Jewelers sparkle in their creations

14 08 2010

We picked a handful of talented Bay Area jewelry designers – of which there are hundreds, if not thousands, to showcase.

Marsha Varrow: A world traveler, Marsha Varrow is best known for her signature white gold ring and necklace featuring nine diamond butterflies positioned on movable pivots so they seem in midflight.

Born in London, Varrow has led a peripatetic life. At 14, she moved to Dallas, where her father lived, to attend high school, and since then she has lived in New York; Los Angeles; back in London; Johannesburg, South Africa; and, for the past two years, in Mill Valley.

Although she had long dabbled in jewelry, her involvement consisted mostly of advising friends on concepts. At 24, after she had married and divorced a Texas rancher, Varrow started her own fashion marketing and brand consultant business. “One of my good friends who was an editor for WWD always told me I should do my own brand,” says Varrow, 54. “But it took me many years to finally get the courage to do so.”

In 1999, she returned to England, where she started developing collections for her American actress friend Catherine Bach, known for playing Daisy Duke in the television series “The Dukes of Hazzard.” In partnership with Bach, Varrow created a jewelry line in gold and diamonds that premiered at the tony United Kingdom department store Debenhams. The Daily Telegraph in Britain soon listed it in a “Best Of” article.

In 2004, when friends again were pushing Varrow to create her own brand, she listened. “I decided I had to take that leap of faith,” Varrow says. “I thought, ‘I’m making a living for other people, why am I not making it for myself?’ ”

Today, she does just that, and her pieces range from $2,500 to $6,300.

Varrow plans to launch silver, wedding and pearl collections, and is also designing accessories, including handbags, sunglasses, home furnishings and perfume. All will have the butterfly logo.

“We live in a world full of anxiety and pressure,” Varrow says. “The butterfly reflects the opposite. Butterflies reflect the grace and freedom we aspire to as human beings.”

Bernadine Wang: A native of Taiwan, Bernadine Wang creates fine jewelry inspired by nature and architecture.

Her Lattice collection, fashioned out of yellow, rose or white gold with white, champagne, brown and black diamonds and sold in her Burlingame store, is based on photographs she took of intricate, lattice garden windows at a large estate in a village near Shanghai. The estate had 300 windows, Wang says, mostly garden windows put there to entertain and please the eye but also designed to emit the energy on which they are patterned, such as fertility and strength.

Wang’s pieces, ranging from $880 for a pair of 18-karat yellow gold peony earrings to $8,880 for a similar pair lined with 871 diamonds, feature a “crossed over” design that produces images evoking meanings and emotions.

Wang, 44, who has a bachelor of fine arts degree in photography from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, started out making jewelry from semiprecious stones.

“I decided to do fine jewelry because people didn’t understand the quality and the large amount of time that went into my costume jewelry,” says Wang. “People saw it as ‘beading’ and said, ‘I can do that.’ I wanted to find a technique that people could not do so they would appreciate the value of the jewelry.”

Wang creates her designs on the computer, and her customers preview the design in 3-D before an item is made.

“People can see what a piece looks like before I make it,” she says. “They can experience the process firsthand.”

Pratima Sethi: Born and raised in the Bay Area, Pratima Sethi grew up with jewelry in her blood. Her family’s Manak Jewels, a leading supplier of loose cut fancy-color diamonds, was established in 1975. Even as a 4-month-old baby, Sethi’s parents took her to trade shows all over the country, crafting a playroom for her under their display tables. Despite this, the 33-year-old went in another direction: She earned a bachelor’s degree in business from UC Berkeley and an MBA from USC, and worked in information-technology consulting in Silicon Valley.

That didn’t last. “It was repetitive,” she says. In 2005, she joined Manak. For the first year Sethi did everything. “I was the diamond sorter, the HR director, the phone-system person. I was able to utilize my training to create a company that had more process and structure than Manak then had.”

Sethi then turned to design. Manak’s jewelry line had always focused on red-carpet numbers. “I thought that it might not appeal to a large group of people,” says Sethi. “I saw the jewelry side of the business needed to be expanded, to become less ornate, less formal.”

The result is several collections of distinctive pieces made more distinctive by Sethi’s access to rare and valuable colored diamonds from her family’s core business. Her customers are primarily women buying for themselves. (They are also women with extra money: Prices run from $650 for a simple diamond pavé ball necklace to $100,000 for an elaborate, multicolored diamond necklace.)

“Doing colored diamonds is difficult,” Sethi says. “They are 10 to 15 times more expensive, their availability is low and you have to make sure all the colors and shades match. There are light pinks, medium pinks. There is no grading scale like there is for white diamonds. Colored diamonds are what make my product unique.”

Using pink (the rarest), yellow, green, mahogany, champagne and black diamonds set in yellow, white, rose and black rhodium-plated gold, Sethi’s gems have an Art Deco look. Ultra-skinny channel-set bangles seem perfect for “The Thin Man’s” Nora Charles. And the pink diamond ruffle pendant/brooch with a white diamond center and diamond petal tips looks just like something Hercule Poirot might be commissioned to find if it disappeared from a duchess’ jewelry pouch.

“My jewelry is very Old World charm but fused with color, which makes it more modern,” says Sethi.

Orijyn: In a chance meeting with Mark Sloneker during Sloneker’s first visit to Laos nine years ago, Sombath Somphone told him about a nonprofit school, the Participatory Development Training Centre, which Somphone started in 1996 to educate young people on how to become future community and business leaders.

“He wanted to change the country by educating the youth,” says Sloneker, 53, co-owner of San Francisco’s graphic arts firm Convergencies. Sloneker was so impressed with Somphone’s achievement in the war-scarred country only recently opened up to outsiders that he was inspired to get involved. Soon they came up with a plan for Sloneker to sell silver jewelry and silk wraps made by locals; 10 percent of revenues would go to the school, 70 percent to the artisans and 20 percent to marketing and Web costs.

Some of the metalsmiths created jewelry for the former Laotian royal family, an influence reflected in the pieces’ primary motif: a stylized representation of the dok phikoun flower, which in Lao Buddhism is said to possess powers of good fortune, health and prosperity and was once reserved for royals only. Prices run from $40 for earrings to $450 for a five-row necklace.

Although Sloneker, who has donated his time and money, says the project is still in the negative numbers, sales are growing. “The whole idea is to be self-determining in your business but also to revive a culture. Sombath and I believe if you can keep the handcrafts of a culture alive, the culture has a better chance at survival.”


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15 08 2010
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