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Our Pandemic Button Sorting Project

The Grandmother’s Buttons headquarters are located in a restored historic bank building in the tiny town of St. Francisville, Louisiana. A retail store and button museum occupy the first floor and our jewelry production studio is on the second. Our founder, Susan Davis, and our talented team of women designers, hand assemble over 30,000 pieces of jewelry annually in this studio.

There’s never a shortage of buttons to choose from when our designers are seeking inspiration. Susan frequently travels to hunt for buttons, and over the years she’s amassed a monumental archive. In fact, if you visit the studio, the first thing you’ll notice is buttons exploding from every surface, nook, crevice, and corner. Nobody knows how many buttons there are, but for sure there are tens of thousands and possibly over a hundred thousand.

There are three rooms used for designing in the Studio - a large common area, Susan’s office, and a corner room where all of the beads and vintage glass are stored. The general vibe of these spaces is best described as intensely chaotic, however, Susan assures us there’s a deeply hidden logic there that’s invisible to everyone except her. Other rooms include the sales and shipping rooms, Donny’s office, and the production studio in the old bank board room. These areas are tidy but everywhere is full to bursting with Susan’s button collection.

One of the questions that Susan is most often asked is “where do all the buttons come from?” The small Victorian buttons, which are the mainstay of our designs, come from collectors whom we’ve known for decades. We likely have over five thousand different designs of Victoria-era brass, steel, or glass buttons in our studio collection. 

Over the decades our designers have plucked out the most obviously lovely buttons to use in our jewelry and left the rest to gather dust on the shelf. Susan’s quarantine project is to sort through these abandoned buttons, some of which have been resting for decades in what we fondly refer to as our “button morgue”. She’s a bit obsessed actually. She’s emptying shoeboxes, combing through their contents, and excavating and distributing buttons into like-minded groups according to their materials and design. 

These previously ignored buttons are now resting comfortably in containers labeled stamped brass, cut steel, carved pearl, jet glass, pewter or Greek and Roman gods, Egyptian scenes, medieval heraldry, Asian stories, gardening, children’s stories, birds, dogs, garden tools, baskets, and historic couples. This week Susan proudly announced that there are only a dozen shoeboxes of morgue buttons left to sort.

Susan’s favorite Victorian buttons are the ones with insects on them. She says, “I’ve always marveled about the fact that a Victorian lady would choose to decorate her elegant gown with buttons emblazoned with a common housefly or a spider.” In terms of materials, her favorites are nineteenth-century carved pearl buttons. Many of these were made from now rare ocean shells whose luminous, iridescent quality can no longer be replicated. Susan found a few beautifully carved pearl buttons hidden in every box she sorted, so now we have a glorious collection we’re excited to release in a future limited-edition.

Susan says that her pandemic sorting has become a passion bordering on obsession. One of her favorite things to do is to spread buttons she’s already sorted (such as stamped brass half-inch in diameter) across her dining room table and look for pairs for earrings. It’s a great memory game.

One of Susan’s best pandemic button sorting finds is a box containing approximately fifty egg-shell thin glass ovals hand-painted with delightful spring wildflowers. Susan originally bought these from an antique store in the Czech Republic and is excited to feature them in a limited edition this summer.

There are also boxes upon boxes of beads, mostly sorted by color. There are new beads (only a few years old) and vintage beads (most dating from between 1930 and 1960). Some of the beads were new when Susan purchased them over thirty years ago and have since become vintage in our studio (just like many of us). 

Susan says, “I love being surrounded by a lot of texture and color. I’ve been obsessed with and daydreamed about gorgeous designs since I was a child. I remember the calicos in the flower garden quilt made by my great-grandmother that was on my childhood bed and the art deco florals in my mother’s college gowns that I used for dress-up play.”

At Grandmother’s Buttons, we love using historic props in our craft show booths, wholesale catalogs, and social media and website images because we’re inspired by historic design style. So our studio collection also includes items like books, mirrors, ribbons, boxes, frames, and plates.

It's a bonanza or a torment depending on your tolerance for clutter. Either way, the collection inspires inventiveness and originality and might be the secret sauce behind Grandmother’s Button’s success.

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