Growing up on Cumberland Island, a 17.5-mile-long island that's a protected National Seashore off the coast of Georgia, set Gogo Ferguson's career as a jewelry designer into motion. For her, every find in nature is an inspiration—from an armadillo shell to racoon penis bones to seaweed to sea urchins. And they're all transformed into functional homewares and jewelry, cast in gold, sterling silver and vermeil.
“For the most part, you cannot improve on nature’s designs," she says.
Ferguson, who's also a descendant of the Carnegie family, is renowned for her work. She was honored by Atlanta's High Museum with a 25-year retrospective of her work; has designed jewelry gifted to dignitaries at the G8 Summit on Sea Island Georgia and for the Atlanta Olympics; and her work is in two Presidential collections, as well as movies including Tomorrowland and Den of Thieves. Plus, she designed wedding rings for her dear friends, the late John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette, who were married on Cumberland Island.
Today, the island remains her primary home, and you can find her pieces all over the world—including the gift shop at Sarasota Art Museum. We caught up with Ferguson to learn more about her charmed upbringing and unique jewelry.
Who was your creative inspiration?
“My grandmother, who was deaf from scarlet fever, lived on Cumberland Island for more than 30 years. She knew every square inch of the island. We would walk the tide line in search of new treasures and then adorn ourselves, and our homes, with our found items. I was fascinated by how beautifully and precisely an [animal] skeleton fit together. She taught us how to respect land and to look at nature in different way."
You’ve turned your love of nature into a career. How did the concept for your jewelry line come to you?
“Being on Cumberland Island grounds me. I was a young, single mother and I wanted to figure out how to live here and be independent. I was determined to make this company work. And it did—it just kept growing. Now it’s a multi-million dollar company, I’m represented around the country, in Mexico and in Europe.
“The native inhabitants of the island would create dolls made of pottery, ladles from conch shells, and adornments from shark's teeth. I can tell where the middens are, so I know where to look for these treasures.
“I've also been inspired by [the native inhabitants'] ability to drill a lengthwise conch bead, shaped like a peg, for a ceremonial earpiece, which an archaeologist told me was created for a high-level tribesperson. That’s something that I can't even do with my diamond bit drill!"
Will you share a memorable moment you experienced in nature?
“A couple years ago, Cumberland Island experienced two bad back-to-back hurricanes. To me, that meant that treasures could found on the beach. I'm one of those people who can zero in on a shark’s tooth faster than anyone—like a Springer spaniel. And, at first light, I know where to find pieces that are millions of years old, such camel teeth, a 25 lb. Woolly Mammoth molar, Megalodon shark teeth and Native American arrowheads, with perfectly serrated flint.
“I have a passion for collecting these things. But its more than just that. There’s something energetic that happens in the moment before I connect with one of these pieces that’s indescribable.”
If you could choose anyone in the world, who would you design for?
“Any day of the week, I would design for Frida Kahlo, even though she didn't wear a lot of jewelry. What I admire about her artistic eye is how she would hone in on the details of nature, like a calla lily stamen. She saw nature as something beautiful. I relate to her in that I look at natural elements in the same way. I have a vast collection of everything from seed pods to bones that sits on a table in my studio. I may walk by for them for years before something speaks to me to me, then I study it in depth until it inspires a piece.
What about a fashion house you’d like to collaborate with?
“I would love to work with Ralph Lauren. I have always loved his simple yet elegant feel and style. And he's thoughtful about design, too—careful to let the natural design lead because it is beautiful as it is, and doesn’t need extra adornment that will distract from it."
Lastly, what has moved you recently?
“Given everything that’s going on in the world, I feel the turmoil of it all. However, I know that I am blessed to live on this serene and peaceful island.
“When I heard John Lennon’s son, Sean, sing Imagine recently in honor of Ukraine, I was moved. It meant so much back then and yet it still has the same meaning today. Incredible.”