Inspired by their own histories and the world’s great ornamental traditions, these local jewelers create magic with lustrous metals and gemstones
Samantha Goldberg readily confesses to being a victim of wanderlust. Now 29, she has made solo trips to Russia, Cambodia, Estonia, Africa, and China, reveling in an unusual kind of cultural serendipity by following local recommendations at each destination. She launched her jewelry line in the same free-spirited way that she travels, choosing elements of the unexpected, such as druzy agates, Brazilian stones that she describes as having an almost cosmic quality. They come in shades ranging from deep blue to golden brown. “You can’t tell if it’s from crystallized molten lava or from an asteroid,” Goldberg says. “It’s as if it fell from the heavens.”
She embellishes the agates with shimmering platinum details and hangs them from heavy silver chains that she oxidizes to darken the metal. Goldberg’s chunky colored pieces are rough and distressed, and they have a flinty elegance. It’s a look that’s truly rock ‘n’ roll-Keith Richards and Stevie Nicks all the way.
A sales associate at a high-end Gold Coast specialty store, Goldberg is bombarded by inspiration at work and by requests from shoppers who are drawn to the edgy silver handcuff necklace and skull ring that she usually wears. “People love skulls,” says Goldberg. She created her first molded skull ring for a colleague after apprenticing with a local silver- smith, where she swept floors and observed until he let her begin to craft her own designs.
Goldberg is a devotee of slim-fitting Balenciaga pants, shapely Narciso Rodriguez dresses, and vampy Alain Tondowski heels-elements of a clean style with an edge that is reflected in her work and that buyers find appealing. In the few months that her jewelry has been for sale at Jake, the first store to carry her collection, it has sold out. “The cool thing is that you can wear it with a C&C tank or a Balenciaga suit,” Goldberg says. “A piece of jewelry speaks to who you are.”
Since her first glimpse of an exhibition featuring Greek gold at London’s British Museum in 1995, Whitney Abrams, 40, has known what she was meant to do. After studying jewelry making in Dublin and Florence, she now creates her Etruscan-inspired pieces in a sunny well-outfitted studio behind her namesake store in River North. The tools of Abrams’s trade include “a lot of utensils that look like dental instruments,” she says, and, to fashion her 22-karat gold jewelry, kiln temperatures up to 1,400 degrees. She has found that people respond to the high-karat gold for its deep color, its warm feel against the skin, and the richness it gives to rubies, tourmalines, and champagne-colored diamonds.
Abrams’s daily wardrobe frequently includes a dramatic swirl of black fabric to set off the gold of a hefty Roman bracelet capped with a large Tahitian pearl-her own creation and her signature piece. People remember her for it, and like them, she believes in her jewelry’s power to make a mark on someone’s mind and heart. Abrams loves creating special-occasion pieces for clients who have become regulars after she designed their engagement rings; and none of the couples who wear her custom wedding rings, she says, have divorced. That’s powerful alchemy of a different sort, and no less precious than the rose-cut diamonds that Abrams favors for wedding bands.
She finds inspiration in the stained-glass windows of synagogues and churches, especially the Second Presbyterian Church at 1936 South Michigan Avenue, and in the well-considered displays at the small Loyola University Museum of Art, which recently opened on the university’s Water Tower Campus. “It’s nice that Chicago is getting some good small museums after the closing of the Terra,” Abrams says, a fitting sentiment for someone who knows that good things come in small packages.
A reverence for gold runs in Cheena Chandra’s veins-this luminous metal has always played a major role in India, providing personal security for a woman in her marriage. Her grandmother sold her own jewelry in lean times to support the family, but now her mother revels in arms full of 18-karat bangles studded with kundan-uncut diamonds and emeralds. Chandra’s designs are a modern take on her Indian birthright; her delicate collection is feminine, elegant, and effortlessly glamorous.
Chandra, 37, travels to India four or five times a year by plane, train, and ricksha to choose stones for her embellished and etched 18-karat-gold earrings and necklaces. Inspired by a lifetime of living near the water, she favors stones that evoke the lake and the sea-blue and green aquamarines, topaz and ocean-blue apetites-to form earrings up to five inches long. Alicia Keys and Hope Davis have been pictured wearing Chandra’s shimmering stones for red-carpet drama, but her designs have mass appeal, as well. “My boyfriend thinks it’s hysterical that I sell jewelry off my body wherever I go,” she says. Her recent variations on hoop earrings are in the shape of a paisley swirl and a jhumka, an Indian version of a chandelier.
Between trips to India, Chandra spends time at the lake and at favorite spots on Devon Avenue. She also appreciates a glass of wine and dinner at Bice, which recalls her travels in Italy. For nights out, she pairs Diane von Furstenberg and Marc Jacobs dresses with Jimmy Choo and Gucci boots-“stilettos, absolutely,” she says with a laugh-and one of her vintage handbags. “I like the balance of being Eastern and Indian, but having grown up here,” Chandra says. “It’s a classic equilibrium.”
Jonathan Rutledge has always been happiest working with his hands. He began making wooden toys as a child, and as an adult he spent three and a half years repairing the sheet metal of F-16 jets in the air force and then saving lives as a local firefighter and paramedic. Off duty, he worked with the jeweler’s tools that he used when he was studying fine arts in college. In 1997, following several successful high-end craft shows, Rutledge, now 35, abandoned his other professions to pursue his passion-fashioning high-karat gold into classically inspired jewelry.
“Sometimes I look at the clock and see the day is gone, but I still want to work,” he says, perhaps in order to handcraft up to 450 dainty links into a textured 22-karat gold chain-dramatic enough on its own but spectacular when dangling a beautifully set pink tourmaline and a black pearl. Rutledge uses the techniques of the Etruscans, who dominated Italian culture in 500 B.C., and can spend up to 70 hours on a single piece, refining his designs with granulation and repoussé, patterns formed by hammering designs out from the reverse side.
Yellow gold is making a comeback, Rutledge says, replacing platinum, white gold, and even 14-karat gold, which is no longer the standard for fine jewelry. “The kind of work I do needs gold with fewer impurities to fuse properly,” he explains. Rutledge likes to use pink stones-sapphires and tourmalines-for their harmonious look with the metal and also admires the subtle gleam of gold sapphires,which sparkle in the cuffs of his favorite blue shirts.
Many of Rutledge’s clients discovered him at the 2004 American Craft Exposition in Evanston, at trunk shows at Frances Heffernan in Winnetka, and through passionate word of mouth. In December, he will participate in the juried One of a Kind Show and Sale at the Merchandise Mart. Asked if he misses life in the firehouse, Rutledge professes an occasional longing for those bygone days. “Some of those guys,” he says, “could cook like you wouldn’t believe.”
Even if you ran into her at one of her son’s frequent soccer matches or taking in a game with her family at Wrigley Field or U.S. Cellular, Tracey Mayer would stand out, but not as a soccer mom. A prolific designer in 950 silver-a step above sterling in purity-her lean style and flashing rings give away her creative bent.
Five years ago, on a vacation from teaching fashion design classes at the Illinois Institute of Art, Mayer visited Goa, on the west coast of India. Mesmerized by the work of silversmiths there, she decided to launch a line of her own. Now 40,she is also influenced by other cultures and the natural world. Snowflakes, ancient coins, and woven weblike strands studded with semiprecious stones are incorporated into her earrings, bracelets, chunky rings, and cuff links. Indonesian artisans bring her drawings to life in silver and are currently working to perfect a sparkling peace sign. How does Mayer know when a design is finally finished? “If they send me the sample and I don’t take it off for days because I love wearing it, that’s a good sign,” she says with a laugh.
“I want choices with my jewelry since my mood changes,” Mayer adds, explaining the variety of her designs. “Sometimes I’m in the mood for ripped-up jeans and an old coin necklace, but at other times I want to put on a 70-carat ring that sparkles like crazy.” Yet she is not a woman who lives by jewelry alone. A burgeoning style industry unto herself, Mayer has developed a line of animal-print pashminas made of cashmere so fine that it can be passed through the band of one of her cocktail rings, as well as a collection of long crocheted scarves with gold, bronze, and pewter threads. She continues to visit India yearly. “I need that connection,” Mayer says, “and I find the underlying sense of peace in Asian countries very stimulating.”