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Alternative materials give jolt to fine jewelry

17 september 2009

The contemporary art world's contention that the recession may actually fuel creativity even as it stifles sales is equally relevant to the jewelry industry. To wit: High-end designers, forced to reinvent themselves for a more price-conscious consumer, can no longer afford to strictly deal with precious materials, so they've expanded their repertoires to include a vast, eclectic and imminently more affordable array of items such as cobalt, drusy and wood, giving fine jewelry its first major jolt in decades. The story of this art is told by www.nationaljewelernetwork.com.

"Using nontraditional materials to make fine jewelry is a rapidly growing trend that has allowed designers to differentiate themselves," says Helena Krodel, director of media and special events at the Jewelry Information Center, describing the prevalent use of such materials as "fabulous and fashionable ways to create a piece of jewelry that looks interesting and modern without the cost."

Fueled by the backlash to pricey precious metals, the new design sensibility speaks to a fundamental shift in the way fine jewelry is perceived. Conventional wisdom dictates that in order to earn the label "fine," jewelry needs to incorporate materials with an intrinsic value all their own, essentially limiting the selection to gold, platinum and precious stones.

Visionaries such as JAR, the legendary American designer who lives in Paris, have helped subvert that notion. Since the mid 1980s, he has used inexpensive materials such as titanium in innovative jewels that sell at auction for tens of thousands of dollars. The upshot of his pioneering work is that the design community now sees that value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Anna Ruth Henriques, a New York-based artist who launched her first fine-jewelry collection a few years ago, embraced that philosophy when she turned to minerals to capture a raw and eco-chic aesthetic. She introduced a line of color at the Couture show that included one striking necklace fashioned from chunks of pyrite, or "fool's gold," the brassy yellow mineral. It offers a big shiny look for just $2,100.

"I love the silvery metallic nature of the pyrite that contrasts gorgeously with my signature 18-karat gold, a shade I call 'mango gold,'" says Henriques, adding that she likes to place her delicately sculpted signature spider on top of the rugged stone.

Henriques is joined in her love of minerals by scores of designers newly obsessed with the organic look of geodes and drusy. Geodes are rock cavities generally composed of limestone on the outside and quartz or chalcedony crystals on the inside. Devon Leigh, a Los Angeles-based designer who took part in the Couture show's Design Atelier, displayed just such a slice in Las Vegas in an oversized amethyst stalagmite pendant.

Also in the Design Atelier were Vandian and Nina Runsdorf, New York-based jewelers with a passion for drusy, the sparkling crystallized form of various gem materials.

"I like the colors, the patterns, and that when you get a stone, it's one of a kind, always something different," says Arto Vandian, who began using drusy two years ago. A signature ring of green diopside crystal from his "Nature's Wonders" collection resembles a planter sprouting a dense concentration of angular leaves.

At K. Brunini Jewels, the newest pieces reflect a truly avant-garde approach to materials, which include moose and antelope antlers, and goat horns carved, polished and made luxe through 18-karat gold, diamond-accented caps.

Even gold stalwarts such as Roberto Coin are breaking free from the constraints of precious metal. The Italian jeweler's "Capri Plus" collection, introduced at BaselWorld and expanded for the Couture show, features reclaimed African ebony wood and a unique ruthenium-treated silver with a cool gunmetal finish. It offers something for every budget. A signature bangle, for example, retails for $2,400 in silver, $4,500 in wood and $13,500 in 18-karat gold.

What's more, the high-end design community has become increasingly daring in its use of metals. "SK Cobalt," a new collection by Scott Kay, promotes men's wedding bands fashioned from cobalt, while Stephen Webster and La Reina were among a handful of designers at Couture showing new pieces in titanium, a space-age metal no rarer than the beach sand from which it is extracted.

Of course not all of these designers are embracing the offbeat for price-point reasons. A new line of carved leather cuffs from the Turkish jeweler Sevan features a relatively small amount of gold encrusted with diamonds. While the smaller pieces retail from $7,000 to $13,000 retail, the collection's statement piece costs $27,983.

"Sevan liked the idea of having a large cuff that could be carved to tell a story, just like his gemstone carved rings," says publicist Shaye Strager. "He is never concerned with price."