of bead makers use a glass called moretti, a softer glass, and that’s what we learned with. But I knew right away I wanted to use the borosilicate glass, which is like Pyrex. That’s what my pendants are made out of.”

Glassworker with her torch
A closeup of Jill working on her torch

In 2006, Cheshire Glassworks opened its doors. Pendants of all colors, shapes, and metallic shimmers line the jewelry cases and shelves at the shop. She loves to incorporate other materials into the glass medium; for this October season, she is showcasing the month’s birthstone, opal, throughout some of her pieces. Alongside her regular pendant customization options, Jill also specializes in making memorial pendants and pieces that are customized by color, shape and size, and include a small amount of the ashes of a loved one, whether it’s a family member or furry friend, provided by the customer. This has proven to be a service much sought after in the Berkshires, as people are contacting her almost daily to place orders in honor of a cherished soul.

“I started making the memorial pendants probably six or seven years ago. Somebody asked me if I could make one and I wasn’t sure if I could or not, and I was a little bit, you know, weirded out by it. But I told her I would try because it’s important work, and it was important to her; the ashes were those of it her mother. I said I’d give it a shot, but only if she stayed there with me because the ashes are very sacred, so she hung out and watched me make it, and it came out really, really beautiful. And I figured out that I could do it.”

After this, word got out, and Jill found herself with more and more orders for memorial pieces. “At first I didn’t want to do a lot of them so I didn’t really advertise it all that much, but I didn’t need to because somehow people find me; almost every day I will get somebody in with an order.” Jill recently began officially advertising this service as part of her business and art practice. Expressing her gratitude for the community that trusts her to create such meaningful and special pieces, she says, “It’s nice, they really look forward to them, and they wear them every day. It’s special work. I feel privileged to be able to do it and to give people that little bit of peace.”

memorial pendant containing ashes as a memorial
Heart-shaped pendant that incorporates ashes for a customer. Photo by Jill Reynolds
Colored beads that contain ashes
Contrasting light and dark beads that contain ashes for a customer. Photo by Jill Reynolds

Inside the Cheshire Glassworks shop, alongside her pendants you will find a variety of Jill’s whimsical creations, from bowls of beads to vases, sun-catchers, and something she is especially excited about this time of year — Halloween and fall-themed miniatures, including some tiny pumpkins. “With my little torch, if I made one the size of a silver dollar, it would be huge!” Jill says, providing some insight as to the scale of her glass pumpkin production. “They’re the size of a quarter. And they’re so cute. The past couple of weekends I’ve been making those, and some little ghosts.” She also makes unique glass slugs, perfect for accessorizing your plant pots or bringing some new friends into your garden. “I’m making a living selling glass slugs in Cheshire,” she laughs. “That’s what I meant when I said I never thought I’d be doing this kind of thing.”

A lineup of tiny glass sculptures, including a pig, ghost, and pumpkin. Perfect fall friends for the home. Photo by Jill Reynolds

In preparation for the holiday season, Jill hopes to ramp up production of her glass Christmas tree ornaments — a popular product year after year, even causing some fuss in the store! “Two people came into the shop one day and they almost got into a little fight about the ornaments, because I didn’t have that many! I need more ornaments!”

A handmade tree ornament shining brightly in the shop lights. Photo by Jill Reynolds

Sometimes, she calls in her husband and production assistant, Jeff Reynolds, to help during the busy seasons. Jeff is also an experienced glass blower; he took a class through BCC about 20 years ago, in Sheffield. “He learned how to do big glass blowing with the furnace and big blow pipes. He loved it right away, and got really into it,” Jill recalls. “When I met him, I found out he made glass, too, but he had never used a torch, which is a little bit different. I taught him how to do that and he got really good really quickly, and now he loves it just as much as I do.” The couple loves to work together whenever they can, and pride themselves on their ability to work cohesively on projects and create interesting pieces together. Jeff is also a photographer, and some of his photos are available for purchase at Cheshire Glassworks.

With Jeff not always available to help, Jill has needed to figure out how to function as both sole employee and business owner. “Trying to do it all some days can be a challenge,” she says, “from the flowers out front to everything else that goes along with the business. Sometimes my inventory is low on certain things, or nonexistent, because there’s just not enough time in the day to make everything that I’d like to.” This is often a struggle for self-employed artists; from creating products, to advertising and keeping up an online presence, shop maintenance and customer service, even bookkeeping — all responsibilities fall into the hands of the artist/business owner. “I’m a shopkeeper, too. And I love that part, making sure my shop looks good and everything’s in order. But sometimes, organizing beads is like herding cats,” she laughs. She copes by focusing on small-scale production, both in product size and quantity, rather than on larger bulk production.

During the pandemic shutdown in March of 2020, Jill began an Etsy page for the shop, but hasn’t found much of a need to keep it up as the physical storefront provides a consistent customer base of locals as well as people new to, or just visiting, the Berkshires. “I wish I had more time and energy to put into the online stuff, but I put all of my time and energy into the store, and it doesn’t feel like work. The online stuff feels like work,” she explains. “Just having the shop and seeing customers, that’s what I love to do. I love having the in-person experience.”

Jill Reynolds at work on the torch. Photo by Jeff Reynolds

“Sometimes I can just work, which is awesome. Other times I’ll get interrupted all day, which is fine, too, because it’s all part of the business. But I love to be able just to start working on stuff; making the glass is so much fun. I love getting into the groove of making necklaces, bracelets; I’ll make a ton of beads, and then for the next week, I’ll just sit and make them into things. Earrings and all that stuff.”

Jill has a glass-blowing setup located inside her shop, providing an interesting view of creation versus final product and allowing the customer to get an idea of the complexity behind the process. She also has a torch at home, in an outdoor shed where she and her husband share a glass-making space to exercise their craft in their free time.

Given the kind of equipment and the environment needed to create glass pieces, the unforgiving Berkshire weather has an impact on Jill’s production capabilities, as well. Since glass needs to be created using a flame, it can get hot in the warmer months, and frigid out in the shed in the winter months. But while the temperature and the weather influences can be challenging, nothing gets in the way of doing what she loves. “Spring and fall are perfect,” she says. “But winter, forget it. I have a heated vest that I wear. And a heated pad that I stand on.”

But at the core of it all, Jill’s happy place is at her bench, on the torch.

Blue-, pink- and purple-toned beaded bracelet. Photo by Jill Reynolds
Pendant made with squiggly metallic design
A pendant made with squiggly metallic design. Photo by Jill Reynolds

 

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