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Design Challenge Winners

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Meghan Ellie Smith

December 13, 2013

Meghan Ellie Smith

Clutter Castle is what Meghan calls her eccentric home studio, tucked away in the streets of Bushwick, Brooklyn. When I saw the odd, yet beautiful, string installation hanging from the ceiling, a collection of wooden instruments displayed on the wall, and a creepy plastic hand sitting on its own mini mantel, I fully understood how the Clutter Castle earned the honor of its name. But it’s funny, although I was like a kid in a candy shop in her vintage oasis — oohing and ahhing at every corner, I didn’t find it overwhelmingly chaotic. I felt as if the odds and ends of all the clutter were actually masterfully organized to push the use of imagination and a creative atmosphere. Which made perfect sense, because those were my exact thoughts about Meghan’s winning art piece, Chaos Mountain. The bright and earthy colors bleed into one another with no particular pattern, yet the shaped splices are meticulously placed. I love it. Perhaps the juxtaposition between the crashing watercolors and structured mountain reminds me a little of myself: a bit messy, a bit random, a bit chaotic, but in the end of the day, I know what I want to do and exactly where I want to go. “Not all who wander are lost,” a favorite quote by many free spirited individuals, resonates within the illustration of Chaos Mountain. Meghan Ellie Smith,a true free spirit herself, is not only the Queen of Clutter Castle, but officially wears the crown of our latest Art Contest. 

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Maker Stories

Rachel’s Celestial Bracelet Takes the Win!

December 11, 2013

Rachel is one of my favorite artist stories to boast about when the topic of ongoing Jewelry Design Challenges arises. She’s the perfect example of the saying: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Cliché? Most definitely. Overused? Perhaps. True? Without a doubt. Rachel first submitted her original Celestial Bracelet with a bit of a twist, she had her favorite quote etched onto the bracelet with diamonds embedded on top. We were fond of the piece and our jewelry buyers were impressed by the bracelet alone, but didn’t think that the embellishments would speak to our customers. They preferred a clean look that just focused on the unusual shape–inspired by celestial bodies orbiting planets–and design of the bangle. I reached out to Rachel to let her know exactly why that month she wasn’t a finalist, and wasn’t so sure if I would hear from her again. The next month, as I was checking all the jewelry submissions, I recognized Rachel’s familiar bracelet–but this time with our tips taken into consideration. The judges were surprised to see the beautiful, enhanced design again, and fell in love with the sleek yet unconventional bangle. Meet Rachel Vanatta, our latest jewelry design winner and an artist who wasn’t scared to develop her vision with ours.


Rachel Vanatta

What’s an Uncommon fact about you and your hometown?
I consider my hometown to be Chagrin Falls, Ohio. But since relocating to Savannah, GA at 18 to attend Savannah College of Art and Design, I have considered Savannah very dear to me.  The longest portion of my career was experienced on a small 7 mile Gulf Coast island called Anna Maria Island, from 2003 to 2012.  This is where the Nectar Jewelry line was inspired and birthed. Towards the end of 2012 we relocated to Atlanta, GA.  Atlanta is new-ish to me but so far the friends and people I have met have been nothing but wonderful. An Uncommon Fact: I actually attended SCAD specifically for jewelry design, I was always interested in the craft and fine art, and SCAD’s jewelry programs are a perfect mix of both. I knew from age 16 on that the jewelry profession was the one I needed to be in.

Rachel Vanatta

Your bracelet is one of the most unique bangles we’ve seen come through at UncommonGoods, how did you come up with this specific design?
I am inspired by celestial and natural shapes, designs focused on forms that are present on a day-to-day basis, but that we may overlook without small reminders.  I aim to remind the wearers of my jewelry to pay homage to natural phenomenon.  Many take these wonders for granted in our everyday lives, but when reminded of, realize what a gift every being and object can truly be. The celestial bracelet’s shape is reminiscent of a planet’s orbiting moons and rings.  The construction of the piece itself also offers a great surface area to express additional designs, quotes, stones, and patina.

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Where do you find inspiration within your work space?
I have kept and added to inspirational sketchbooks and scrapbooks for about 15 years, and refer to these regularly.  I was sparked to do this by a past professor of mine.  Through some group discussion, I was shared that I had too many ideas all at once, and could not fathom creating them all.  She responded that I should always record every idea and design in these sketchbooks, because there will be a time in the future where I will be searching ideas and inspiration and these books will be my solutions and a look into my past. On a day-to-day basis, I also love to use Pinterest boards, attend American Craft Council and judged craft shows, and art museums.  Any promotional or inspirational ads/cards/artwork I come across I either save or post on my studio walls.

Rachel Vanatta

Where does down time fit into a day of being productive?
I have very little down time, as I am mother of a 2-year-old daughter, Cozette, who is my number one priority, of course.  We have so much fun together, but my downtime is when she naps, is in preschool or asleep at night. This is when I work on my craft.  I love what I do so down time for me is equivalent to designing and creating jewelry.

How did you celebrate when you learned you were our Design Challenge winner for the Jewelry Design Challenge?
I was at the park with my daughter when I received the call, excitedly I gave her a big hug!  I then proceeded to call select family and friends, and celebrated with my husband over a dinner he made later that night.

Rachel Vanatta

How do you recharge your creativity?
Though it may sound cliché, I am ever interested in the human condition and what we all have in common.  I would love to create a series at some point focused on a specific aspect related to this subject with the creation of conceptual jewelry pieces.  As for now, I mainly listen to Ted Talks and listen/watch documentary pieces relating to people in their environment and their specific situations.

Other than being an artist, what are your other passions in life?
Becoming a mother has been such an amazing experience, and now that our daughter is a toddler, it has been wonderful meeting other families with children the same age, watching our kids play, interact, and learn from each other, while enjoying “parent/adult” time as well!  My husband is also an artist in illustration and graphic arts, so we have a lot in common as far as what we enjoy doing together.  He and I met in Savannah, GA our freshman year at art school and have been together ever since. In addition, I have a love of animals, most recently horses and riding.  I grew up riding English and have recently reignited my passion for it by introducing my daughter to horses, which she has taken on whole-heartedly.

Rachel Vanatta

Do you have any special projects or events that are in the works or that’s floating in your brain right now?
I do have one particular project which have been gradually working on and designing, and hope to “unveil” it this upcoming year!

What are your most essential tools that you must have by your side while you design?
 My bench, where I execute most all designing and work, contain all the tools, torches, etc that I use regularly. Ironic it is mentioned; I must have my water bottles nearby…yes multiple bottles of water, and depending on the time of day, a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.  As I mentioned before, having a thought provoking discussion or inspirational talk to listen to is ideal as well.  Having my dog Holly decide to lay at my feet while I work is extra special, and on a nice day, the windows open for fresh air.

Rachel Vanatta

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a freelance jewelry artist?
Contracts come and go, sometimes the work rolls in and other times it doesn’t.  As difficult as it may be during the slower times, a positive attitude and embracing the “personal time” to recreate yourself, your work, and finally finish those pieces you have been meaning to are priceless. Take the days as they come, the busy and the quiet, for there is something to be gained from both.

What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
“Let go and let God.”
Rachel Vanatta

Which artists do you look up to? 
Todd Reed’s work is inspirational to me, his choice and use of materials, and the way he joins traditional and contemporary stone settings.  In addition, he is self-taught, which is motivational for me to learn new techniques on my own.

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
In hindsight, I would advise myself to reach out for the purpose of bettering yourself and building relationships, but also for the reasoning that you never know where it will take you.  There is nothing to lose by opening yourself up in a fun and professional way.

Rachel Vanatta

What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
I would love to become more proficient in particular stone settings as they would add to my current designs.  I would also love to learn more about grading diamonds and colored gems by attending GIA courses.  I have some knowledge of CAD, and would also like to further my education in computer aided rendering and 3-D printing.

What advice can you offer anyone who is submitting their work to our Jewelry Design Challenge?
I recommend that any contestants state that they are open to critiques and suggestions on their designs, if they truly are.  UncommonGoods has been a complete pleasure to work with, and they know their customer and what they want, so be open and enjoy the feedback!

Maker Stories

Sarah’s “Deer Boy” Charmed Its Way To the Top

November 13, 2013

 7.1“I love Deer Boy. I want to hang him on my wall and pretend he is my boyfriend.” commented one of Sarah Constantino’s many admirers during the September Art Contest. This comment literally made me laugh out loud, partly because it was unexpected and partly because it was pretty much my feeling exactly. At first glance, Deer Boy is simply a bright and whimsical piece to hang in your bedroom for fun wall art decor. But when you take a second look, it starts to play with your eyes and you notice charming details that you perhaps didn’t notice at first: the double lips and ties, the wood-like back drop, the garland caught on his antlers. It’s one of those feel good pieces you could place anywhere in your household for that cozy touch. From her prints to her porcelain to her typography, Sarah’s overall work channels a child-like spirit that us adults sometimes forget we still have. Meet Sarah Constantino, our lastest Art Contest winner who fell in love with her husband through Twitter and mapped out her career choices while drawing unicorns  in her kindergarten class.

Deer Boy

What’s an uncommon fact about you and your hometown?
An uncommon fact about me… I fell in love with my husband in 140 characters on Twitter. (Okay, it took a bit more than that.) We met on Twitter, became friends, and after only meeting in real life for two weeks I decided to pick up my Iowa roots and move down to Florida. It was the craziest/best decision I’ve ever made. It’s been 3 years since I moved and I love my new hometown. An uncommon fact about Cape Coral that I found interesting is that this Gulf Coast city contains more canals than Venice, Italy!

Deer Boy is charming and playful. How did the idea of this design come about?
My husband and I had some holiday parties to attend. I kept noticing that the “wallflowers” of each party were the most interesting people to talk to at each event. As the night progressed things became a bit more surreal as well. I felt inspired when we got back home and I decided to break out the acrylics and paint. Deer Boy and Deer Girl were the end results. I normally don’t paint people, so this was an unusual subject for me.

When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
I started drawing unicorns in kindergarten and I remember thinking that it was the only thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My goals have changed a bit since then, but the drive to create something every day is a strong one for me. I am a self-taught artist and have been able to make a living off drawing, painting, and creating art since I was 18. I used to design for an American craft furniture company and after about 10 years of that, and a lot of growing up,  I knew that I had it in me to go off on my own. Now I get to create whatever I feel like using whatever medium I want. Every. Single. Day. It fulfills that constant desire I have to make, make, make!

How did you celebrate when you learned you were our Design Challenge winner for the Art Contest?
I jumped up and down for awhile. And then I went back to painting. Anyone that knows me personally knows I work a lot. I plan on celebrating later this month with some interesting cocktails and good friends.
Sarah Constantino

Where do you find inspiration within your work space?
I have an inspiration board where I keep a lot of my favorite things (cards from family and friends, a photo of my mom as a little girl, artwork from other artists, color palettes, silly mementos) basically anything that recharges me and makes my eyeballs happy. I also love being able to look out the window and see the sunny Florida surroundings and the activity on the lake behind our house. So many birds! And sometimes a gator or two.

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What are your most essential tools that you must have by your side while you design?
  Coffee. Very, very strong coffee. Paint, markers, pencils, and a giant eraser.
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Where does down time fit into a day of being productive?
Well, to be honest, right now there isn’t a ton of down time. I’m busy with holiday orders from my Etsy shop and need to stay focused to get my creations out the door. It’s my favorite time of the year! When things are slower I like to wake up early and walk around the neighborhood. I take a break here and there to pet my two weirdo cats that keep me company during the day.
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What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft? 
I’m working on hand illustrated typography. I just keep writing out words and phrases and finding a letter shape to express the full meaning of each word. I have several empty notebooks that are now filled with these scribbles.

How do you recharge your creativity?
While I’m creating I like to listen to podcasts, burn through a TV series on Netflix, or listen to books on tape. I go through obsessive stages with my entertainment. Right now I’m really into a few different books on the history of Ancient Rome, Russia, and Genghis Khan. A few months back it was every Game of Thrones book I could get my hands on. Give me a series in sci-fi, history, or fantasy and I am a happy camper.
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Other than being an artist, what else do you do? 
I started my own business called SEWZINSKI and have been lucky enough to stay busy and productive with that. It’s my full-time everything. It started with embroidered wallets that were completely sewn and stitched by hand. It’s evolved into hand painted ceramics and upcycled home decor. It will change into something else in the future as well. Experimentation is how I learn best and  there’s still so many things I’d like to try.
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Do you have any special projects or events that are in the works or that’s floating in your brain right now?
Yes. They are secrets. It’s always good to have secret projects.

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a freelance artist?
Not everyone will like you or your art. Some might like both. Some might like one or the other. It sounds simple, but building a tough skin and taking criticisim about your work can be difficult. It can also be hard to separate yourself from your work. Both those things are important and are still daily struggles for me.
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What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Hey Sarah of 2008, it’s okay to take that risk and go off on your own. Stop being so scared of failure. It keeps you from succeeding!

Which artists do you look up to?
Andy Warhol was one of the first artists I really remember relating to when I was younger. I will always be in love with him. Right now I am really inspired by Ashley Goldberg’s art and career path. I’ve been following her work for awhile and I’d like to develop that beautiful  relationship with color and space she seems to have with my own style of work.
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What are your top three sites you think are essential for an artist to bookmark? 
The Jealous Curator
, My Modern Met, and Brain Pickings.

What quote keeps you motivated?
 “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” -Andy Warhol The more art I create, the better artist I become. If I get too caught up in people’s opinions, or the details in the piece not being perfect, I could lose the chance to create something new with the time I’ve wasted worrying. Keep making, keep moving forward. It’s a great way to finely tune the skills needed and attain new skills to perfect through proliferation.

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What advice can you offer anyone who are submitting their work to our Ongoing Art Contest?
Go for it. I submitted a piece that is a different subject from the bright colors and crazy animals and folk art that I normally paint. Take a chance and you could discover a whole new direction to take your work.

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Janelle Haskin

November 8, 2013

Janelle Haskin Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Living and working in the social media world, you make a lot of friends you never meet. You share Tweets, Pins, and like each other’s Instagrams, but your paths usually don’t cross for many reasons. Janelle was one of those friends of mine. I connected with her a couple years ago and let her know when we were hosting out Winter Accessories Design Challenge hoping she could share the opportunity with her crocheting friends and perhaps enter herself. As the fates (and our design panel judges) had it, she was destined to win the contest so we could finally meet (among many other great perks of winning a design challenge!).

Stepping into her home was not like stepping into a typical studio tour. I was greeted with brunch and mimosas – it felt more like a play date. An hour later I found myself on the floor of her spare bedroom where she stores her supplies and designs, playing with yarn, hooks, and a ukulele (of all things) and I thought I was going to have to call my mom to see if I could stay longer.

Janelle and I speak the same language – she too was taught to knit and crochet by her grandmothers and spends her evenings with a project on the sofa. Never wanting to have idle hands, she has come up with some beautiful designs to keep her fingers busy, one of which won over the judges of our design challenge. Meet Janelle and welcome to her Philadelphia home – a veritable crocheter’s paradise.

Janelle Haskin Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

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Maker Stories

Judi’s “A Tree Grows” Necklace is in Full Bloom

September 26, 2013

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Haven’t we all daydreamed about quitting a job to pursue a creative passion full-time? Some of us only take it as far as that, simply daydreaming, while others actually take that deep plunge into the scary, unknown abyss of no longer being on payroll. Judi Powers was one of those people. She says, “After September 11th I, like so many people, realized that life is too short not to live each day as fully as possible.” Judi had the courage to leave her stable career in publishing, yet she still had no idea where she was going in terms of making a living. She decided to dip her toes into different fields she felt like she’d be passionate about until she finally met her dream career match: jewelry making. “I love the stories individual pieces tell about specific moments in our lives. I still have my first piece of jewelry.” When Judi realized that designing jewelry was her new calling, not once did she look back and regret her choice of leaving her first career.

Inspired by the combination of nature and art history, Judi’s stunning “A Tree Grow” necklace branched out to become our latest jewelry winning design. Read about what Judi did when she first heard the great news, her process of literally making her pieces stronger, and her advice for winning one of UncommonGoods’ design challenges.

What’s an Uncommon fact about yourself and your jewelry?

An Uncommon fact about my jewelry is that much of it is inspired by the paintings, sculptures, and architecture I studied as an art history student. For example, I’m currently working on a series of midi rings inspired by Rogier van der Weyden’s “Portrait of Isabella of Portugal”. And my “A Tree Grows” necklace is informed by nature as much as it is by Whistler’s “Portrait of Mrs. Frederick R. Leyland”. An Uncommon fact about me is that the first time I saw Van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Wedding Portrait”, about nine years ago, I burst into tears. I was overwhelmed by the intricate detail, the vivid color, and the rich texture. I’d only ever seen it in books or presentations and it’s even more spectacular in person. Totally geeky, yet totally true!

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What were you doing before you decided to become a jewelry designer and what drove you into the jewelry field?

I had a wonderful first career in book publishing. I handled marketing and publicity for countless amazingly talented authors and illustrators. It was a great proving ground for learning about business, and it was also an incredible environment in which to forge lasting friendships.

After September 11th I, like so many people, realized that life is too short not to live each day as fully as possible. So I started spending more time with friends and taking a variety of classes. We tried dancing (disaster!), flower arranging (wonderful, but too depressing once the flowers wilted), cooking (fabulous but fattening), and lastly, jewelry making.

From my first class at 92Y I was immediately hooked, though initially I took it slowly and took one class a semester or so over 10 years at the Y, SVA, and Jewelry Arts Institute. Once I decided that I wanted to become a professional jewelry maker I quit my publishing career and I attended FIT’s one-year jewelry design program. What drew me to jewelry were the materials, especially metal. I love its malleability, how it can have a huge variety of textures, the way it feels, and that it’s durable!

I have always loved jewelry.  I love the stories individual pieces tell about specific moments in our lives. I still have my first piece of jewelry—a monogrammed silver locket my grandmother gave me for my fifth birthday. It’s my hope that my jewelry will tell special stories for those who wear it. In this way my publishing and jewelry careers truly intersect.

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 What’s the first thing you did after you found out you were the winner of the Jewelry Design Challenge?

I jumped around my apartment, hugged my dog, and then called my mother. My mom has been my biggest champion in pursuing a career as a jewelry maker, and there are no words to express how meaningful her encouragement and belief in me has been.  She and I had endless conversations about whether I should follow my heart and pursue a jewelry career, or whether I should stay in a career that I liked but was emotionally outgrowing. I had a real crisis of conscience while trying to decide. So many people I knew were unemployed and looking for jobs, while I had a good, stable one. I felt both guilty for wanting to walk away from security and terrified to try something new and unstable.  It was during that period that one of the characters on Mad Men said something like, “Stable is that step backwards between successful and failing.” That really resonated with me. Soon after, I knew I would pursue a new career as a jewelry designer, risks and all.

Judi-Mother

It’s unanimous here at UncommonGoods that your “A Tree Grows” necklace is stunning. How did you come up with the idea to design such a realistic branch design for jewelry wear?

Thank you! I’ve always loved trees and branches: their lines are so graceful and elegant and they’re also a bit wild. In my second semester at FIT I took an amazing casting class. I learned that you can cast almost anything only if you can truly envision the outcome in metal and only if you can make the object thick enough to be sturdy.  Years ago, I had tried to model a tree branch in wax but it didn’t have the level of detail that an actual branch has. It just didn’t work. So when I took the casting class, I told my professor that I really wanted to cast a small tree branch and she said: “Go for it! Just be sure you reinforce it and make it durable.” I took her advice, found a small branch in my Brooklyn neighborhood, reinforced it with Mod-Podge, and took it to my caster. When I picked up the piece I was completely amazed!  All of the detail from nature was perfectly preserved. I had this delicate sterling silver branch that looked like the real thing. I actually choked up when I saw it.
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You actually submitted your jewelry into one of our past jewelry design challenges and didn’t make it into the semi-finalist round. You decided to not be discouraged, and submitted an entry again after joining one of our design events. Do you believe winning the challenge the second try was much more satisfying than if you were to win the first time?

The first time I submitted I was hoping to be selected but I didn’t expect it. The design challenge was the first competition outside of school that I’d entered, and I knew there’d be serious competition, both from my FIT classmates and  from countless talented designers whose work I’m still getting to know. After attending the design event, I learned the single-most valuable lesson: submit an image of someone wearing your piece! Winning the challenge was really satisfying, of course, but also really humbling because I was getting both positive and constructive feedback during the voting. I was competing against some extraordinarily beautiful pieces, all of which were so different and so special.

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What’s the biggest advice you can give to our future design contestants after that specific experience?

Attend UncommonGoods’ design events. If you can’t get to them, attend any local events where you can meet professionals and peers. Take notes on what the speakers are saying because their advice will come in handy. Don’t be shy and ask questions! Be open to feedback because it’s all helpful. Take photos of your pieces on a person. Follow up, even if it’s just to say a very simple thank you. Always, and I really mean always, wear a piece of jewelry you’ve made. If you don’t want to wear your work, I think it’s a little unreasonable to expect someone else to want to wear it.

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Do you have any silly trick or habits you do to keep yourself motivated? 

When I’m struggling to focus, I know it’s time to step away from what I’m doing. Literally. I get up and take my puppy for a nice long walk around my Brooklyn neighborhood and clear my head. In the warmer months, I stop and look at plants and trees for design ideas and in the cooler months I look at architecture and snowflakes for inspiration. I’ve learned the hard way that whenever I try to force something that it just doesn’t work, and jewelry really has to work. I also drink lots of water!

Can you describe the process of what you do to make your necklaces better, stronger, and more wearable. 

I’m so glad you asked this question! Some of the comments I received during the voting were concerns that my necklace looked like it might scratch the skin or bend. I’m glad people brought that up.  For every “A Tree Grows” necklace  I cast, I actually break off the more fragile parts and re-attach them onto the central line of the branch. By doing this I reinforce the structure of the necklace and build on it with a bit of additional solder.  After the branch is reassembled I tumble it first with stainless steel shot. Then I use soft pumice pellets to harden the metal and soften the edges of the leaves and branch ends. I believe jewelry has to be pleasing to wear and I personally road test every piece to make sure it’s both comfortable and has structural integrity. There is a bit of springiness to the metal in the finished piece, which enhances the organic nature of the necklace.

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 Do you mind describing your studio to us and the materials that you use?

I work out of Brooklyn Metal Works, a wonderful, collaborative creative space for jewelers and metal smiths.  The owners, Erin Daley and Brian Weissman, are building a fantastic community there. They have regular exhibits, artists’ lectures, and classes. My personal jewelry education continues to grow there. I love being around other jewelers and artists because we bounce ideas off of one another, brainstorm about construction,  share new tricks and techniques we’ve learned, and we all respect each other. And there’s always great music in the background!

When I’m sketching and designing, I work from home at my father’s antique drafting table. It’s scarred with hundreds of pin holes where old blueprints had once been tacked. I’ve added a few more holes to it, as well as some paint splotches and ink stains! I love that it’s a piece that he, I, and others have used as a tool to support creativity. And he’s really proud that I’m using it, too.

In terms of materials, I use recycled metals in all my cast pieces and I source as much recycled material as possible for the pieces I fabricate.  I’m happy that I’m a professional jeweler now because I have ready access to recycled material. Ten years ago when I was first starting, that just wasn’t the case.  I save every shaving, filing, and sprue and recycle all of my scrap metals.

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What’s one of your all-time favorite inspirational quotes? 

I have so many of them! It’s too difficult to pick only one, so here are two:

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” -Paulo Coehlo

And this one by Rabindranath Tagore always resonates with me: “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.”

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 What does your jewelry illustrate about yourself?

My jewelry mirrors my two great loves: art and nature. I don’t have a specific philosophy per se, but I do want every piece to be wearable and beautiful. And because my own jewelry stories give me such joy, I sincerely hope that my customers will have their own happy stories to tell about my pieces for years, even decades, to come!