Gillian Preston of Broken Plates at Handmade Arcade in December 2019. Photo courtesy of Gillian Preston.
Glass artist Gillian Preston has a vision for her creative business, and she’s not letting the coronavirus quarantine get in the way.

Like all small business owners, Preston is feeling the impact. If things were normal, art lovers around the country would be browsing in museum gift shops and places like the Pittsburgh Glass Center, where they’d discover Preston’s striking, handmade jewelry. She’d be busy creating more necklaces, bracelet cuffs and pairs of earrings to sell at those shops and via Instagram (check out the discounted styles at her alternate page here) under her brand Broken Plates.

In fact, just before the quarantine began, Preston attended a trade show — something she does twice a year — where she secured a batch of new orders for her glass jewelry. Trade shows “dictate my income and what orders come in,” Preston explains. Many of those orders have now been delayed.

She sees this not as a stumbling block, but as a unique opportunity — to update her website with new photography and content and to learn new digital software skills while dreaming up new designs.

Glass jewelry by Gillian Preston of Broken Plates.

She’ll also continue the creative expansion she’s been planning for several years: With help from the craft business accelerator Monmade, Preston is branching out into the home goods market by making her own lighting.

Her creative process had already been evolving during the past two years. “I used to do imagery on glass. That was kind of the core of everything,” she says. “I would take the sample drawing, turn it into things and put it in a pendant or something.”

Eventually, she began working with manufactured sheet glass and art glass, which she cuts with a water jet “to create miniature sculptures that are kinetic and wearable.”

These necklaces and earrings catch the light dramatically — exactly the way you’d want a pendant light or chandelier to do.

Jewelry by Gillian Preston of Broken Plates.

Photo of Gillian Preston’s necklace courtesy of the maker.

So Preston began working with Monmade to create processes that are less labor-intensive and can be done on a larger scale. Working from digital designs, she’s now making 3D-printed steel molds that she can pour hot glass into, recreating the handmade look of the kinetic jewelry on a larger scale.

These pieces could be pendant lights or wall sconces, she says, or some sort of glass block architectural detail on a wall or a window.

I’ve always kind of been tempted to dabble in lighting,” Preston says. But when she experimented with a few handmade pieces, they had to be sold at higher prices and buyers visiting her table at a jewelry trade show weren’t the right audience.

With this new process that she doesn’t have to oversee directly, Preston is considering partnering with a local glass manufacturer to have them make the lighting pieces from her steel molds. They “can be made a little bit faster and at a cheaper price point,” she says, “while I continue working on my more hands-on work.”

As she works on these digital designs during this strange time of quarantine, Preston is also using this time to brainstorm about the future of the building she recently bought in McKees Rocks.

The purchase came up unexpectedly when the lease on the workshop she’d previously been renting wasn’t renewed. So when Monmade let her know about an available building in McKees Rocks — which was once home to the Suburban Gazette newspaper — she made an offer.

“I felt really lucky to purchase a building in a space where people weren’t buying yet. It seems like there’s a movement happening where artists are coming and finding affordable spaces within the area and hopefully it’s growing and changing and developing with us.”

The building offers Preston an expanded workshop space with room for a public gallery. She is considering turning that into a space where she can feature not just her own work but also the works of other Pittsburgh makers and artists.

Right now, the building still contains a wide array of vintage newspaper printing equipment and even old maps of Pittsburgh. “It’s really fun to move into a space that has a story,” Preston says. “When I have the time to devote to this building, it is going to be great.”

Melissa Rayworth

Kidsburgh Editor Melissa Rayworth specializes in stories about culture, gender, design and parenting. She has written for a variety of outlets in the U.S. and Asia, and is a frequent contributor to The...