11 Jul FEATURED ARTISAN – Paula and Robert Kahn (Chinquapin Designs)
Featured Artisan – July 2023
Paula Kahn, Chinquapin Designs / Washington County, VA
The handcrafted items from Chinquapin Designs are much more than a single piece of jewelry; they are part of a greater mission to raise awareness of a vanishing species.
As you buy products from Paula and Robert Kahn, you are adding an additional accessory to your wardrobe and supporting the restoration of chinquapins in central Appalachia.
The Kahns have been making chinquapin jewelry for more than two decades, carrying on a family legacy. Paula’s father was a schoolteacher who began raising and gifting chinquapins, the nuts from trees grown in Appalachia. The tree is a sister species to the American Chestnut, a tree endangered by blight.
“We are raising awareness of a vanishing species,” Paula said. “That’s why we do it.”
The Kahns plant their own Chinquapin trees to distribute their seeds for replanting and awareness purposes of the rare species, in addition to their jewelry business. Their educational component of their artwork helps teach children, college students, and adults about the history of the chinquapin and ongoing work of the American Chestnut Foundation.
Paula shared stories of growing up collecting chinquapins to eat or play. She referenced the game, ‘Jack in the Bush,’ where boys would often gather to bet on how many nuts another had collected. Girls, Paula said, would wear chinquapin necklaces.
‘If you got hungry, you’d eat your necklace,” Paula said, laughing. “That was our version of a candy necklace.”
The much more-elaborate jewelry the Kahns create now features other items to complement the nuts, including beads, gemstones, geodes, glass, metal, or bone. Oftentimes, the gemstones will come from ‘The Gem Capital of the World’ in their hometown of Franklin, North Carolina.
The Kahns will gather the seeds, boil them, dry them, and prepare them for decoration by drilling a hole through the nut to begin the process of making earrings, necklaces, and bracelets. The nuts are then separated by color, shape, and size to begin the design phase.
Paula said she and her husband are rare artisans in this type of work, citing the effort into harvesting and creating.
“If it was just for the sake of making jewelry, we wouldn’t do this,” Paula said. “I like the bigger message.”
The jewelry-making process is a hobby for the Kahns, who say they will often come home and create pieces together while watching sports.
Their Chinquapin Designs products can be found at The Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace in Abingdon, Virginia; the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Virginia; and Mossy Rock Home & Beauty in Franklin, North Carolina.