Holly Ulm, of Merrifield, along with partner Greg Sisco, have created a business of taking the fragile wings of dead butterflies and turning them into strong, wearable jewelry.
Now, they take 10 percent of all the sales from the Nisswa business, called Isms, and put it into a butterfly conservation fund.
Ulm knew when she started the business what she wanted her jewelry to look like, but getting there was a whole other story.
She first had to find a way to ethically get a hold of the butterflies.
“That alone took a lot of research,” Ulm said.
Ulm gets the butterflies whole from farms in other parts of the world. Butterfly farms place nets under the habitat to collect any that die naturally. The farms then sell the butterflies and use the money to plant trees and preserve habitat, Ulm said.
After she got the butterflies, figuring out how to preserve the wings and make them strong enough to wear, while still maintaining their natural beauty, proved to be a real challenge.
The wings are fragile and the scales, which give the wings color, are easily brushed off with handling. Butterfly wings sparkle and refract light in sunshine, and Ulm wanted to preserve that look.
Some of the wings were so sensitive, though, that they turned black when any liquid was applied. Temperature and humidity are also factors.
“I think there was a reason no one was doing it,” Ulm said.
After trying and failing over and over again, Ulm was ready to call it quits. Her 10-year-old daughter set her straight.
“She said, ‘Mom, you can’t give up!’ right when I was ready to,” Ulm said.
Ulm met Sisco through a friend. Sisco, a Pequot Lakes native who lives in Ideal, was working in boat repair.
“That’s where I learned about chemicals and coatings,” Sisco said.
Together the two developed a 12- to 15-step process, depending on the type of butterfly, to preserve the wings.
Ulm has a clean room where the wings are cut from the butterflies’ bodies and preservation begins. She said cutting the wings from the bodies of the butterflies is surprisingly tough — they dull scalpels quite quickly.
The top coat on the wings is the same for all types of butterflies — a two-part, jewelry grade epoxy. Ulm and Sisco say the wings, once finished, have a similar strength and durability as eyeglasses.
As the two worked together toward preserving the wings, the business partnership turned into romance.
Ulm has a history in retail sales, having once owned two retail stores in Park Rapids, as well as owning Zaiser’s in Nisswa for a period of time. She moved out of the retail store business so she’d have more time with her three children.
Isms donates 10 percent of the profits to a butterfly conservation fund because Ulm and Sisco believe in the importance of pollinators.
“We want to start a butterfly farm once we have the money to do it justice,” Ulm said.
Ulm thinks it’ll be a year from this spring before the farm is up and running. Butterflies raised in captivity have a 90 percent survival rate, while butterflies in the wild have only a 3 percent survival rate, she said. That’s because butterflies are especially vulnerable to predators as they sit in chrysalides and transform.
Sisco said butterflies are even more widespread than bees, and they cover more ground. They’re just as important as bees when it comes to pollinating food for humans and grain for animals, Sisco said.
Ulm was raised with a reverence for nature, and also puts money into the fund because she wants to teach her kids to do right in the world.
She hopes to call the butterfly farm Falter Farm. “Falter” is German for butterfly, and the word in English mirrors the process she’s been through as she developed the jewelry.
“People falter and then they bloom,” she said.
Isms jewelry is on display through the holidays at Lakes Latte, and is available online at www.etsy.com/shop/isms.ter.com/EchoJournalKate