Kaitlin Ryan’s polymer clay creations make for spunky statement jewelry
by Iza Wojciechowska
photography by Jill Knight
When Kaitlin Ryan’s oven is on, there aren’t any smells of bread or baked goods wafting through her downtown Raleigh apartment, but the anticipation is there nonetheless. When the timer goes off (15 or 30 minutes later, at 275 degrees), she pulls out a hot baking sheet stacked with perfect little balls of clay in bright colors—pink, mustard, royal blue—or else a neutral palette: jet black, stone gray, or a subtle mocha marbled with white. After they cool, she takes these beads, each with a hole through the middle, back into her second bedroom, which serves as her studio for Peppertrain, the jewelry business she started in 2014.
She strings the beads onto long leather cords, in unconventional arrangements. The Everyday necklace in the “Rosé All Day” colorway, for example, features two big beads, in millennial pink and gold, one smaller hot pink bead, and a small cylinder of copper pipe. The Sunday necklace in “Peacock” has one long, turquoise bead that hangs like a smile just below the clavicle. The chunky Bebe earrings have a sophisticated costume jewelry vibe. Colorful beads—big or small, spheres or discs—and metallic notions come together in a number of other eye-catching statement pieces. They are artful, yes, and also whimsical; and Ryan enjoys every minute of it. “It’s the color, to me, that’s so intriguing and the fun part about it. It takes me back to when I was a kid and I’d play with Play-Doh,” Ryan says. “I just sit down like I would with a canvas and just start making. The process is fun because it’s so free.”
Peppertrain is sold in 28 stores—primarily clothing and gift boutiques—across North Carolina, and a few out of state. But jewelry-making wasn’t always on Ryan’s mind, and the way she describes it, she’d have you think Peppertrain became an all-out success by accident.
Ryan, 33, moved to Raleigh from Wilmington to attend Meredith College, where she first studied interior design but graduated with a degree in fashion merchandising. After a stint working for Ann Taylor Loft in Washington, D.C., she moved back to Raleigh to run Raleigh Denim’s storefront, The Curatory. By that point her personal style had changed, she says, and she was in the market for new jewelry; she made a few pieces of her own, which she wore around the store and which received compliments. She’d never had any formal training in jewelry-making or done much art beyond some amateur painting, she says, but she was inspired by the creativity of Raleigh Denim’s owners, Victor Lytvinenko and Sarah Yarborough. Fortuitously picking up on her penchant for making, they gave her a box of craft supplies for Christmas in 2013, including spray paint and polymer clay.
“I went home and started playing around with the polymer clay and made some super-simple stuff and then started wearing it,” Ryan says, noting that she still uses some of those earliest beads in the jewelry she makes today. “Then I started getting feedback like, ‘Oh, you should sell it,’ and I was like, ‘Really?’”
She went for it. After setting up a table full of necklaces that summer at an annual pop-up sale hosted by Raleigh Denim, “it just kind of sprung from there,” Ryan says. She continued working at Raleigh Denim while making and selling necklaces on the side. Last year, she left to pursue Peppertrain full-time and now makes 200 to 300 pieces a month. Recently, she’s also begun including earrings in her lineup, ranging from disc studs to dangly squares and half-moons in Peppertrain’s characteristic color palettes.
“Kaitlin has exceptional style and a really great eye for color and shape,.” Yarborough says. “When she combines texture, color, form, and function, the result is elevated and polished, but still feels handmade. Peppertrain embraces the wabi-sabi I look for in almost everything I wear and that we stock at the Curatory. I smile every time I see a piece of her jewelry in the wild.”
While Ryan says she is most inspired by experimenting with color combinations, she also bases her designs on the kind of jewelry she herself wants to wear. And it turns out that her personal style resonates with a wide audience, with everyone from teenage girls to retirees finding something to love at Peppertrain. “Just adding a color can change who wants it,” Ryan says. “I love that. I think [Peppertrain’s customer] is somebody who doesn’t take themselves too seriously and likes something that’s fun and handmade, but also likes wearable art.”
Every Peppertrain bead is made by hand, by Ryan. As a result, each bead is unique, and no two necklaces are identical. For Ryan, each necklace or pair of earrings is its own little piece of art—and for her customers, that’s also part of the appeal. “There’s something exciting about touching each piece, and I think people really like that part too,” she says. “No matter how many I could make of a certain color or a color combination or a collection, they know that theirs is still individual.”
It also makes the jewelry endlessly customizable. And in fact, many Peppertrain pieces Ryan sells in one store differ from those sold in another or on Peppertrain’s website. For instance, Ryan works closely with Vert & Vogue, a clothing boutique in Durham. She caters the styles and colors of her jewelry there to the shop’s clothes, honing in on its customers’ aesthetic. “Peppertrain is eclectic, modern, and handmade—a perfect complement to our collection,” says Nadira Hurley, co-owner of Vert & Vogue.
With so much thought put into the jewelry, it’s no surprise that Peppertrain has taken off. And now that the company has morphed into a full-time enterprise, Ryan’s sights are set on expanding into more boutiques throughout the state and beyond, and elevating her marketing approach. But one thing that’s not likely to change soon are the beads themselves, made individually in Ryan’s spare bedroom and baked in her kitchen, a tried-and-true recipe.