As they tell it, James and Mary Lyons have always been collectors of broken gadgets. Coming from a painting and graphic-design background, the Lyons began designing steampunk jewelry full time in 2010. Today, the couple collects all sorts of things, like antique clocks, scattered game tiles, brass drawer handles, antique pins, and vacuum tubes from old-world amplifiers and radios and repurposes them into jewelry. The Lyons sell their upcycled pieces at events and festivals throughout Northern California, and at their online shops The Castle Walls and Steampunk Jewelry Company.
I can see steampunk being commoditized on a mass scale at places like Urban Outfitters or Forever 21.
James Lyons: It was really frustrating in the beginning, seeing people who have no interest in what steampunk represents mass producing a fake gear that’s supposed to look like something that came out of a working timepiece and selling it off as steampunk. We stand out because, we don’t cut corners. Our pieces are telling a story.
Why does steampunk’s mix of science-fiction and fantasy appeal to so many adults?
James: I think it’s the celebration of invention; kind of a mixture of old and new together—a collision. During the Victorian times, there was an aesthetic, a décor, a passion put into everything we built, so much so that we decorated our inventions. Steam-engine trains were decorated with embellishments and gold trim. It wasn’t just functional; it was a piece of art.
Mary Lyons: I’ve always been into that genre, the Victorian age and older things, castles, beautiful French furnishings—so it all kind of fell into place for me. All the pictures I would paint, draw, everything was kind of into The Castle Walls—that aesthetic. We just love old things. Our house is filled with old things. Even if it’s broken … it’s beautiful, and I don’t want it to go to waste.
Do you have any steampunk influences?
James: Oddities. Jules Verne is a perfect example. It’s me, because it’s antique science-fiction.
Mary: To me, it’s Queen Victoria. She’s my influence. I just adored her, because that kind of crossed both genres for me—the castle thing and the steampunk thing.
How did you start making jewelry?
James: My wife started making game-piece charms, and we started going to Second Saturday with just the game-piece charms. It got a huge response, and so we started experimenting with other media. I started working on clock parts and old jewelry.
Where do you get your raw materials?
Mary: Everything is secondhand. All the [game] tiles I use are secondhand. They’re from thrift stores, estate sales, yard sales, flea markets. We have vendors at flea markets who are looking out for stuff for us.
James: One of the rules that we have is, it has to be a broken timepiece. It’s about finding something that might end up in a landfill and making it useful again.
What are the best and worst media images of steampunk?
James: I don’t know if it’s necessarily steampunk, but the Victorian-era movies are really hot right now, like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I think one of the best has got to be Hugo. Worst is Cheap Thrills, the costume shop in Midtown. It’s kind of like how Hot Topic is punk rock.
Mary: And Evangeline’s. They’ve got all that mass-produced steampunk. … They’ve somehow turned goth into steampunk, and it’s all mass produced, and it’s all overdone. It’s like a comedy of steampunk.
Does it really bug you?
James: I guess I take it seriously because I grew up on science-fiction, so I have that science-fiction flair that goes all the way back to childhood. When you go in and can buy a cardboard top hat and you call it steampunk, it’s kind of sad.
Mary: He was really upset and pissed when we first went into Cheap Thrills. Not because they had it, but because they were charging so much for it. We try to keep it low. You want your art out there. You don’t want it to be so ridiculously high.
James: We’re making enough money to keep doing it and to support ourselves, but the truth is that if we raised our prices too high, people automatically love it, but can’t afford it. In this market, in this economy, that’s kind of why we got into it. My work being a painter, work is hard to come by, and so this was an opportunity for us to take control.
That’s the case you would make for people to buy artisan things?
James: Absolutely. It’s found art. It’s not just something that can be put into a mold or crust and then called “steampunk.” It may have something that stylizes steampunk, but it doesn’t have the identity.