Designer turns glass from the past into 21st century treasure

April 8, 2023

Amy Vaughn appeared at a formal event this spring looking every inch the dignified Southern lady in an evening gown of chiffon and sequined lace. Indeed, she is the epitome of elegance – when she has to be.

PHOTO: Entrepreneur Amy M. Vaughn created a new business utilizing her design skills and love of history.

Yet, there are days when this joyous belle, from Sumter, is digging in the dirt, elbows deep in mud and fending off mosquitoes, bees and wasps. A modern-day treasure hunter, Vaughn isn’t intimidated by weeds, vines, tree roots and soggy terrain. She’s in pursuit of relics that will become a treasure for another belle looking for a piece of bespoke jewelry with its own special story.

Vaughn is a jewelry designer and owner of Glass With a Past Gifts, which she creates from broken pieces of china, bottles and crystal, wartime buttons, household items, discarded bits of jewelry and watches – and many other items of joy and remembrances of times past.

When COVID-19 shuttered the world in 2020, Vaughn was working at the Sumter County Genealogical Center and Archives. Like many people at the time, she found herself unemployed. With a surplus of free time and knowledge from her previous positions and her own passion for genealogy and history, “I started digging literally with the purpose of finding lost relics of our past,” she said.

“Thanks to my background, which includes a jewelry design degree from Kilgore College in Texas and two years of fashion history and design classes in high school, I have no trouble picking up a piece of broken glass or pottery and visualizing what it will become,” Vaughn said. “Combining my love of history and jewelry seemed like a perfect fit, with an affordable one-of-a-kind historical piece of jewelry as the end result.”

However, in the beginning, she wasn’t sure what form the treasures she discovered would take. “I wasn’t necessarily planning to make my relics into jewelry. That came about as I shared my discoveries with my friends who in turn would say, ‘Oh, this piece is beautiful! Could you make it into a piece of jewelry for me?’ Being me, and up to the challenge, I agreed,” she said.

With an opportunity to escape to the great outdoors during a time when indoor, public pursuits were few, Vaughn turned her attention to South Carolina’s farms, plantations and old home sites. The rural landscape was a treasure hunter’s dream for someone who knew what to look for and wasn’t squeamish about the challenges presented by mud, gnats, lizards and yucky places.

An early dig took place at a Victorian-era trash pit. “It was therapeutic to sit in a dirt hole and find broken pieces that someone didn’t want anymore. I knew I could turn those into something beautiful,” Vaughn said.

An 1870’s trash dump dig required her to maneuver a deep ravine and walk along a creek, where she found numerous unclaimed treasures, including broken pieces of pottery and bottles, a silver cuff link, a Civil War-era toothbrush made from bone, a pocket watch, stone, marble and spoons.

In the summer of 2022, Vaughn searched a site in Sumter where Union soldiers from Potter’s Raid camped and left behind bottles, horseshoes and numerous other items.

“People are surprised by what I find,” she said. “When I’m invited to search on someone’s property, I give them the first choice of what I’ve discovered.”

The fact that Amy’s “finds” exist more often than people realize is a matter of practicality. In decades and centuries past, people didn’t have garbage and trash collection. Broken pieces of glass and dishes, trinkets, children’s toys and other home items would find their way into a hole dug on the property for the collection of trash.

From those excursions from historical sites, Vaughn began creating pieces of jewelry for friends. Soon, other people wanted their own one-of-a-kind statement pieces. “I often tell ladies, ‘When you go to church and four other women are wearing the same dress as you, no one will ever have the same necklace, because all are one-a-kind and can never be duplicated.”

For example, broken liquor bottle pieces from the S.C. Dispensary, which operated from 1893-1907, recently became necklaces for several members of prestigious lineage societies. A necklace, created from a broken piece of china featuring the images of a Colonial-era couple, was mailed to a fashionable lady in Texas. When another jewelry buyer sought a necklace to be worn at a society event, Vaughn and the woman exchanged messages and photos via Facebook Messenger to select the pieces that would go into the design.

“Most people will never know the condition of the item when I excavated it out of a 8-foot hole in the middle of the woods. I just think, his will be amazing what I’m going to turn this into,’ and they are,” she said.

Vaughn sells many of her designs via her Glass with a Past Gifts posts on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok and during appearances at events and festivals, such as the American Heritage Festival in Lake City, the American Digger Magazine Lowcountry Militaria Show and Sale in Mount Pleasant, and The Sumter Farmers Market at USC Sumter.

She will have a booth at the South Carolina Bottle Club Show and Sale in Columbia on April 22 at the Jamil Shrine Temple.

Her designs also are being sold in select stores, including the Hopsewee Plantation gift shop in Georgetown, the Twig clothing store in Walterboro and the Camden Art Shoppes in Camden. She does “pop up shops” featuring her creations during guest appearances and speaking engagements for clubs, schools, and organizations throughout the Southeast.

“My jewelry transcends being a piece of history. It is also a conversation starter, and I think that’s a great selling point for what I do. You cannot find what I make in big box stores. I tell people when looking at my jewelry, ‘the one that speaks to you is the one you need,’ ” she said.

A member of the Sumter Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, Vaughn balances her life as a wife and mother of three children with her entrepreneurial endeavors. “In the beginning, I wasn’t sure where this would take me. One evening, I stood at my back door enjoying the beautiful sunset and turned to God,” she said.

“I told Him, ‘I’ll need your help starting this adventure, I cannot do it without you, and He gave me a phrase to use to witness with people. ‘Just because you are broken and unwanted, doesn’t mean you can’t be beautiful and shine again.’ I use that phrase with my jewelry,” she said.

“I’ve had ladies cry and tell me that they, too, have felt broken and unwanted. My reply to them is ‘God cares for everyone. Even if you are broken and unwanted, He loves you!’ ”

“When I am digging, there are three firm rules that I always follow: Always get permission, cover up your holes, and, most importantly, respect where you are and what you find. That being said, I have to admit that my favorite discoveries are those pre-dating the 1900s,” she said.

In addition to future digs, Vaughn is working on a book, titled “Unpopular” about the historical homes that don’t get recognized as much. “When asking people for permission to document their home for my book, they always ask ‘why’? I tell them, ‘so the history and the way it was built isn’t forgotten.’ I look at the little details that nobody else sees. I’ve documented Orange Grove Plantation in Dalzell, Edgehill Plantation, Bridlestone and the Kelloge home, all in Sumter, and Brookland in Stateburg, and others. I just need a few more in Sumter County to finish.”

Regardless of the discovery and the piece of jewelry that follows, Vaughn is making sure that glass with a past also has a future – and a sparkling one at that.

To contact Vaughn for a speaking engagement, email her at [email protected] and check out her social media posts. She can be contacted also on social media.