When High Tide Beads opened at 52 Calhoun St. in late September, it was something of a homecoming for owners Steve and Kathleen Mardell.
Though the two met on Hilton Head Island in the mid-1990s, and opened their first bead store there in 1997, the couple has lived in Bluffton for a number of years.
This store, though much smaller than the previous one in the Village Exchange on the island’s south end, seems to fit perfectly with Old Town’s eclectic flavor. The walls are covered with bright, sparkly strands of beads, with wooden bowls on a shelf holding stone bead treasures.
Mid-century modern touches, a nod to Kathleen’s penchant for all things vintage, are visible here and there.
It might look as if they have been at this for quite a while. And that’s because they have.
“We opened a small shop on the island in 1997, selling handmade hemp necklaces created from a bead collection which we carried in a vintage metal lunchbox,” Steve Mardell said. “We traveled around
the country in a Volkswagen bus to music and art festivals, selling our hemp jewelry and accessories, all the while buying and selling artisan beads and strands of beads from around the world.”
They opened a second shop – a seasonal kiosk at Coligny Plaza – in 2000. That was when the popularity of the beads “exploded,” Mardell said. “We began creating beautiful jewelry from freshwater pearls, gems, and many other fine materials. There was no turning back. We expanded into a larger year-round bead store, started working in vintage jewelry, and began creating the glass, stone and metal studio you see today!”
The beads for sale in the store come from “all over the world,” Mardell said. “We have beads and gems from Japan, Ghana and West Africa, Java, India, Czech Republic, Brazil, United States, China, Australia – and the list goes on! Some are handmade, some are grown, some are mined, but they are all chosen by us for their beauty or the interesting story they tell.”
Mardell said it was a natural progression for him to become interested in beads, as he had long been fascinated with rocks and minerals growing up in Northern Michigan. “We collected Petoskey stones at the beach in Michigan, and polished them to highlight the Patterns,” he said. “As kids, my brother and I sold them to tourists.”
Mardell took classes in high school and college for jewelry making, casting and metalsmithing, with an art-based focus. “I completed a commercial art and drafting program at a vocational school where my design submission was selected for The Cherry Festival (of Traverse City) logo and poster,” he said. “The win provided me with a small scholarship, which I used to further my art courses.”
Throughout her childhood, Kathleen had taken art classes at the Toledo Museum of Art which, in retrospect, were quite influential. Spending time surrounded by fine works of art from ancient to modern left a strong impression on her.
Once the two met up, and recognized a shared love for travel, “Kathy and I gravitated towards jewelry as a portable medium, easy to create wherever (we) may be,” Mardell said. “In our travels, we were influenced by artists – whether well-known or young street artists, architectural forms created by man and nature, cultural designs, and the raw natural materials we collected, which differ in every state and region.”
Though beads are a staple of the shop, there are lots of other jewelry options available. Kathleen, who has completed jewelry professional courses with the Gemological Institute of America, enjoys finding and researching vintage jewelry. “Our vintage selection has grown over the past few years,” Mardell said. They also carry hats, handbags and other vintage accessories that Kathleen finds.
Mardell said “shaping glass came naturally to me,” and he has continued to learn and develop lampworked glass bead techniques over the years. He primarily makes pendants and earrings with those beads.
Mardell also repairs older and broken pieces, and especially enjoys an opportunity to redesign or “upcycle” an old piece of jewelry. “We have old and new findings, we knot pearls, replace stones – I have even repaired Victorian hair jewelry!” he said. With his wide range of skills and tools, Mardell said their repair work ranges from minor adjustments to completely reworking an heirloom.
In addition, “We buy and consign vintage and estate jewelry,” Mardell said. “Let us take a look before you toss that old costume jewelry!”
Though the pandemic has been tough on the business, “we have been through tough times before,” Mardell said. “We are adapting and doing what we can to keep ourselves and others safe, while making the new shop work. … We are grateful to have the new location, where we can throw both doors open and have fresh air and sunshine.”