When Ashley Marie Manzo was a child, her father took her to Necromance, the Melrose Avenue store filled with specimen jars, bones and macabre trinkets. She loved it, but many years had passed before she visited the store again. Then, three years ago, she returned to the shop.
“I fell in love with it all over again,” says the up-and-coming artist from Boyle Heights.
Manzo bought a frog in a specimen jar and it launched an obsession. She began scouring swap meets and web stores for more animal remains. Now, the 21-year-old says she's acquired about 17 specimen jars, 30 skulls and 100 bones.
“Other people collect comic books,” says Manzo. “I collect skulls and bones.”
But Manzo does more than collect. Influenced by Victorian mourning jewelry, particularly hair art, she turns these relics into wearable art. Manzo's jewelry line, Taxidermy Her Bones, features teeth and bones inside cameo-style charms and skulls dangling from necklaces or perched atop hair pieces. Her work is more elegant than it is creepy. The jewelry is reflective of both Manzo's personal style and her other art, which includes collage, and which she documents on her blog, Marie's Cadaver.
While still a teenager, Manzo gravitated toward Gothic and Gothic Lolita fashion. Now, she describes her personal style as “antique,” inspired by the Victorian era, 1920s and porcelain dolls.
Manzo began making basic cameos about two years ago. Soon, she was modifying the designs with cutouts from the vintage medical books she picked up at thrift stores.
Eventually, she started working with the bones she has been collecting. Manzo doesn't clean the bones herself. She said she tried that once on a frog skull using dermestid beetles and it took about three weeks to get the bones.
Manzo prefers to work with smaller animals. She says that they're easier to work with and that the small skulls have a lot of nice details.
“With the smaller animals, not only do they fit into the cameo setting, but [they're] also more of a conversation piece,” she adds.
She also keeps her prices reasonable. Her Red Death Muskrat Skull necklace is listed at $25 on Etsy. A pair of earrings is much less than that.
“There are other designers out there and their designs are really beautiful, but really expensive,” says Manzo. “When I started making my own, I wanted to make it for people who were interested in that sort of artistic medium, but they could wear it without breaking the bank.”
Manzo sells her work primarily on Etsy and at artist events at South Pasadena antique shop the Curio Emporium. Last weekend, she was showing off her wares at the store when one of her pieces caught the attention of a little girl. The child asked her father if she was looking at teeth, Manzo recalls, and the father answered in the affirmative.
“The little girl gave me this really strange look that lasted for a couple seconds. So I turned to her and said, 'I'm the tooth fairy,'” Manzo says.
“She just had this blank stare, like, are you serious?” she continues. “The dad said, “Now you know what happens to all the teeth you lose.
“She was still in shock.”