Elentari Håndverk jewelry to tell your story
Traditional design with a modern Nordic twist
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
When Debra Carus was growing up, she always knew she wanted to be an artist—but she didn’t want to be a starving artist. Life took her on a detour, as she pursued a different education and career path. At the university, she studied anthropology with hopes of becoming a new Indiana Jones, and the practical side of her led Carus to pursue a business major. Then the two areas of study converged in a position at a bank, where she developed training and educational programs to help teams better work with each other. It was a great career, but after 30 years, she knew she had to return to her true calling to be an artist, and her company, Elentari Håndverk by Debra Carus, was born.
As the name would indicate, Elentari Håndverk has a strong connection to Norway. Carus’ great-grandparents immigrated from Hadeland to North Dakota via Canada and Minnesota in the 1870s. Her grandparents headed west and settled in Spokane, Wash., where she grew up. She lost her dad early on and grew up in a family headed by a single mom, in which her Norwegian-American grandparents played an important role. For all practical purposes, her grandmother brought her up, teaching her the family history, cooking, sewing, and all the practical skills needed by a young girl. Her grandfather was a woodcarver, who taught her an appreciation of his craft.
At that time, there was a huge Scandinavian community in Spokane, but Debra, like many immigrant children, didn’t learn the language of her grandparents. They wanted to assimilate, and they felt it was important for their children and grandchildren to become Americans, too. But this didn’t weaken Debra’s interest in the old county in any way, and she took a minor in Norwegian while at Portland University in Oregon.
Later on in the 1980s, Carus visited her ancestral home in Norway in Hadeland and Gudbransdal. She went to look for family, but, unfortunately, she didn’t find any relatives. In the days before Ancestry.com and other genealogical databases, this type of family detective work was considerably more difficult. Her family name, Dahlen, was extremely common, and there were hundreds of people with the same name in the phone book. Nonetheless, her interest is Norway was strengthened, and she left with the sense that she had finally come home.
Carus believes that with jewelry, people are often looking for meaning, much in the way that she sought her own family connections. Her jewelry is not just about adornment, it is about telling a story—and through her craft, she discovered her own story. She loved the intricacy of the silver sølje bunad jewelry that she inherited from her grandmother and wanted to learn about its history. She loved studying how it was made and why.
The artist began to study Norwegian books and learned that in Norway old pagan beliefs had been woven into bridal jewelry, and with time, she taught herself how to make it. Carus was very self-motivated, and she also put her own personality and creativity into her pieces. Typically, she doesn’t make specifically traditional patterns; her jewelry can be described as Nordic-inspired in line with the philosophy that every story is new and unique.
Her work can be described as modern, but it incorporates traditional decorative elements of Nordic design. “I make things that you can wear on other days than the 17th of May,” she says. She does a lot of custom work, listening to her clients’ stories and ideas—and she learns from them.
Viking motifs remain popular and figure strongly in Carus’ work. The artist see archetypical elements in the ancient designs, which gives them a timeless appeal across cultures. Viking, Celtic, and Gothic designs share recurring patterns, many of which predate the Viking era. For example, spiral designs relate to the night sky, how the stars move, the flow of the water, giving the jewelry designs a connection to the natural world. Because of these universal elements, Viking jewelry appeals to people of Nordic and non-Nordic affinities alike. You don’t have to have a Nordic background to be drawn to these prototypical jewelry designs, and Carus guesses that up to half of her clientele has no Nordic background at all.
In mythology, rings are highly symbolic and magical, and they constitute a large part of the artist’s work, especially during the wedding season. Runic designs are popular, as people as searching for “symbols of joy, love, home, and family.” She also does a lot of filigree work during the wedding season with necklaces and bracelets. “Weddings are a time when people connect with their heritage,” says Carus. At times, she will incorporate diamonds and gems into her custom wedding work, depending on a client’s own individual style.
Earrings and necklaces are very popular with brides, and Carus fashions them in sølje style with spoons made of silver and gold. At times, family gemstones are incorporated into the designs. Carus is particularly fond of the pink quartz stone thulite, the national stone of Norway. It is a semi-precious stone that she picks up on her travels there about every five years or so.
Oregon sunstone is very important for Carus’ Viking jewelry. It comes in all colors and has polarizing files. Used in navigation by the Vikings, when you hold it up to the sky, you can find the position of the sun. Sunstone was found in the northern regions of Scandinavia and Russia, and it happens to be the state stone of Oregon.
When Carus is not making jewelry for her customers, she can be found teaching workshops around the Pacific Northwest. Many of them are specific to Scandinavian-style jewelry. She usually teaches beginning-level metal working in three-hour sessions. Students can learn how to stamp their own custom rune design onto a ring or create charms with a Scandinavian symbol.
Other courses teach students how to make a Sámi-style bracelet, while learning about the Sámi culture.
More tools are needed for larger projects, requiring a large investment and do not lend themselves to the framework of a workshop.
The Elentari courses are offered by Nordia House and the Multanoma Arts Center in Portland and at the National Nordic Center in Seattle. Once a quarter, Carus also teaches courses about the runes for children at the Sons of Norway Grieg Lodge in Portland as part of “Viking adventure for kids” program there. During the pandemic, the courses are offered online on Zoom, with an outreach beyond the Pacific Northwest region.
The pandemic, without a doubt, has had its impact on Carus’ business. She is not able to attend the big Nordic festivals where she usually shows and sells her jewelry, but conversely, she has seen an uptick in her web sales. There are also noticeable differences in consumption. With online webinars, more earrings are being sold than rings and bracelets, as people are looking for ways to enhance their appearance onscreen.
“The trend is that people are looking for comfort,” she says. “Hygge, soothing repetitive patterns, soft colors, a lot of enamel work that looks like water and sky, a sense of calm an peace.” Carus is selling more jewelry with simple, clean lines, pieces that are “not too fussy.”
It is these timeless elements that make Carus’ jewelry so appealing, as she creates heirloom pieces for your Nordic family legacy.
To explore the collection of Elentari Håndverk Nordic artisan jewelry by Debra Carus, visit: elentarihandverk.patternbyetsy.com.
This article originally appeared in the March 12, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.