Making jewellery from sugar cane ash started out as a joke for artist Tamika Savorgnan but now she is working to keep up with demand, embedding cane ash in resin keychains, coasters and pendants.

It is a delicate process.

“Picking it up with your hands is impossible,” says Ms Savorgnan, who uses the ash from sugar cane fires to create the pieces.

“I have to use tweezers and toothpicks and shelter it with Chinese food containers.”

The artist is from Burdekin, south of Townsville, one of Australia’s largest sugar cane-growing regions and the last region to burn cane prior to harvest.

“Black snow” is what the locals call ash fragments that float up to hundreds of kilometres and inevitably land on freshly washed whites.

“Every cane farmer I have spoken to has the same response as my husband — ‘What on earth are you doing? No-one will buy jewellery made out of cane ash’,” Ms Savorgnan says.

“Lo and behold it is the farmers’ wives who are buying the jewellery made of cane ash.

“I have had pieces sent to Scotland, Canada, the USA, the UK. It has taken off, it really has.”

Collecting ‘snowflakes’ with tweezers

Historically, burning cane prior to harvest was used to reduce the risk of disease and vermin when cane was cut by hand.

These days fire is used to remove excess foliage, so the leaves do not clog the processing machinery or block irrigation channels.

During harvest season, the cane ash covers driveways, roofs and lawns.

While abundant, collecting the delicate ash can be a challenge. You’ll often find Ms Savorgnan out first thing in the morning before the wind gets up.

“Different varieties of cane and the intensity of the fire creates different pieces — from the very delicate, to ones that are still a bit woody,” she says.

Embedding the delicate ash into the thick resin poses its own challenges. Ms Savorgnan finds the ash will often disintegrate as the resin touches it.

“I hold my breath a lot because even blowing on it — poof!” she says.

“With my bigger pieces like coasters, I’ll look for the bigger pieces of ash that are quite stable — thicker and denser. For the smaller pieces, like earrings, I’ll look for the very delicate curly pieces that look pretty.”

Cane fires ignite local tourism

Sugar cane is the Burdekin’s primary industry adding more than $425 million a year to the region’s economy.

The spectacular cane fires are also a tourism drawcard. The Sweet Days Hot Nights festival marks the start of harvest with a community dinner in front of the first cane fire of the season.

Burdekin Shire Mayor, Lyn McLaughlin, says the experience of watching a cane fire is unlike anything else.

“You have the vision of this massive fire in front of you then you have the sound but also the smell. You have the sweet smell of the sugar cane burning,” Cr McLaughlin says.

The Sweet Days Hot Nights festival has been cancelled under coronavirus restrictions this year, but council plans to livestream the first fire of the harvest season instead.

“We will be looking to do it before the season starts and not lose the first fire as the iconic start to our cane season,” Cr McLaughlin says.

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