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Precious Mettle

Precious Mettle

Meet the Dawson City jeweller who mines her own gold
By Hannah Eden
Sep 12
2017
From the September 2017 Issue

Ting. Ting. Ting. A hammer swings down onto a piece of gold, which starts to take shape atop the workbench. Leslie Chapman trades the hammer for a small torch to soften the strand of metal and her Dawson City workshop is silent as she waits for the gold to cool. She flattens and carefully manipulates the piece with her hands to form a cuff.

Originally conceived as a family-run gold placer mine, Chapman’s business, Fortymile Gold, has been operating since 1978 in Forty Mile, Yukon, two hours by car from Dawson. “My husband and I moved into the bush because we wanted to live in the wilderness, so we picked a beautiful spot with good sun exposure for a garden and built a cabin,” says Chapman. “We met an old-timer who told us that the creek we had chosen was known as a gold producer in the old days. So we staked a claim and got to know some miners and gradually over a period of years became gold miners.” Chapman and her husband raised their children in the bush by their gold mine. But as their children grew up and the demand for a social life became deafening, they built a cabin in Dawson for the occasional retreat.

Over the years, the price of gold dropped and by the 1990s Chapman and her husband, Bill, found it less profitable to rely solely on the loose gold they had mined. “We decided the solution to that problem was to do something with the gold, like a farmer making pasta out of his wheat instead of selling raw wheat,” says Chapman. “I got some books about goldsmithing and I got some tools and I started teaching myself how to be a goldsmith. And it was so fun. I realized I should have done this a long time ago.” Bill turned their Dawson cabin into a jewellery workshop and their new business flourished.

Ting. Chapman is back at it with her hammer to forge a dented texture into the bracelet. The thin windows of the wooden studio are open, to coax in a breeze, subduing the intense Yukon heat. The midnight sun brings a steady stream of tourists into Dawson each summer and July is gold rush mania. Potential buyers—from Yukon newlyweds with dreams of emerald-dotted bands of gold, to foreigners with a taste for 20-carat gold—browse the selection at Chapman’s studio. The workshop doubles a gallery that showcases other Yukon artists. The walls are colourfully decorated with oil paintings and beaded purses.

Chapman’s jewellery has a surprisingly bright yellow complexion—a character trait of high-purity gold. Hers is 87-percent gold, 12.9-percent silver. “There is only 0.1-percent other stuff in there, which explains why it’s so yellow,” she says. “We’re used to looking at jewellery, say, in a mall jewellery store in North America [and it] is usually always 10- or 14-carat, which is only 15-percent gold.”

Chapman’s work varies in style, from delicate rings to heavy pendants and turquoise earrings. She regularly incorporates Northern gems into her jewellery. “I use diamonds from the Northwest Territories because Northern gold, Northern diamonds: It’s sort of an obvious fit. I’ve lived in the North most of my life. I think all sorts of things influence you.”

The door to the studio bursts open and a man covered head to toe in heavy dust saunters in. “Oh, hi Frank!” Chapman greets the old-timer from across the room. “I owe you for a couple of pieces I sold last time.” Chapman ducks into the many folders by her cash register. Frank does ivory carvings for some of her rings, she explains, pointing to a glass case at the front of the gallery.

“I stopped in to say g’day, but it’s always nice when there’s money involved,” Frank laughs. The two old friends dive into excited conversation about hidden treasures and precious gold nuggets. “We’ve been so goddamn busy out there,” says Frank, as he takes a seat and settles into shoptalk.

“Sounds like gold mining to me,” says Chapman.