Ask and you shall receive. That’s the takeaway from our call to makers for the first-ever Made in C-VILLE contest. We wanted goods conceived and manufactured in Charlottesville, and you brought lampshades, cupcakes, coasters, sandals, knives and knick-knacks with undeniable charm. And while our judges were required to narrow it down to nine top choices—a winner, runner-up and honorable mention in the categories of Home & Craft, Style and Food & Drink—the resulting list celebrates the creators, handcrafters, innovators and tastemakers who give Charlottesville so much to be proud of, from wearable art to whiskey. Give ’em a hand.
By Samantha Baars, Jessica Luck, Erin O’Hare and Caite White
HOME & CRAFT
Winner: Rockbridge Guitar Company
Custom guitar | Brazilian rosewood, cedar, mahogany, ebony, koa, abalone; custom inlay of shell, wood, stone and metal
Pick it out
When Brian Calhoun and Brennan Gilmore were teenagers in Rockbridge County, they visited Randall Ray’s place in a nearby holler to play music. The three of them sat on plastic buckets in Ray’s workshop and picked bluegrass tunes on their instruments. “It was a teeny workshop; you could barely turn around in it,” Gilmore remembers. Ray was a bit older than Calhoun and Gilmore, and while Gilmore preferred to focus on the music, Calhoun, who’d built a couple of mandolins and a violin, was more intrigued by the guitars Ray built in that teeny workshop.
After high school, Calhoun attended Berklee College of Music in Boston for a bit before returning to Rockbridge County to refocus and figure out what he “really” wanted to do. He began doing custom inlay work for Stelling Banjos and started hanging out in Ray’s workshop again.
Calhoun and Ray decided to build a couple of guitars together, “and they were just great,” Calhoun says. In 2002, they founded Rockbridge Guitar Company, making custom acoustic guitars by hand and bringing them around to shows for musicians to try out. Rockbridge County folk music legend Larry Keel was one of their first customers.
Word started to get around, their customer base expanded and, a few years ago, they moved most of the Rockbridge operation to a house on High Street in downtown Charlottesville (Ray still works out of his holler workshop), and brought two more luthiers—Adam McNeil and Jake Hopping—on board.
Plenty of luthiers (builders of stringed instruments) are known for their copies of sought-after vintage guitars, but that’s not Rockbridge’s modus operandi; Rockbridge instruments are all unique designs. “If our goal was to make an exact copy, then there would always be that real guitar out there, and that’s what they really want. And then, what’s the point?” says Calhoun.
So when a musician wants a Rockbridge guitar, Calhoun will have her play instruments of different sizes, scales and woods, to help deduce what combination of features would make for her ideal guitar.
Sound is a guitar’s paramount feature, and the two main determinants of a guitar’s sound are its body size and shape, and the wood from which it’s made. Four guitars of four different sizes/shapes all made from the same wood will each sound different, just as four guitars of the same sizes/shapes made in four different woods will each sound different. Rockbridge luthiers consider all of this—and much more—when building one of their instruments, which start at about $5,000 base price and take months and many steps to complete.
There are numerous differences between small shops like Rockbridge, where four guys make between 50 and 60 guitars a year, and big-name brands like C.F. Martin & Co. and Gibson, which factory produce hundreds, even thousands, of guitars almost daily. One of those differences is attention to detail, Calhoun says.
Mass-produced guitars are often made according to a set of predetermined materials and measurements. Five hundred pieces of mahogany might be sanded to the same thickness, but each piece is unique, and those small differences affect the overall sound of a guitar. It’s how two guitars of the same model can feel quite different, despite being made to the same specifications.
The four Rockbridge luthiers treat each piece of wood individually—if one piece of mahogany feels a bit floppy, they can leave it thick; if another piece feels stiff, they can sand it down a little more. It’s the sort of fine-tuning that often contributes positively to an instrument’s sound and feel.
The judge says…
“This guitar represents the best combination of a luthier’s skills and the imaginative inlaid design. Rockbridge guitars are internationally famous for their sound and played by many well-known musicians.” KEN FARMER
“I would never say our guitar is ‘better’ than the next guitar, it’s just different,” says Calhoun. For many musicians, their instrument becomes so much a part of their sound, their persona—think Willie Nelson’s Martin N-20, named Trigger, and Woody Guthrie’s “This machine kills fascists” Gibson L-0—and for some artists, a Rockbridge might be that instrument.
Rockbridge’s customer list will leave you starstruck. They’ve made guitars for international performers Dave Matthews, Keith Urban, Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi and Warren Haynes, among others, and for local celebs like Michael Coleman and Peyton Tochterman. They also build for collectors, studio musicians and producers, and for many other hobby and working musicians who passionately write, perform and record, and teach music lessons regularly.
For Gilmore, Ray and Calhoun’s childhood friend, who owns the 34th guitar Rockbridge ever built, there’s something special about playing a locally made instrument. “I strongly, strongly believe in the power of community in music,” he says, and playing music with your neighbors, on a great-sounding, locally made instrument—and one made by a close friend at that? Well, there’s nothing quite like it.
FIND IT rockbridgeguitar.com
Runner-up: Brian Rayner
Rietveld chair | Cherry, walnut, notched joints
Sit on this
Perhaps you’ve heard of the famous Red and Blue Chair, influenced by the style of Piet Mondrian and designed by Gerrit Rietveld in 1917 during the De Stijl art movement? If you haven’t, let us fill you in—it looks a lot like this one, built by self-taught craftsman of 30 years, Brian Rayner, who has made three others just like it.
Because of his longtime interest in Mondrian and “the difficulty, yet simplicity” of Rietveld’s piece, Rayner says he was keen on remaking the throne.
The judge says…
“I love the fact that this classic design is so well made and features walnut and cherry hardwoods from America. This is a timeless object that you’ll never grow tired of looking at.” KEN FARMER
He calls the original work, with its red backrest, blue seat and black arms and legs with bright yellow tips, both “shocking and unique.” His more modest recreation—just as beautiful but likely more suitable for the average home—features a cherry back and bottom with struts built of walnut—two woods Rayner works with primarily.
No blueprints or instructions were used in the making. Rayner eyeballed it, he says, by looking at a photo of the famous chair in a book, comparing the angles and dimensions, and multiplying for scale. And while Rietveld assembled his masterpiece with dowels, Rayner notched his to make a better, stronger joint.
“I won’t make any more of those,” he says, and laughs, noting that each of the four chairs took him about 40 hours to build. The last is still for sale—wink, wink.
FIND IT brian-rayner.com
Honorable mention: Monolith Knives
Custom knife | Stainless steel, carbon or custom metal
Zack Worrell, owner of Monolith Knives, holds the handle of a knife body that has been shined to a mirror polish and dips it into a tall white tube of ferric chloride. He keeps the knife, which started as a piece of billet—a bar of steel from which knives are cut—in the solution for about 10 seconds, then immediately runs it under cool water. He lays the knife across both of his hands and holds it out to show the swirly Damascus pattern that now covers the blade after it’s been etched in acid.
“So cool, right?” he says. Way cool. Worrell, an artist-turned-furniture-maker, got into knife-making about four years ago. He grew up in a family of hunters, cattle-raisers and artists, who all helped shape his love of design and craftsmanship.
“Knife-making came to me accidentally,” he says. “It’s something I experimented with and found it was exciting, offered new possibilities of a way to take design, my love of making, and be able to harness them into basically making tools that are functional art.”
The judge says…
“From the artfully designed handles to the painstakingly forged blades, this is an instant family heirloom. The blade reminds me of an ancient samurai sword.” KEN FARMER
Today, the team of three makers at Monolith produces 250 knives—both spec and custom knives in the culinary and sport-and-field markets—a year. One of Worrell’s favorite parts of the job is having a customer come into the studio and work with the team on everything from the blade (stainless steel, carbon or custom metal forged using car parts from a 1967 Mustang, for instance) and handle (wood and fabrics, such as a baby blanket, are both options) to the design: a full tang blade made in a French/German profile but with an Asian-style handle, perhaps? Each knife is handmade in the Monolith studio, from drawing a template onto a bar of steel, hand-cutting the knife using a cutting wheel, grinding the blade, hardening the steel overnight in a kiln, tempering the blade to the correct flexibility level in a toaster and finally attaching the handle.
One Monolith customer has had three different knives made for her but she’s still not 100 percent satisfied so they are continuing to work with her until it’s exactly right.
“These are tools that are a direct extension of the human body,” Worrell says. “For us it’s important that it’s right or it’s not right—it’s black or white that way.”
FIND IT monstu.com
MEET THE JUDGE: Ken Farmer (Home & Craft)
Farmer, a personal properties appraiser based in Albemarle, has appeared on every season of “Antiques Roadshow” since it started in 1997. The former Sotheby’s associate and founder of two auction houses specializes in folk art, furniture, decorative arts and musical instruments.
Winner: Formia Design
Keepsake jewelry | Silver, titanium or gold; child’s original drawing
It was only by chance that Mia van Beek started making jewelry. As a kid in Sweden, she figured she’d grow up to work in a bank. But after flipping on the TV one day, she tuned in to a documentary about jewelry making and was captivated by the process. She started looking for gymnasium (secondary school) jewelry making and metalsmithing programs. She applied but landed on the waitlist. Two weeks before school started, van Beek got the call: She was in.
“It turned out to be a really good fit,” she says. By the time she was 16, in 1992, she’d earned her goldsmithing diploma. After a few years’ work and more training, in 1996 van Beek became Sweden’s youngest female goldsmith master.
She started Formia Design while still living in Sweden and brought the business with her when she moved to Charlottesville (and had to work through a long process of converting all of her metric system measurements to the United States’ system of weights and measures).
The judge says…
“Mia van Beek gives us what many parents want: a way to memorialize their child’s expressions of the world. I love that the artwork was translated in a manner that isn’t cutesy or overtly sweet or sappy.” AMY GARDNER
Van Beek has decades of jewelry-making experience, crafting engagement and wedding rings, custom-made earrings and pendants and more, all in her Woolen Mills studio. She also translates kids’ designs into jewelry.
The idea began when her daughter wanted to give a gift to her preschool teacher. “Draw Ms. Sharon a pair of earrings,” van Beek told her daughter. She did, and van Beek took the drawings and made them into earrings. Both van Beek’s daughter and Ms. Sharon loved them, and a new Formia endeavor was born.
Customers can send in a drawing—stick figures, dragonflies, giraffes, anything—and decide what type of jewelry they want—a lapel pin, a pendant necklace, a charm bracelet, a pair of earrings, etc., ranging from about $130 to $800, with most pieces in the $200 to $300 range—and van Beek will size the drawing according to the type of jewelry requested and translate it in the customer’s metal of choice (silver, titanium, gold). She cuts every piece by hand, using tiny hand saws, because laser cutters too easily strip away a drawing’s personality—it’s important to keep hesitant smiles and googly eyes and big teeth sticking out every which way, because that’s the way the child expressed herself.
“The wonder of the drawings we get in is so amazing,” says van Beek. “A self-portrait of a 4-year-old is a stick figure. But all the stick figures are so different. …It’s about staying true to the drawing while at the same time creating something that looks nice.”
So much has been forgotten and left behind in the mass production of things, says van Beek. Mass production cuts out the artisan-customer community relationship, and a substantial amount of sentimentality, out of the equation. She enjoys making custom jewelry with input from those who will give and wear it.
It’s a very moving thing, she says, that parents often come back year after year to add to their child-designed jewelry collection. More than once, van Beek has received orders from parents whose child has passed, and they ask that she translate their child’s last drawing into something that’ll last for years, something they can literally wear close to their heart.
“Jewelry is not just art. It’s a function,” says van Beek. It means something, and for her, few things are better than the technical process of creating something that lasts so long. “It’s not like I’m creating something in layout on paper and then it’s gone, or a file in the computer and then it disappears,” she says. “I’m creating lifelong memories.”
FIND IT formiadesign.com
Earrings | Titanium, sterling silver, citrine stones
First, she designs them on paper. Then, with a jeweler’s saw, she carefully cuts the shapes out of a titanium sheet. She hammers texture into the metal and stamps the grooved section using a variety of chasing tools. This is just the beginning of handcrafting a pair of earrings, according to Tavia Brown, founder of Taviametal, who spends between three and four hours on each pair.
The judge says…
“Every single part of these earrings has been carefully crafted by hand and thoughtfully designed. They have movement, fine detailing and a lovely texture. They’re so well made that the back is as beautiful as the front.” AMY GARDNER
“Seeing them come together in the final stages” is her favorite part of the process, she says. An incomparable feeling: “Being able to see the final piece next to my sketch.”
To create the settings, she melts sterling silver into balls and hammers them flat. She solders the settings to sterling back plates that she then rivets onto the titanium. Next comes the placement of the ear wires, and she uses her torch to blaze a patina of color to the titanium. She bends the wires to shape, tumbles the earrings and sets the stones by slowly hammering the sterling silver bezel walls over the stone’s edge—in this case, a citrine.
Earrings like this run in the $295 to $450 price range, depending on stones, materials and intricacy of details, says the business owner of 16 years, who has been in the field for nearly 20. Brown pursued fine art and craft classes throughout her childhood and higher education, eventually landing a job as a bench jeweler after graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree in metals.
“What has kept me in the field for so long is that this is my art,” says Brown. “My pieces reflect who I am—my voice, my vision.”
FIND IT taviametal.com
Honorable mention: Mi Ossa
Leather clutch purse | Vegetable-tanned leather, bronze serpent closure
Here’s a clutch with a conscience: While most leather is tanned with chromium—one of the world’s most potent toxins—Mi Ossa co-owner Shannon Worrell says the pieces she designs with business partner Nora Brookfield are vegetable-tanned, an older, much more environmentally friendly method.
The judge says…
“The proportions are perfect and with bridle leather, the bag will only get better with age and wear. The case bronze serpent adds a nice weight, and the bright blue interior keeps the bag from being too serious.” AMY GARDNER
Hand-stitched and fabricated by Rebecca Perea-Kane, the artisan behind all of Mi Ossa’s leather work, the clutch features a sinister bronze serpent closure created by local painter Clay Witt. The bag, which is available at the studio’s showroom on 10th Street and at Eloise on West Main, is part of an exclusive line influenced by Witt, says Worrell.
It’s a true collaboration of Charlottesville talent from its design to its making, and for a night out on the town, it’s clutch.
FIND IT miossa.com
Form and function are the guiding principles for Gardner, who, after graduating from architecture school, opened Scarpa in 1994. She’s been steering the style of local women, feet first, ever since, recently expanding her Barracks Road shoe store to include apparel and accessories.
FOOD & DRINK
Winner: Cocoa & Spice
Dark chocolate salted caramel candy | Liquid caramel, tempered European chocolate, gold cocoa butter
…And everything nice
Jennifer Mowad’s favorite holiday has always been Valentine’s Day. Not for the saccharine declarations of affection written on pink and red cards, but because the Hallmark holiday is a harbinger for the best day of the year: February 15, half-price heart-shaped candy day.
When Mowad was a kid, she and her mother would agree not to buy Valentine’s treats ahead of time, and every February 15, they’d hop in the car and drive around their New Jersey town, buying up all the discounted candy. Mowad says there’s something about the heart-shaped boxes and Reese’s peanut butter candies that tugged at her heartstrings.
Throughout her 20s, any time Mowad was stressed about school or work, she’d buy a book about chocolate, and she worked up a small library by the time she quit her traditional 9-to-5 job with the Semester at Sea program in 2013 to become a chocolatier. She found the courage to do so after overcoming non-Hodgkin lymphoma, she says; if she could survive cancer, she could certainly turn her peanut butter cup- and truffle-making hobby into a business.
So in 2015, after taking an online chocolates course and completing an apprenticeship with East Van Roasters, a Vancouver charity-focused bean-to-bar chocolate shop and coffee roaster, Mowad wheeled a cart full of handmade chocolates from her apartment behind the Lucky Seven convenience store to the Downtown Mall and began Cocoa & Spice.
The judge says…
“My notes from the initial tasting are, beautiful, sensuous, perfect balance, irresistible, elegant and subtle.” MARTHA STAFFORD
In the years since, she’s been a regular vendor at the City Market, Sprint Pavilion’s Fridays After Five and Cville Pride Festival, and is a partner in the Crozet Artisan Depot and was recently juried into C’ville Arts on the Downtown Mall. This past April, Mowad opened a brick-and-mortar storefront and kitchen at 506 Stewart St. The spot is full of tubs of dark, milk and white chocolate discs, containers of spices and seasonings like lavender, pink peppercorns and chipotle chiles, KitchenAid mixers, two ovens, refrigerators and, of course, display cases of treats.
Customers happily gobble up Cocoa & Spice triple chocolate-chunk brownies, rainbow fudge, beer toffee pretzel bark and more, including the dark chocolate salted caramel candies, our first-place winners.
Mowad got the idea for that particular candy after a visit to Piece, Love & Chocolate in Boulder, Colorado, where she tasted a liquid caramel that she wanted to replicate…and combine with chocolate. After all, candy-making isn’t just about skill and knowledge (though it requires a lot of both); it’s about imagination and vision.
The dark chocolate salted caramel candy takes about two days to make. To begin, Mowad makes a salted caramel sauce and tempers high-quality chocolate that she purchases from Europe—tempering, a heating and liquefying process, gives chocolate a glossy, smooth, evenly-colored appearance and a satisfying snap—in order to make a chocolate shell. Using a paintbrush, she swirls a wisp of melted gold-colored cocoa butter into the small, still-empty domes of a polycarbonate plastic mold. Once the cocoa butter dries, Mowad ladles tempered chocolate into the mold, then tips it upside down to drip away excess chocolate—properly tempered chocolate dries quickly and sticks to the side of the mold—and thereby creates a chocolate shell.
Next, Mowad pipes salted caramel into the hollow chocolate shells still in the mold, leaving a small lip at the top, and lets the whole thing sit overnight.
Finally, she ladles tempered chocolate over the caramel-filled shells and uses a scraper to remove excess chocolate from the surface of the mold and refrigerates them overnight once more. When chocolate cools, it contracts, and a swift tap of the mold on the table releases the golden swirl-topped treats for packaging (or sampling, depending on one’s level of self-control).
Mowad says the Charlottesville community influences her business in many ways—many of her customers are local, she frequently fundraises for area causes, and she gets lots of volunteer help from friends, the Charlottesville Derby Dames in particular (Mowad is a Dames bench manager). Mowad is deeply moved by that generosity, and says that when someone lends a hand, she’s not likely to put them on dish duty. She’ll let them do the fun stuff, like piping caramel or dipping things—some of which are heart-shaped—in chocolate.
FIND IT cocoaandspice.com
Runner-up: Spirit Lab Distilling
Single malt whiskey | 100 percent barley malt
Find the bright red door, now look up. Higher…higher…now you see it—the small black and white sign telling you you’ve found Spirit Lab Distilling. The company, owned by husband and wife Ivar Aass and Sarah Barrett, has done little marketing—and that’s a good thing. The distillery, which began five years ago when the couple moved to Charlottesville from their 275-square-foot New York City apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, just began bottling its first product last year. The initial 94 bottles of their hand-labeled single malt whiskey were released in December 2016, and their second batch, aged slightly longer than the original batch’s 16 months, was just bottled in September.
“You’re getting something special, which is kind of what I like about everything in this town,” Aass says. “It’s just like a little gem, all these innovative little companies doing cool things.”
The company’s core product (Aass has also made amaro—an herbal liqueur made out of pawpaw fruit—and is in the process of making rum, limoncello and passion fruit liqueur) is a single malt whiskey made of 100 percent barley malt, with the DNA of both an American whiskey and Scottish whiskey. Aass previously worked for a wine and spirits importer and developed a taste for Scottish whiskies that had nice length–a term you generally hear in regards to wine. The only problem when he started making his own whiskey? There was no recipe—developing his brand has been a lot of trial and error, and tasting.
The judge says…
“A rich, full-bodied whiskey filled with complex fruity, spicy and nutty flavors and aromas. A carefully crafted luxurious treat to be savored.” MARTHA STAFFORD
His production facility in a warehouse on Sixth Street SE houses his solera system, which uses a three-barrel system to age the whiskey after it’s been fermented and distilled twice in a large copper pot—the star of the show. When a batch is ready to bottle, he removes a third of it (20 gallons) from the big used wine barrel and adds water to get it to the correct alcohol percentage—then he transfers whiskey from the second barrel into the third barrel; whiskey from the first into the second; and newly distilled whiskey goes in the first barrel. This system means each batch has some of the same whiskey in it, ensuring a consistent product but allowing for nuances.
The second batch is less smoky than the first, and has a higher alcohol percentage (47.5 compared with 46). Aass says every batch will range from 46 (the base for a good whiskey) up to 50—it’s all about taste.
“We’re making a good quality product,” Aass says. “Something small and discreet but that’s kind of who we are. We’re making something good and if you know about us, that’s great.”
FIND IT spiritlabdistilling.com
Honorable mention: Sol Bakery
Dark chocolate cupcake | Horton Vineyards red wine, chocolate ganache, raspberry buttercream frosting
The art of baking
Sally Berger’s passion for baking was a happy accident. Berger doesn’t cook, and she recruited a friend to make a birthday cake for her then-3-year-old son (he requested Mickey Mouse) and found she loved the artistic part of decorating—it was her first time working with fondant. Now, six years later, she makes her own fondant and has found her sweet spot with cakes, cookies and cupcakes. She loves creating individual masterpieces that allow her creativity to shine, which could include anything from cupcakes topped with sculpted dogwood flowers made out of white chocolate and royal icing to a replica of Monticello and its tulips.
“Giving something to someone and having them smile about it, it’s like a self-satisfaction,” Berger says. “I’m doing something for someone else that makes you feel good, but I’m making art, really.”
Berger, who went to art school, says she enters a zen-like zone when baking. But she does a ton of prep work: Before stepping into the kitchen she researches new methods she wants to try and searches for inspiration for the perfect ingredients and design. Although her business is still small (she gets many orders through colleagues at Baker-Butler Elementary and has a booth at the City Market), she envisions it growing to become a brick-and-mortar shop one day where her husband, Dave, can also follow his passion of owning a breakfast/lunch spot.
FIND IT @solbakery_cville on Instagram
MEET THE JUDGE: Martha Stafford (Food & Drink)
A graduate and former instructor at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School (now the Institute of Culinary Education), Stafford studied with such notable food folk as James Peterson, Katherine Alford and Paul Grimes before founding the Charlottesville Cooking School in 2008.