Oct 1, 2007
by Sandy Siegel, MyBusinessMag.com
Cleaning skulls: It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it. Good thing Jay Villemarette and his "skeleton crew" at Oklahoma City-based Skulls Unlimited are more than willing to oblige.
Billing itself as the world's leading supplier of osteological specimens, Skulls Unlimited cleans more than 20,000 animal and human skulls a year, some for clients but most for sale to the public.
"We sell to whomever wants to buy our products," Villemarette says, "but we market to the education community." The stock, all legally obtained, comes from hunters, trappers, ranchers and the like, and buyers include schools and museums, such as the Smithsonian Institution and the Field Museum in Chicago to name a few.
"We pretty much have an exclusive niche," says Villemarette, whose staff also does articulation, or full-skeleton assembly. "There aren't many people who do this kind of work."
It's no wonder--cleaning skulls is not for the faint of heart. Each skull takes four to six weeks to process using a far-from-pleasant procedure that includes an unusual support staff: millions of dermestid beetles that snack on the tissue of the bones. Then the skulls are chemically whitened and degreased before going to finishing tables "where we hand remove anything that got missed by the beetles," Villemarette says. "That's where any teeth that are loose get glued in. We just make sure they look good."
Starting Skulls Unlimited in 1986 was a no-brainer for Villemarette who found he had a head--and a stomach--for this unconventional enterprise when he began collecting skulls for fun as a child. His original one-man, home-based venture has grown into a company of 15, including two sons, a niece and a nephew, operating in 25,000 square feet of workspace.
Later this year, Villemarette will let his skeletons out of the closet--literally--when he opens his on-site Museum of Osteology. "My personal collection has gotten to the point that we want to share it with the rest of the world," he says.
Make no bones about it: "It's going to be quite the experience," he says.