Flights of Fantasy

By staff August 1, 2008

Everyone knows Sarasota is a mecca for the arts, but the extraordinary artistry of local jewelers remains largely anonymous. That’s because bespoke jewelry (created specifically for the customer) is carried home as soon as it completed; and clients often want their custom designs and personal identities kept under the radar.  Walk into any fine jewelry store from St. Armands Circle to Main Street and you’ll see wondrous designs in dazzling cases.  But behind the scenes, Sarasota’s master jewelers are sweeping clients off their feet with the custom work they’ve opened their vaults and sketchbooks to reveal on these pages.

While most of the country is just awakening to the benefits of custom jewelry, it is de rigueur for clients of St. Armands’ Queens’ Wreath Jewels. In fact, owner Tina Little has an international reputation for her one-off creations, designed and hand fabricated by staff custom jeweler Tanja McIntosh. A native of South Africa, McIntosh is trained in the European style. She does everything herself, including mixing her own formulas for white, yellow and rose gold. The jeweler builds every piece by hand, and it’s all recorded in an astonishing portfolio of sketches. 

“When I opened the store, I didn’t want to do custom,” Little confides. “I had never found a jeweler who could meet my standards.” Little’s obsession with perfection is shared by McIntosh, and the pair reports 99.9 percent customer satisfaction. “Beauty is the key, and success comes from designing to each customer’s personal style,” Little says.

Upscale consumers are opting for custom because of the “massification” of luxury brands, many of them acquired by publicly traded companies who have built sales but lost cachet with lower-priced bridge lines. Switzerland native Ron Moser and master goldsmiths at McCarver and Moser are capitalizing on the resulting demand for exclusivity.

“Custom jewelry design is like couture dressmaking,” says Moser. “It’s time-consuming, and not inexpensive to make a handmade piece. It also takes imagination.” The store fills imaginative requests from the extravagant (an intricate wedding band and solitaire created from family diamonds) to the quirky (a set of wedding toe rings and a wrap-around diamond belly chain).

Custom jewelers cite the ability to interpret the client’s vision as job No. 1. That takes listening skills, says Belinda Coffrin of Coffrin Diamond Jewelers, where two bench jewelers turn out everything from custom eternity bands to unique necklaces hand-strung from fashion-forward chocolate-brown diamond beads. “The demand for colored stones is fueled by women who want to make a personal statement with their jewelry,” explains Coffrin, pointing to a just completed necklace of ever-so-chic multicolored briolet-cut sapphires.

Michael Chokr of Diamond Vault, which also staffs two master jewelers, agrees that collaboration with the client is critical. As the retailer’s name implies, the specialty here is diamonds—with most custom work tending to engagement, anniversary and wedding rings. “We want in-person interaction with the consumer to create a design that is more than beautiful—it must enhance each individual stone,” Chokr says. “The right setting will make a diamond look larger, whiter and will even enhance its sparkle.” 

At her eponymous boutique, June Simmons pushes the creative envelope to truly personalize her clients’ custom jewelry. “We ask a series of theoretical questions, and we really let them talk,” the style innovator explains. Simmons poses questions like, “If you had a white room with a mantel, what would you put on the mantelpiece?” That tells her whether the client likes color or symmetry, she says. Next she asks if the client likes to wear jewelry every day, for formal occasions or if she wants something for the next 10 years. The jewelry personality test goes on until Simmons has enough information to create what she calls a lively but personal fashion statement. “I’ve been edgy for 35 years,” she declares with a smile.

Mayors in Westfield Southgate Plaza does not staff a custom jeweler, yet they create extraordinary one-off pieces at Gem and Design events held three times a year in key locations, including Sarasota. The jeweler’s secret weapon is Bruno Dunlop, winner of the coveted DeBeers Diamond International Award for jewelry design and other industry accolades. Now head of corporate custom design for Mayors, Dunlop is a native of Brazil, where he designed custom pieces for Queen Silvia of Sweden, Madame Sukarno of Indonesia and singer James Taylor.

At the events, Dunlop spends an hour or more with each client, sketching before their eyes custom pieces (prices range from $1,500 to $100,000) using either the store’s stones or the customer’s. “I’ve been designing jewelry for 27 years, and trends are always emerging. The demand for colored stones—both gemstones and diamonds—is exploding,” he says. Mayors typically brings in about 400 gemstones, many of rare quality, for consumers’ instant gratification at the events.

The escalating price of metals and diamonds is kindling another burgeoning custom fire, says Richard Ross of Tilden Ross, who is busy popping out pavé from outdated brooches or replacing dainty vintage watch faces with hip cabochon stones.

“It’s a form of recycling,” explains Ross. At a time when women are conflicted about conspicuous consumption, recycling family heirlooms and tired-looking jewelry has become a politically correct luxury. It’s also fun to create and a lot less expensive. “My summer is set,” Ross declared well before Memorial Day. Customers had brought in bags of old gold to be reworked into chic new jewelry by a staff jeweler with a local cult following.

The diversity of Sarasota’s custom jewelers is as impressive as the jewelry itself. Consumers can choose traditional couture such as lacy diamond and platinum creations by Giorgio Salameh at Jewelry by Giorgio, or original contemporary designs handcrafted by Nikki Sedacca. “My jewelry is for people who want to make a statement,” says Sedacca, whose fearless use of color is legendary. Sedecca’s signature wirework interweaves strands of gold, platinum or silver with combinations of exotic pearls, colored and precious stones.

“Everything is hand-fabricated down to the clasp,” she explains. “No two pieces are alike because every woman’s coloring and bone structure are different. Custom is my passion; it’s what I love to do.”

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