• By Maria Hernandez

Dare to wear a snake

While the government hunts brown tree snakes for eradication, local jeweler seeks them for ornament creation

From sea urchins and brown tree snake spines to million-year-old fossilized shark teeth, the materials Santa Rita, Guam resident Gordon Ritter uses to make his unconventional jewelry have passersby doing double takes.

“Not everyone would do this. You gotta be a little weird,” he jokes.

As biology teacher for more than 20 years, Ritter fuses his passion for science and crafts to make eye catching necklaces, pendants and earrings, which he sells with his wife under the business name Creations by Vicky.

Off-white pieces of snake spine and cratered black lava stone beads checkered the display case Ritter brought with him to an interview with Pacific Island Times.

In the 70s, Ritter started out making jewelry using sea urchin spines and puka shells. His craftiness also extended over the years to making ifit wood clocks and trophies.

After stopping crafts for many years, he started making jewelry again in the early 90s and has been doing it ever since.

With a degree in biology, Ritter has a background in dissecting things. It was this interest and knowledge that spurred his idea to use snake spines in his jewelry.

Lucky for Ritter, there is no shortage of this material on Guam. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are an estimated 2 million brown tree snakes on Guam — the highest concentration of a snake population in the world. While the government is engaged in a battle to eradicate these invasive slithering creatures, Ritter is hunting them for his creative enterprise.

“I wanted to do something unique. It’s easy to work with and already has a hole, so you don’t have to drill a hole,” Ritter says.

While jewelry-making for many may be considered relaxing, for Ritter, it sometimes involves hunting and the occasional snake bite. In the past, snakes as long as 6 to 7 feet have managed to wriggle out of his grasp and pierce his skin with their fangs.

Once Ritter has a snake under control, the next few steps in the process to dissect the animal can get messy. Afterwards, he cleans and soaks the bones in water, and then in Clorox. Both he and his wife, Vicky, sell their handmade jewelry at trade fairs across the island and weekly at the Chamorro Village in Hagatna. “My wife says I only do this because I like to see the reactions,” he says.

About half of those who learn he uses snake spines in his jewelry react in disbelief. “They give you that look like, no, no way,” he says.

Residents regularly bring him snakes, he said, and if they’re around 4 to 5 feet, he is open to trade snakes for a $20 necklace. With necklaces ranging in the $20 to $30 range, his affordable pieces can be purchased at the Wednesday Night Market at the Chamorro Village every Wednesday from 4:30 to 9 p.m.

The brown tree snake has done a lot of damage to Guam since it arrived in the late 1940s, including nearly wiping out the island’s native bird population, but Ritter’s craft activities aren’t much of a threat to its population.

According to the USDA, more than 200,000 members of this invasive species have been captured in the past 10 years through trapping, night time pursuit of the sleeping critters and the efforts of snake-sniffing dogs. In recent years, the department has spent $8 million in eradication program. The brown tree snake infestation has resulted in extinction of 12 native bird species on Guam.

Nobody else wants the snakes either. The CNMI has been keeping an eye out for potential invaders for years, in hopes that they can stop those who slither in from establishing a permanent population. Hawaii also does thorough inspections of cargo from Guam and other places known to have brown tree snakes. The Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs is spending about $2.8 million this fiscal year for brown tree snake eradication and control projects.

None of this is much of a threat to Ritter’s supply of craft materials.

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