Inside the world of buttons: ASU alumna creates jewelry from family heirlooms

'Finding those tins full of buttons is like Christmas,' jeweler Leah Williams said

To Leah Williams, a tin of old buttons is a treasure chest. In her hands, old chains, charms and vintage buttons are transformed into wearable art — jewelry for the sentimental history buff. 

Seven years ago, Williams bought her first mini collection of vintage buttons for $20. She has since combined a passion for buttons with a love for homemade jewelry and turned it into Ruby Mae Jewelry.

The ASU alumna graduated in 1991 with a broadcasting degree, and when she’s not working as a stage manager for sporting events, she spends her time collecting buttons and giving them a second life.

“Finding those tins full of buttons is like Christmas,” she said. “You're kind of opening up a time capsule, possibly of pieces that have been in there for 60 years.”

Williams said what makes buttons special is the rich history each one holds. 

“You can be holding a button that somebody wore on a dance floor in England 150 years ago,” she said. 

To preserve each button and its history, Williams coined a term for her practice: "no-harm button art” — meaning she never compromises a button’s integrity. Any button she puts on a necklace or bracelet can be taken off in the same condition that it was in before it was used for jewelry.

The buttons she finds, which are oftentimes passed down from older generations, are becoming more rare, she said.

“My generation — I'm 50 — we don't keep buttons,” Williams said. “It's kind of a dying art because a lot of families that have the buttons from the generations that throw nothing away, those button tins are being thrown away or discarded.”

Sustainable practices are important to her business as well, she said. Williams sources the metal and hardware for her jewelry locally as much as possible, repurposes recycled chains and broken jewelry and her dad hand makes her signature hand-stamped metal charms.

She sells her items at local boutiques like Sweet Salvage in Phoenix and Campus Flowers in Tempe, as well as on her website and her Etsy shop.

Her work with the buttons stems from a greater passion for jewelry.

Williams said she is constantly encouraging people to take their jewelry out of a drawer and display it in their homes.

“People who have brooches, I tell them, 'hang them on your curtains, let the sunlight come through them and touch the colors of it,'” she said. “Let's try and get all that jewelry out of the drawers and into the public where people can admire it.”

Williams is involved with the Arizona State Button Society and attends their February show each year.

The button community is vast, she said, and she has become very button-knowledgeable with the help of a book called "The Big Book of Buttons" and her own “button mentor” to teach her.

Nancy Mills, an Arizona native and former art teacher, has been mentoring Williams ever since she got into the button game. 

Mills too has her own “button mentor,” who she has been seeking advice and knowledge from for around 20 years. Mills’ mentor has spent over 50 years collecting buttons. 

“The woman is a button maniac,” she said.

In the 25 years Mills has been collecting and learning about buttons, she said she has grown to love the community and appreciate buttons as an art. Like most button fiends, she said, she started her collection with some gifted buttons with which she originally had no idea what to do. But soon, she fell in love.

“You don't want to find a button box because you will become hooked,” she said.

Mills, like Williams, sells buttons on her Etsy shop, and over the 15 years she’s been selling, she said she’s made about $50,000.

“That's the thing about the buttons, is that it brings a huge amount of satisfaction and joy at the same time as giving you some walking around money,” she said.

Heather Strouse, a business management professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, said after seeing some of Williams’ jewelry at a store, she gave her a call and asked for some custom pieces to be made from her late grandmother’s heirlooms.

Strouse said she is thrilled with the jewelry that Williams made from her grandmother’s old buttons and brooches.

“It's been so neat because now I can wear those necklaces, and I get to show (my grandmother) off,” she said. “And she's with me – they're not just sitting in a jewelry box somewhere.”

Strouse said she gets a lot of attention from others asking about her pieces, and people always tell her they would love to have jewelry made from their family’s buttons too.

“I've always said that antiques are memories that you can display to other people,” she said. “And I guess that's kind of the way I feel about those necklaces.”


Reach the reporter at mlutesad@asu.edu or follow @mackinleyjade on Twitter. 

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