Vermont jewelers craft singular pieces of art
Besides reflecting vision, jewelry also reflects the technical virtuosity of the artists. Goldsmith Timothy Grannis employs a painstaking process called anticlastic raising. (Andy Dubak for the Boston Globe)
BURLINGTON, Vt. - Of all the arts, jewelry might be the most personal.
Unlike a painting or sculpture, it adorns an individual. Each carefully chosen piece is a statement of the wearer's taste, and for many, the consummate extravagance.
Since the American craft renaissance in the late 1960s, artisan jewelers have come up in the world. Today they work out of spiffy galleries, not scrappy studios. In Vermont, at least a dozen upscale jewelers are thriving, forging collections by hand.
In Burlington, silversmith Karen Klinefelter, 45, creates minimalist pieces that appeal to engineers and architects. It is "more of an aesthetic choice than a fashion one," she says, but she designs them, she admits, for herself.
The lapidary work of Robert Borter, 53, has a ritual quality. The Brattleboro gem-cutter remembers spotting one of his earrings on a woman in a grocery store. It was a strange thrill, he says, an anonymous intimacy.
He never tires of observing people's jewelry choices. "It is absolutely a reflection of who they are," Borter says, "even if they're just purchasing it out of a case."
Inspired by Native American pieces, he started out working with silver and progressed to gold, a less forgiving metal. "Many people don't know what they want," he said. "I'm really good at eliminating and narrowing it down."
Occasionally, though, it works in reverse. One customer remarked about the spiritual dimensions of a Borter pendant, saying it reminded him of a temple. Borter couldn't rid himself of the thought, eventually renaming the series "Temples." Later he started noticing its shapes and colors in church windows.
Sandra Owens finds inspiration in more mundane objects. A friend brought her a pile of antique watch parts - gears, faces, and hands - that she converted to earrings and pins. She found spent bullet casings and turned them into Soldiers' Prayer Rings. With her husband, Bill, she operates Silverwear, a small gallery in tiny Benson. Over the years she has noticed that customers are growing more discriminating. "They're getting tired of just owning 'stuff,' " she says. "I'm hearing more and more, 'I want something special, something that is me.' "
That something often amounts to marrying jewelry with personal mementos such as a trinket bought long ago in a dime store. Owens embeds the object in gold or silver, changing it into a precious keepsake that can be worn every day, not just a personal relic "to put in a box and take out on special occasions."
Growing attached to a piece can be a pitfall. Burlington jeweler Jane Koplewitz made the mistake of wearing a prized necklace while waiting on customers at her downtown gallery.
"They bought it off my neck," she says.
She consoled herself by resolving to replace it with something better. "You have to have this bigger picture of gratitude, of letting go of the piece," she says. "It feeds the whole cycle, allows you to progress."
Like Borter, Koplewitz knows the thrill of seeing her work out in the world. A friend traveling in China spotted actress Amy Irving wearing a classic pair of Koplewitz earrings. Koplewitz herself has seen them on public figures and on television news shows.
What distinguishes her style is an organic modernism. "If you're going to make handmade jewelry, you should see the hand in the jewelry," she says. Hers is evident in the less-than-perfect lines and bean-shaped beads. Her passion, however, is sapphires. The gems, which are the hardest material on earth after diamonds, come, she says, "in every color of the rainbow." One customer wanted an engagement ring but said she wasn't a diamond person. Koplewitz devised a linen-textured band with an orange sapphire.
When it comes to events like an engagement, jewelry becomes what Burlington goldsmith Timothy Grannis calls "a placeholder in life." Many consider his gallery one of New England's finest. On a recent afternoon, one of his fans was showing off a pendant Grannis had fashioned from a large Brazilian citrine that she had scored at a gem show. It was a three-dimensional problem that Grannis had solved by constructing a golden "cradle" that held the stone in place without obscuring its facets. There's a story, Grannis says, to "every piece of jewelry a woman has."
Though he displays the work of some 50 fellow designers, his own pieces reveal his goldsmithing mastery. Using a process called anticlastic raising, he hammers the metal into tiny curved discs reminiscent of potato chips.
"Right now they like to cover everything in little tiny diamonds," he says with a grimace, but yellow gold, at least, is coming back, pushing white gold from its pedestal. "Gold isn't white," he insisted, "it's yellow, the color of the setting sun."
Deciding whether to follow or defy fashion trends seems an inescapable part of the trade. Borter remembers how flamboyant jewelry was before the Sept. 11 attacks. "It was as if gems couldn't be big enough," he said. "People were free and happy." Soon after, sizes shrank and colors dimmed.
But at least two Vermont artisans are ignoring that.
"I'm tall," says jeweler Marion Stegner. "I like things that make a statement." Her rings and necklaces do; bold and colorful, they gravitate toward exoticism, using bits of nature like fossilized pine cones and marine life. Stegner, 71, sells through private home shows and donates a percentage of her work to charity. Lately she has been encouraging collectors to "go through their top drawers and take out what they'll never wear" for her to reinvent.
One woman dumped the contents of her jewelry box on the table, she says. They played for three hours, sifting out her mother's and grandmother's diamond rings and some gold nuggets that her grandfather had brought home from Alaska. Stegner incorporated them all onto a single gold band, encapsulating the family history.
Jaclyn Davidson walks in the woods, deriving inspiration from the dried-up twigs and shrunken vines poking through the snow. Such darkness, she says, "is the Eastern European in me." Her resulting designs, however, are anything but dreary: spiraled necklaces with golden-leafed vines, heavy-gauge silver goblets suggestive of ancient Rome, and more recently, ornate metal gates and fences.
Grannis's definition of fine jewelry sums it up: It boils down not to the size of the stones or the price on the tag, but to the quality of the design.
Diane E. Foulds, a writer in Burlington, Vt., can be reached at email@example.com.