by Katie Navarra
With the purchase of his family's first horse, Robert Merkert of central Vermont expected hours of joy for his daughter, but it also led him to discover a hidden treasure.
"My daughter had taken lessons before the horse arrived, but we had never owned a horse of our own," Merkert said. The new horse had not received routine hoof care and required a visit from the farrier. "After the farrier came, I walked out to the shed to check everything out." A beam of light illuminated a hoof clipping, making it gleam. "I picked it up and brought it into the basement. I made the trimmings into a bracelet and gave it to my daughter as a gift," he explained.
Creating the bracelet was an extension of his passion for creating custom-made jewelry. He owns a casting machine, and casts gold and silver pieces in the basement of his home. "I would sell pieces to friends and family, and it just kind of snowballed from there," he said.
Eventually, he opened Dockside Jewelers in Whitehall, N.Y., and traveled to New York City to take diamond classes sponsored by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). "I am not a gemologist, but wanted to learn about diamonds and be able to grade them," he noted.
He thought of his daughter's "hoof trimmings" bracelet as a one-time creation. "When people saw the bracelet, they would approach me and say 'I want one,'" he recalled. He would accept the compliment and tell them it was not jewelry he offered for sale.
The power of persuasion
One afternoon a client sat down at a stool at the jewelry counter and refused to leave unless Merkert agreed to create a bracelet for her using the hoof trimmings from her family's beloved horse. The woman had endless stories about the elderly equine that had faithfully carried all members of the family throughout its life.
This convinced Merkert that he had an idea worth pursuing.
Merkert has since trademarked his work as Equinite gems. He uses hoof trimmings to create rings, necklaces, bracelets and other custom jewelry pieces. Horse hooves are as diverse as horses themselves. Some gems created from trimmings are a creamy white, others a dark brownish charcoal; still others are reddish. The uniqueness of each hoof allows for individuality in the pieces he creates.
"When I first discovered Equinite, I had made a few pieces and would carry them around in my pocket to show people," he explained. "I would say, 'Do you know what this is?' They would say hematite or jasper. I had to come up with a name that sounded like a mineral, but also that could be related to horses. Equinite just popped into my head because it designates that it is horse-related."
Using a proprietary process, the hoof clippings are sterilized, shaped and sealed. The stones are then placed into sterling silver, 14-karat or 18-karat fine jewelry settings. If clients are not ready to order a piece of jewelry, they are able to submit clippings and create a "file" for later use.
"We take great care in keeping track of the clippings. Custom Equinite items arrive with a certificate of authenticity that documents which horse's clippings were used for each item," Merkert explained. "Plus, we'll keep your horse's clippings on file so that you can always order additional pieces later, such as earrings to match a bracelet or pendant necklace."
Does Equinite smell?
Hoof clippings can smell terrible, but once they've been sterilized and processed, Equinite gems have no smell at all. Even dogs, who typically enjoy hoof trimmings as a treat, will not know it is a hoof clipping.
"Equinite is well-received among most people, but a few have the ick factor because it comes from smelly horse hooves," he said. "Nobody has an ick factor about pearls, and those come from smelly oysters."
Custom-created Equinite jewelry takes approximately three weeks for completion. Clients have requested gems made from the nails of other animals, such as dogs and cats. "Unfortunately, there's not enough material in dog or cat nails to create an Equinite gem. However, we have been asked to create jewelry from other mementos, such as teeth," he added.
Diamonds used to be a girl's best friend
Equinite gems can stand alone in a piece of jewelry, like a pendant or earrings, or be incorporated with other stones. Recently, Merkert created an engagement ring for a couple who shared a passion for all living things. The couple met while working at a zoo and later adopted a standardbred rescue mare, saving her from an unpleasant fate.
When the couple began to think about getting married, they knew they had to include their beloved mare, and what could be more special than making her part of an engagement ring? Equinite helped the couple create a custom, one-of-a-kind ring. The engagement ring is a constant reminder of the couple's little family and the special times they share.
Finding material can be difficult. "Horses that are trimmed every six to eight weeks leave very small pieces to work with, [and] sometimes there are cracks, nail holes and other imperfections in the hoof clipping. It is like working with wood; it can be knotty, you have to find the best grain," he explained. Merkert is always looking for hoof trimmings to work with. "People just throw it away, and to me it is a treasure," he concluded. For more information on Equinite, visit www.equinite.com
Katie Navarra is a freelance contributor based in Clifton Park, N.Y., and writes about agriculture and the equine industry regularly.
Photos courtesy of Robert Merkert.