'Upcycling' Turns Credit Cards Into Jewelry, Trash Into Fashion


Sure, you've purchased jewelry with a card. But have you ever worn jewelry made from a card?

If you have, you're among the trashionistas who have discovered "upcycling," a growing movement led by cutting-edge designers whose clever repurposing of discarded credit, debit and gift cards turns spent plastic into unique, eye-catching fashion accessories.

Armed with little more than a pair of scissors, a hole punch and an eye for style, upcyclers such as Kelly Campbell, owner of Denver-based Kellybeth Designs, are breathing new life into old plastic while saving the planet, one fabulous piece at a time (see credit card jewelry slideshow).

Credit card jewelry has inspired waves of innovators and imitators, thanks to trendsetting urban boutiques, the online retail site Etsy and Pinterest, which features its own "Crafting with Credit Cards" pinboard. There are even online tutorials to help you upcycle your own deck of discards.

"It has definitely caught on," says Campbell, who started making jewelry with her twin sister Katie three years ago. "It's affordable and the timing couldn't have been better with the economy and people cutting up their credit cards."

In fact, Campbell was doing just that when inspiration struck. Rather than simply lop the card in half and discard it, she cut it into narrow strips and fashioned her first set of upcycled earrings she calls "shredz." Since then, she has expanded her earring collection to include squares, dots, circles and tiny pieces she calls confetti, while adding bracelets and necklaces to the mix. Her earrings retail from $16 to $50, bracelets for $35 and necklaces for $65.

Craft veteran Sherri Haab, author of "Jewelry Upcycled," says when people spot familiar card designs -- out of context and strung around someone's wrist or neck -- it often inspires double-takes, especially from those new to upcycled jewelry's tongue-in-cheek aesthetic.

"People tend to identify with things that they're surrounded with when they're used in a different way," she says. "What's fun about card pieces is, it says something about the person. It's sort of like wearing a logo on your T-shirt where you might want to identify with iTunes or Starbucks or your favorite bookstore."

We have one word for you: Plastic

As a craft material, cards have a lot going for them: They're durable yet pliable, waterproof, plentiful, preprinted with bright colors, stylish graphics and readily recognizable logos -- and perhaps best of all, they're free.

"Gift cards are a lot more fun because they tend to be more colorful with eye-catching designs but getting the designs I like is often harder to do," Campbell admits. "I have some partnerships with retailers like Target who will save them and I'll go pick them up, and I have a lot of friends who collect them and send me a box at a time."

Using gift cards also sidesteps the possible legal and security concerns of credit and debit cards that have been tied to individual accounts.

American Express spokeswoman Desiree Fish says the company has no objection to artists who use parts of its expired cards in their creations. "We're such a recognizable brand and in pop culture, it's flattering that some artists want to incorporate our cards into their art," she says.

That said, artists who wish to use whole AmEx cards, as costume designer Lizzy Gardiner did in her memorable "gold card dress" at the 1995 Academy Awards are encouraged to submit their designs to the card company first or request dummy cards that AmEx uses in its advertising.

You'll be trendy, not spendy

Could upcycled jewelry accidentally trigger a transaction, say by including pieces of the magnetic stripe or smart chip? Card expert Brad Paulson, owner of Thor Consulting, says the chances are slim unless the card is intact. (CreditCards.com's own research confirms that slicing through a cards's mag stripe renders it inoperative. See our video, "Credit card torture test.")

"Since the magnetic stripe generates a series of pulses in a reader, the magnetic equivalent of a bar code, disruption of the proper pulsing is generally sufficient to make it unreadable," he says. "Although a chip can contain a great deal more information, accessing that information requires proprietary equipment and software."

Just to be safe, Campbell won't use more than one section of the same card on the same piece of jewelry.

To her surprise, the Denver upcycler says her upcycle creations have caught on with young and old alike.

"The younger women tend to like the ones that are brighter colors; young girls in particular love the Victoria Secret card," she says. "Older women like my holiday and Christmas ones or ones that are more all the same color, blacks or whites."

While she wouldn't rule out mass producing her designs someday, Campbell fears such a move might destroy the allure of upcycled jewelry.

"If it loses its uniqueness, it would probably become a fad instead of a sustainable business; it would probably be, 'OK, we've seen it, let's move on.' That uniqueness has maintained the integrity of my business, and it will probably last longer for that." 

Photos courtesy of Kellybeth Designs, Sherri Haab, Mana Bernardes