Seattle boasts a vibrant jewelry scene ranging from conceptual art jewelers to fashion jewelry that captures the current zeitgeist.
In certain circumstances, people will let strangers take their hand, touch their collarbone, brush their cheek. Even in Seattle.
It’s part of jewelry’s allure. Necklaces, earrings and rings give us a reason to lean in and forgo personal space so we can share in exquisite craftsmanship, a concept or something that’s just plain pretty.
And in Seattle, a city that epitomizes Scandinavian reserve and understatement in fashion and jewelry, a vibrant community of jewelry artists has evolved, creating compelling work that pushes us to move closer.
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The community here includes both art jewelers creating one-of-a-kind pieces on the conceptual edge and designers who capture the current zeitgeist. Many here are inspired by nature, science and architecture, yet despite a common starting point, take utterly different paths and reach radically different conclusions.
Rebbecca Tomas, jewelry and metals manager at Pratt Fine Arts Center, chose to move to Seattle eight years ago partly for the large concentration of jewelers, art jewelers, metalsmiths and blacksmiths in the area.
“There’s something about Seattle that just draws people out,” Tomas says. “It’s a really giving, generous community.”
The Seattle Metals Guild has around 200 members, and Pratt’s enrollment in jewelry classes has skyrocketed over the past three years, with classes filling to capacity and wait lists. North Seattle Community College and Danaca Design, a jewelry-design center in the University District, also teach classes on jewelry techniques like soldering, enameling glass and folding sheet metal. Galleries like Facèré Jewelry Art downtown and Souvenir in Ballard carry art jewelry, and plenty of boutiques feature local work.
The jewelry is held aloft by a receptive Seattle-area audience, which appreciates refined and unusual work. And it is even willing to pay.
“They want high quality,” says Becky Buford, owner of Fremont boutiques Essenza and Les Amis. “They love it when it really looks handmade. They love it when they can layer it with other pieces. They love it when they can wear it often.”
For decades, the University of Washington metalsmith program has drawn talented students with teachers including the late Ramona Solberg, renowned for her found-object art, and Mary Lee Hu, famous for exquisite woven gold work. The program has produced many of the region’s most respected art jewelers, including Lori Talcott, Maria Phillips and Gina Pankowski, but graduated its last students in June. It’s still not clear what impact the program’s demise will have on the local jewelry community, which already has retreated from its height in the 1990s. But the do-it-yourself movement has given jewelry new momentum. And the community remains both fundamentally strong and connected, artists say.
Such richness allows us to contemplate every sort of splurge from $50 to thousands of dollars on a piece that might be cheeky or serious, delicate or large and sculptural, glamorous or offbeat. We have selected five artists who represent what’s happening in Seattle jewelry, from fashion to high-end art jewelry.
Kimberly Baker: Tapping into the edgy-feminine fashionable
Long before Kimberly Baker’s pieces were draped around the necks of starlets, the designer sold her work off her own neck, wrists and ears to women who adored her distinctly punk-rock vibe.
Lately, Baker’s “Wolfette” ring appeared on diminutive Mary Kate Olsen for a Nylon magazine cover. Her “S” ring curled around the finger of actress Blake Lively’s character during the first season of the CW network’s trendsetting show “Gossip Girl.” Indie actress Zooey Deschanel coveted a pair of Baker earrings after a photo shoot.
Baker’s punk-rock roots reach back to high school in Spokane, but her edgy-yet-feminine aesthetic has vaulted her into a world of celebrity connections and placement in prized stores like Fred Segal.
Baker has stuck with a combination of brash and subtle in her 18k-gold vermeil and sterling-silver lines. From a distance, her work is delicate and pretty, but closer up you might see a tiny gold grenade paired with dainty hearts and bunnies, or medallions that flip to say: “Money is the root of all evil.”
“I like the idea of a tender and tough girl, because I think that’s what every woman is,” Baker says.
She also likes big and bold, and her own look usually boasts a big necklace and cocktail ring. She recently wore “Chief Joseph,” a large ring of a chief in a feathered headdress. She cites influences such as the book “Cabinet of Natural Curiosities,” museums, architecture and popular culture in her designs, but inspiration can come from anywhere. A stingray wallet she bought in Mexico gave her the idea for a stingray-textured cuff.
Baker, 39, worked at local boutiques and as a makeup artist while doing jewelry on the side before she went full-time about seven years ago. She once made all the jewelry for her line, but now designs, often sketching from home or at a park, and a production manager and casting company make most of her pieces.
Now she has a flagship store in Fremont, but before that Baker was growing her business in boutiques, through a stint at Nordstrom and some magazine features when she met publicist Jill Hammer at an Emmys party, where Baker gave jewelry away to celebrities. Hammer got Baker’s work into magazines like Teen Vogue and Glamour and to stylists, who in turn put Baker’s jewelry on stars like Scarlett Johansson and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The stylists for “Gossip Girl,” which is driving the current luxe, preppy look, have used Baker’s jewelry on nearly every character in the cast.
Baker likes seeing her work on stars, especially those with style she admires, but she has her sights set on a particularly dazzling one. “Chief Joseph” is the piece she has in mind.
“My goal is to get this on Johnny Depp,” she says. “Johnny Depp needs that ring.”
Jennifer Howard Kicinski: Making complex forms look simple
Give Jennifer Howard Kicinski a puzzle and she has trouble letting go. Layer that with a gift for rendering the three-dimensional world, and it’s easier to understand how Howard Kicinski comes up with her mind-bending jewelry.
Howard Kicinski sets her own rules. She may decide to make a piece from different-sized heptagons or triangles. Her metal and mica forms echo the crystalline or cellular shapes from the natural world that inspire her. The results look complex, but they’re based on simple construction. Looking closely, even the inexperienced can decipher how she might have put them together.
But ordinary people can’t do it. The desk at her shared studio space in the Central District is littered with paper forms of complicated, original origami. They are the solutions to her puzzles.
“I like to create a puzzle and solve it myself,” she says. “I have an interest in structures, how things go together, and stretching those limits.”
A Texas native, Howard Kicinski has been pushing the limits of concept and technique since she finished a master’s in fine arts in jewelry and metalsmithing at the University of Oregon in 2001. Since she and her architect husband moved to Seattle that year, her work has appeared in galleries around the country, and she is represented in New York by Charon Kransen Arts gallery. In Seattle, she has shown at Souvenir in Ballard.
As a child, Howard Kicinski used to sort and categorize — but not wear — her great grandmother’s costume-jewelry collection. At 33, Howard Kicinski often wears minimal jewelry and dresses more for the manual labor of jewelry than the showpieces she turns out.
Jewelry, she came to understand, suited her meticulous nature. She recalls a painting class where an instructor chided her for making tiny brush strokes on a large canvas and boldly painted over her handiwork. She left class in a fit of pique.
From her first jewelry class she was fascinated with metal and was amazed to learn she could make a sheet of it three-dimensional with a hammer. “That seemed totally magical to me,” she says, “like I learned some big secret.”
Howard Kicinski has explored unusual materials like wax, which she molded around three-dimensional structures and embedded with beads. But more recently she’s been captivated by translucent mica.
Primarily interested in materials and form, she is not into political statements or storytelling with her jewelry. Instead, she says, “I want to make things people say 30 years from now: ‘That’s really interesting.’ “
Andy Cooperman: Creating commentary that draws conversation
Andy Cooperman knows the power of jewelry. A few years ago he was at a party with his wife, who wore an optical lens neckpiece he had designed. He thought the wearer would decide how and when to show what the lens revealed, but that’s not what happened.
At the party, Cooperman watched as person after person crossed a slippery deck to get a closer look. He watched as they plucked it off his wife’s chest. He watched as they moved it around to focus on the tiny diamond inside.
“I was amazed,” he says.
One client told him she needs to feel confident the day she wears a ring of his because it gets so much attention.
“I think that’s what this level of ring is about,” he says. “You’re wearing a piece, you need to be prepared to have a conversation about it.”
It makes sense, considering. Cooperman has used his jewelry to vent about the Roman Catholic Church sexual-abuse scandals and to scorn in-your-face huge diamond engagement rings. If you took the time to ask, you could learn about royal jelly, the honeybee secretion fed to larvae to create queen bees, from one piece. Optical lenses reveal details like a tiny fang.
“I like building objects that illustrate smaller, quieter moments we can’t see,” he explains.
But some are unquestionably loud. One ring series with real, full-size porcupine quills is both science and history: The quills are the animal’s defense, but long have been collected for decoration. Piercing the air from a perch on a person’s hand, they become what they were on the animal — a warning, protective.
For Cooperman, jewelry’s allure is its small, portable scale and its sculptural qualities. And, as he tells students around the country, unlike some art, jewelry changes depending on where it is seen: on the body, in the hand, as part of an image, in a gallery.
The energetic and talkative Cooperman, 50, works out of a studio behind his Ballard home, surrounded by small anvils and dozens of tools. He majored in studio art in college in upstate New York and moved to Seattle in 1984 with his wife, Kim. He refined his technique working at jewelry stores and making bridges and crowns for dentists. He’s been published in art-jewelry books and prominent jewelry magazines, and has had pieces in the Tacoma Art Museum as well as one in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Cooperman considered being a marine biologist, entomologist or a writer, but took a jewelry class after he was drawn to a brass box a friend made in jewelry class. He was amazed to learn metal could look like wood or skin. He focused on sea creatures in his early work, and continues to look to insects, animals and science for inspiration. A stylistic tail that adds movement still lingers on many pieces.
For Cooperman, jewelry can be both commentary and archive — he has done pieces that include ashes.
“What is a more personal experience than that?”
Jamie Joseph: Crafting gems that rock
A Jamie Joseph ring can be traced essentially within a studio in a brick South Seattle building.
There, husband Jeremy and another employee cut and texture glorious pieces of stone. Master jewelers sit at nearby workbenches where gold glints under lamps, setting polished stones into bezels, using pliers to twist metal into place and carving wax. A business team in the corner manages sales.
Joseph might be found in her loft office or at a workbench playing with metal and stones as she contemplates new designs.
The craftsmanship is part of the appeal — and the cost — of her colorful and girlishly indulgent designs. Her jewelers work with more than 100 kinds of gemstones, cutting and polishing them into glowing statement rings often bedazzled with a diamond “beauty mark,” dangling drop earrings and opulent necklaces and bracelets in minimalist settings. Her friends call it “organic bling.”
At trade shows, women pore over the 250 or so rings she brings, looking at stones such as clear blue Peruvian opal, smoky green chrysoprase and andradite, a black garnet.
“I always say the stone picks you,” Joseph says.
But stones might have picked Joseph. Growing up, she loved hunting for rocks on family vacations and stored her collection in Barbie-doll cases. Her first ring in jewelry class mixed silver and gold with a small amethyst — a stone in her favorite color.
Joseph has turned that love of rocks into a career where she can hunt for rocks and call it work. At 39, she has built an enterprise, and her line is in prominent fashion retailers Bergdorf Goodman and Portland-based jewelry store Twist. Movie stars such as Cameron Diaz, Kirsten Dunst and even Elizabeth Taylor own Jamie Joseph pieces.
When she and Jeremy moved to Seattle from Kansas in the early 1990s, Joseph waited tables, took jewelry-making classes here, learned ancient metalsmithing techniques in New York, and made dangling silver bear earrings she sold at Grateful Dead shows.
But that amethyst ring had set the tone with mixed metals and stones. She continues with a handcrafted approach, uses non-conflict diamonds, which are mined and sold legally, and recycles her gold to save resources. Her work is temperamentally suited to the Pacific Northwest, though many of her collectors do not know she is based here. Some cities demand perfect stones, while Seattleites appreciate rings that sometimes showcase inclusions or other imperfections.
She also has a bridal line now, and Jeremy recently introduced a men’s line with rings, bracelets and cuff links made from spikes he finds near railroad tracks.
Joseph’s favorite part of the job still is gemstone trade shows, where she looks for interesting stones with clarity and translucence. Vendors know to send samples to her. She can’t help herself.
Her jewelers make the jewelry, but her imprint is there.
“These pieces have a heartbeat because our hands are on them,” she says.
Cynthia Toops: Patience pays off
One big difference between Cynthia Toops and the rest of us is patience.
If Toops happens upon an appealing piece of driftwood, a perch on the mantle is too obvious. Instead, she’ll spend 70 or 80 hours carving it into a beautiful, voluptuous bangle. She recently learned to enamel glass beads and is making stylized portraits so elaborate some require up to 12 firings in the kiln. For felted pieces, Toops will jab raw wool with a felting needle for 50 or 60 hours before she is satisfied with the result.
“There’s no reason a soft, squishy bracelet is no good,” she says. “It’s just not how I like it. When I’m felting, I’m like a mad scientist.”
Toops, 52, is best known for micro mosaics constructed from polymer clay rolled thread-thin and painstakingly placed to create detailed portraits. But she applies that same intensity to all her art, juggling micro-mosaics with clay beads, felting, drawing and now enamel glass beads.
For all her patience, Toops is easily distracted.
“If I’m supposed to be doing beads, I want to work on felt. If I’m supposed to be doing felt, I want to do a mosaic,” she says. “I just get excited about doing different things.”
A biologist by training, Toops studied printmaking at the University of Washington. She started making polymer clay beads to help support an addiction — shared with glassmaker husband Dan Adams — to buying beads. In their North Seattle home, display cases house thousands of beads they have collected, while a massive printmaking cabinet adorned with folk art holds more — their own work and other art jewelers they admire.
Toops’ work has been on display at the Tacoma Art Museum, and she has been published in numerous books and magazines both on her own and with Adams. In Seattle, her work is regularly on display at Facèré Jewelry Art.
Toops grew up in Hong Kong surrounded by Western art books and pieces such as carved ivory cicadas ranging from realistic to abstract that her doctor father made in his spare time. She often looks to ethnic and folk art for inspiration, but also will turn out a “Rolodex” bracelet, with thin sheets of polymer clay baked into shapes such as wing forms ranging from moths to dragonflies and butterflies to reflect metamorphosis.
The micro-mosaics, inspired by Roman micro-mosaics and Huichol Indian seed beads, are most like drawing for her. In her basement studio, she will sketch lightly into a background of polymer clay until she comes up with an expressive face with details such as bangs, hats with flowers or a pet. In a box filled with rolled-out clay threads separated by color, she delicately builds the mosaic bit by bit. Enameled beads are even more precarious. After she carefully adds colored powder, she relies on Adams to move the bead to the kiln for firing.
But Toops is matter-of-fact about her ability to sit and work on one piece for more hours than we can imagine. Adams teases her: “As long as it’s tedious, she’s happy.”
Nicole Tsong is a Seattle Times staff reporter. She can be reached at email@example.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.