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Jewelry that’s (almost) good enough to eat

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A batch of cupcake charms by Pancake Meow. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Dallion)

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An assortment of delectable dessert charms by Pancake Meow. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Dallion)

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Why just eat dessert when you can wear it too? (Photo courtesy of Robin's Jewelry Box)

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An assortment of cake and pie charms from Inedible Jewelry. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Partain)

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An assortment of pie slice charms by Inedible Jewelry. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Partain)

Remember when you were a kid and you wore those candy necklaces? You got them out of vending machines or as party favors—that elastic string with sweet and sour discs in place of beads? Well, you probably couldn’t have imagined then what’s available to buy now: luscious ice cream necklaces, cinnamon bun earrings and even strawberry shortcake barrettes.

Unfortunately, these appetizing accessories aren’t edible (unless you have a taste for polymer clay). But today’s dessert jewelry makes up for that with intricate designs, super-realism and even scents that remind you of the real thing.

Now you can have your cake and wear it too.

“Desserts are huge,” says Abby Foster, editor of Crafts ’n Things magazine. “Maybe it’s because the economy is bad and people want to be reminded of something comforting, but this is definitely the major trend in crafts and craft jewelry right now.”

Foster recently attended the Crafts and Hobby Association Expo, regarded as the biggest show in the industry, and was “hit over the head with cupcakes.”

“This is what you’re going to see on the shelves in six months,” says Foster, “so I wouldn’t be surprised to see dessert jewelry really be a hit on a large scale.”

Three of the leading practitioners of the art all came to dessert jewelry by accident. Leslie Dallion was sick one day when her friend brought over some clay to entertain her. Jessica Partain had made miniature dollhouse food as a child and thought she’d try her luck at a crafts fair. Robin Pugliese had worked with gems and beads but found inspiration when her search for a hot-fudge sundae necklace yielded no results.

“All three of us are the messiahs of the dessert jewelry industry,” says Pugliese, of South Glastonbury, Conn., who just sold her 1,000th piece. She’s the owner of Robin’s Jewelry Box, while Partain and her sister run Inedible Jewelry and Dallion heads Pancake Meow. Each spend their days transforming craft clay into cake batter and resin into glaze for fruit tarts. Pugliese and Dallion started selling in 2005 and Partain just a year later. Today, they are the go-to vendors in a small but quickly emerging genre of jewelry.

“People like this because frequently, jewelry can be really serious, and we are emphatically not serious,” says Partain, of Charlottesville, Va. Most of her charms sell for $6 each at her online store (inediblejewelry.com) and range from classics like chocolate chip cookies and carrot cake to more involved recipes like multitiered wedding cakes and chocolate-drizzled cannoli with pistachio cream filling.

Since she started selling in 2006, her business has grown into a full-time undertaking, and she has made close to 500 different desserts. Custom charms can be ordered too, and each can be made into earrings, bracelets and necklaces. Partain also offers summer classes in making dessert-jewelry, and her “Polymer Clay Cookbook” is set for an October release through Random House.

“It’s fun, it’s different, it’s entertainment,” she says. “And people really connect with food on a personal level.”

Apparently, they do on a professional level too. One of Partain’s favorite stories involved a woman who was looking for a gift for her mother, a dietitian. “She really wanted to get her two bracelets, one for each wrist,” recalls Partain. “One of foods to eat and one of foods not to eat—with things like doughnuts and ice cream cones—so when she was meeting a client, she could just hold up and compare both wrists.”

Partain makes healthy charms as well—things like asparagus bunches and sushi—but admits that desserts are her top sellers.

Dallion of Pancake Meow makes her jewelry only in the shapes of desserts, but her one-course menu of charms is hardly limited, with temptations like key lime pie, jelly doughnuts with powdered sugar and strawberry marshmallow bonbons. Her supply list isn’t limited either. Along with multiple colors of craft clay, she uses resins, charcoal pastels, oil and acrylic paint, sandpaper, a slew of paintbrushes and “those metal picks that the dentist uses to scrape tartar off your teeth.” What results is billowy whipped cream, oozing hot fudge and moist-looking brownies.

Each frosted fashion statement takes nearly two hours to make, from kneading the clay—or as she calls it, the dough—to baking in a toaster oven to sealing it with resin and waiting for it to dry. Not only do Dallion’s items look good enough to eat; they smell like the real thing too.

“I just started playing around with different oils and different fragrances, and I make all my own formulations. It looks like a laboratory in here,” she says of her Athens, Ga., home.

Dallion attributes her successful scents to a naturally gifted nose. Her Web site, pancakemeow.com, which is the only place her jewelry is sold, now offers 68 different smells—everything from pineapple upside-down cake to “I smell pie crust” to “It’s dark in here chocolate.” She also relishes a scent challenge and invites any customer to try to stump her: “You want a Boston cream pie? I can whip up a Boston cream pie scent.”

Her technique for transferring the scents to her clay charms is a closely guarded secret, but she promises the fragrance will last for up to a few years. That, says Dallion, is an essential part of the dessert jewelry experience: “A cupcake, for example, reminds you of so many lovely things, but some of us don’t want to eat one because of the calories, so you can wear it and smell it and still feel like you’re satisfying your sweet tooth.”

Pugliese of Robin’s Jewelry Box admires Dallion’s creativity but says she’ll leave her dessert charms unscented. It’s not that she doesn’t like the smell of sweets—in fact, she wears Demeter chocolate chip cookie perfume and moisturizes with crème brûlée lotion—but she’s afraid that someone might have an allergic reaction to one of the fragrance oils, threatening her business. (Dallion, for her part, says that most of her oils are hypoallergenic.)

But lack of scent hasn’t hindered Pugliese, who has hired a part-time assistant to help her keep up with demand. Her necklaces start at around $10 (more, depending on the number of dessert charms), and her fanciest ring—a wedding cake complete with bride and groom statuettes—sells for $17. She has sent her creations as far as Indonesia, Turkey and Australia.

“It’s way better than the corporate world—let me tell you,” says Pugliese of her dessert jewelry job.

Still, most of her customers purchase from her not because of the burgeoning popularity of dessert jewelry but because, at least for now, it remains unusual.

“It’s not standard, but that’s part of why I like it,” says Jennifer Van Varick, owner of two cake necklaces and a cake ring. Van Varick is a part-time baker, and so she says her choice in jewelry makes sense to those who know her.

Pugliese, Dallion and Partain all report a wide range of clients—diverse in terms of age, profession and, yes, even gender. Partain has sold more than a few doughnut cuff links to pastry-loving males. That’s why Pugliese sees a lot of opportunity for this quirky jewelry genre.

“If I could get picked up by a Nordstrom’s or a Macy’s,” she says, “if I could get an account like that, I know that dessert jewelry could get really, really big.”

It seems to be well on its way. Fashion designer Betsey Johnson, with her more than 50 stores around the country, recently released a new jewelry line. A cupcake necklace, a cupcake hair pin and cupcake earrings are featured items.

E-mail: rbs2130@columbia.edu