How did a paleontologist, a writer/environmental activist, a softwear designer and a geologist end up running a jewelry business?

Well, it all started, as these things so often do, with fire. Unlike most kids wielding a pocket magnifying glass, Bretwood Higman was serious about this, using a 31- by 41-inch lens to transform gravel into shiny black glass and learning that zinc-based pennies actually will catch fire.

Higman and three fellow Alaska natives make jewelry in a "green" fashion, using the sun and a thin Fresnel lens to melt glass into "droplets" for earrings and pendants. Headquarters for Sundrop Jewelry is the home of Shaun and Tawny Reynolds in a working-class neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis, where even in the dead of a Minnesota winter Tawny Reynolds was out back cooking up some jewelry.

"A few months ago, I was out in 10-below weather for a day or two," she said. "I had on big, puffy snowpants and ran back inside every hour -- or less."

She also handles most of the sales and shipping, while Shaun, a computer guru, works on the website (when he's not busy creating a Klingon-dictionary iPhone application). "Right now Tawny is commander in chief, definitely," Higman said. "She has been the powerhouse behind this business for the last couple years, and brought some actual sense of order to it."

That has helped make Sundrop Jewelry "marginally profitable," Tawny Reynolds, 30, said with a laugh. A huge recent order from the online store Hunger Site has augmented sales in such local stores as Bibelot, Global Village and Fairy Godmother and retail outlets from New Jersey to Alaska. Pieces sell for $18 to $48.

All over the map

The Reynoldses, Higman and his wife, Erin McKittrick, grew up in two nearby towns south of Anchorage: Homer and Seldovia. Higman purchased his first lens at age 13 and did some rudimentary jewelry work as a teenager before spending four years at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. He stayed in Minnesota for two more years, living with a grandmother in Stillwater and apprenticing with glass artist Carol Trevis.

"My initial versions were pretty crude, and I had some generous customers then," Higman said. "In Stillwater I really refined it, and started experimenting with multicolor stripes."

He eventually joined forces with fellow Carleton grads McKittrick and Shaun Reynolds as well as Tawny, who had gotten halfway to a doctorate in paleontology before "figuring out that I don't like research."

They lived for a while in different states, the Reynoldses in Colorado and the other two in Washington, before landing in Minnesota. Not long after moving here, the Reynoldses pitched their jewelry to Bibelot. "It's a cool process and a cool product," said Bibelot jewelry buyer Pat Swanson. "It was a really good fit for us."

It's also a good fit for a certain geologist/burning man.

"One of the things that excites me the most is working toward a more sustainable future," Higman said. "Melting glass through a lens has a lot of potential, especially when you're talking about scaling up to a larger solar furnace. If you could get 100 square yards instead of one, like the St. Peter sandstone bluffs near downtown St. Paul, then you'd be looking at things like manufacturing glass roof tiles.

"Now, if someone had a million dollars that they wanted to throw toward research on a gigantic solar furnace ... "

In the meantime, pretty little drops will have to do.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643