EASTHAM — Kathleen Masterson-Lavalley doesn’t go to the beach for its waves or for its sunsets. Instead, her eyes sweep the sand for the perfect stones — flat, round ones are the ones for her. Some days, she drives from Eastham to her favorite secret spot in Truro where she finds entire stretches of the shoreline blanketed in blue-gray. Other days, in the same place, she encounters only a clean sheet of sand.
While the tide is fickle in what it delivers, Masterson-Lavalley’s process for selecting the stones she collects never changes. “I always pick each stone up individually,” she says. “I never scoop them.”
Individually choosing and handling the stones that she will make into pendants, bracelets, and earrings helps her feel connected to each piece she produces. “I think it is conveyed in the work,” she says.
When people buy a handcrafted piece, she adds, “They can tell if a lot of love goes into it.”
Masterson-Lavalley, 65, has been living in Eastham for over 30 years. For most of that time, she worked a classic Cape Cod career — waitressing, doing carpentry, and being a home health aide. Jewelry making was never her profession. Sixteen years ago, she drilled a hole in a stone and looped a cord through it to make a pendant. She has kept going since then, turning her search for the perfect beach stone into pieces that others want to collect.
“I started out with a little Dremel,” she says of her first drill, which was not made for stonework.
She kept at it, honing her skills, but going through several Dremels before she got professional tools.
She still makes simple pendants, but over the years she has found her way to more elaborate designs. One pendant she calls “the heart of the matter” is a large, circular hollowed stone with a cairn of smaller stones inside it, bound in sterling silver and wrapped with a leather cord.
In her home studio, an adorably cramped 5-by-7-foot room that also serves as her “vegan pantry and junk drawer,” Masterson sifts through a basket of the smallest stones, each one no larger than a fingernail, looking for a match to make into earrings. By now she knows just by look and feel which two will make a good pair.
As she works, she drops pairs of drilled stones into ice cube trays to keep them organized, a recently adopted innovation. “Then I stack each one on sterling silver wire, make a cairn, and twist them up.” The earrings sell for $36 and $38 on her website, while pendants range from $54 to $184.
Stones that don’t make the cut for jewelry go back to the beach, mostly. A few she finds a use for at her house — her front doorknob is made from a near-circular dark gray stone that shines because of its everyday contact with grasping palms.
Like other craftspeople, Masterson-Lavalley set up shop to sell her work at the Wellfleet OysterFest, the Chatham Art Fair, and the Harwich Cranberry Festival. “Then the pandemic hit,” she says, and suddenly there were no shows. Her business is still recovering, she says. Last month, she had an order for 150 pendants and 50 pairs of earrings from a vendor in Jersey City — that’s about two weeks of collecting, drilling, stacking, and looping.
When asked if there’s such a thing as a perfect beach stone, she immediately says yes and begins to rifle through her basket for an example. Then, after a pause, she reconsiders. “When it’s a beach stone,” she says, “do you really want perfect?”