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The Artist: In the Studio With Designer Kara Ross

She can craft jewelry from silver, gold, titanium, and—when the occasion demands it—a White House magnolia tree

Designer Showcase
By Randi Molofsky, Contributing Editor
This story appears in the May 2012 issue of JCK magazine
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The Artist: In the Studio With Designer Kara Ross
Christopher Logan
Kara Ross in her sunny Manhattan showroom

It’s no surprise that a tree stump sits in the corner of Kara Ross’ light-filled Manhattan showroom. The designer—whose fine jewelry is known for large-scale geometric patterns and unusual materials, including wood, jet, and volcanic lava—isn’t afraid to mix and match decadent gems with humble organic matter. But this log is no ordinary kindling: Ross received it on spec from the White House.

“The president and first lady wanted unique pieces to give to visiting heads of state, and after seeing some of my jewelry made of maple and diamonds and gold, they contacted me,” Ross says. Taken from a magnolia tree originally planted by Andrew Jackson, the wood was used to make bracelets and engraved trays presented as gifts to represent the United States. “It’s a wonderful honor,” she says, “and a fantastic way to support American artists.”

Left: Kara Ross’ silver cuff with magnolia tree wood cabochon—which she made for Michelle Obama—sits atop magnolia tree wood from the White House. Right: Hand-carved magnolia tree wood shirt cuff bracelet with silver and amethyst, also made for Michelle Obama

Growing up outside of Philadelphia, Ross, 46, learned about jewelry at an early age. Her mother often commissioned pieces at the downtown ­Jeweler’s Row rather than relying on what was available at the local department store. During a memorable trip to Africa with her parents when she was 13, Ross and her sister were allowed to bring back gems (green tourmalines and garnets, respectively) that they would later have set. Ross’ first design, an 18k gold ring with a textured shank and tiny diamonds, still sits in her jewelry box. “To be able to say, at a young age, ‘I thought of this and I can make it, and here it is, and it’s beautiful’—that was huge,” she says. “That whole level of intimidation is gone, knowing, why the heck can’t you do it?”

Ross’ innate love of color and form took her to Georgetown University to study art history and English, but her appreciation of fashion led her to a short post-grad stint in advertising at Harper’s Bazaar. These two interconnected passions would marry after her next stop: the Gemological Institute of America.

Kara by Kara Ross signature hexagon four-piece gold earrings with metallic blue lizard; $175; Kara Ross, New York City; 212-223-7272; kararossny.com

GIA was a wonderful education and a fabulous basis to get into the industry,” Ross says. Her newly acquired professional understanding of gemstones bridged her aesthetic ­interests and offered a window into how to work with organic colors, textures, and patterns. Today, all of her collections use the gemstone as logo, rather than a more traditional insignia. “I don’t have a logo per se that has my name all over it; instead I’ve incorporated a signature rectangle-within-a-rectangle shape on all of my work.”

This abstract rendering of a commercial logo resonates with Ross’ background in contemporary art; in fact, museums are an important part of her brand’s presence. “When you think about museums and what’s collected there, first and foremost you think of painting and sculpture, and then photography and other forms of print,” she says. Seeing her own work displayed at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City and the San Diego Natural History Museum cemented her view of accessories as wearable art. “Jewelry is that rare art form that has intrinsic value,” she notes. “A Picasso might be worth $50 million, but the canvas it’s made on is worth practically nothing.”

Kara Ross Fine Jewelry small titanium cuffs with 18k gold, multicolored sapphires, and diamonds; price on request

Value, whether intrinsic or perceived, is what distinguishes the designer’s three main jewelry lines: Fine ­Jewelry, Kara by Kara Ross, and the new Gemstone collection. Her fine jewelry comprises mostly one-of-a-kind showstoppers, from vividly hued titanium cuffs to an ebony wood Puzzle Piece necklace accented with 18k gold and diamonds, with prices set to match the lavish opulence of semi-couture. In this line, it’s “all about the stones, and layering color on top of color” for dramatic effect.

Kara by Kara Ross, her wildly successful diffusion line, combines gold-plated brass, exotic skins, and ­semiprecious gems to create a large-scale, fashion-forward silhouette. The most dramatic pieces—like a massive chain bib necklace with cast sticks and white jasper or a wide circle bangle with amethyst, hematite, and labradorite—top out at an affordable $495 retail. “It’s a lot of look for the money,” she says of the collection, which does extremely well at upscale retailers such as Henri Bendel and Nordstrom.

Gemstone Collection Double Geo Arrow earrings in sterling silver with 18k gold, lapis, turquoise, and white sapphires; $1,655

Ross’ newest jewelry venture is affectionately known as the Gemstone line. Made from sterling silver and hand-cut and calibrated gems with white and black ­sapphire accents, Ross calls it her “happy medium” collection. Retailing between $300 and $3,500, it has already been picked up by respected independents including Tiny Jewel Box in Washington, D.C., and Reinhold Jewelers in Puerto Rico. This season’s focus on turquoise, lapis, zebra jasper, and white mother-of-pearl gives the pieces a decidedly resort feel; they are the perfect statement pieces to wear on a glamorous—or at least glamorous-looking—beach vacation.

In Ross’ mind, each extension of her brand must fit seamlessly into what already exists. “You try to stand apart and have your own voice and continue your voice with each collection,” she says. “Having continuity and a strong message is so important. If it kind of looks like something else, we scrap it. We always try to start from a fresh point of view. Otherwise, frankly, why bother?”

Christopher Logan
The designer totes one of her Trinity bags (blue buffed giant python with gold hardware and hematite; $3,330).

This cohesion extends to Ross’ coveted line of high-end handbags, made from rare exotic skins and accented with her signature gemstone logos as closures. She chose exotic skins, including python, crocodile, lizard, and ostrich, because of their precious, textural nature. “Each is unique, kind of like a gemstone,” Ross says. The company works with a tannery in Spain to design its own skins, a luxury given the limited production runs and the intensive process of hand-cutting and manufacturing each skin. Standouts for the upcoming resort season include a felted python handbag and a python skin bag coated with diamond dust. “We might also do pavé diamond closures in gold with a gemstone accent,” she says, noting that these high-ticket items will most likely be one-of-a-kind.

Nox “Goddess of the Night” buffed python clutch with gunmetal hardware and hematite; $1,420

Ross also recently found time to design a small capsule collection of 18k gold and diamond cocktail rings that will debut next month in Las Vegas, and a watch line is on the horizon. “I’ve always worked. It’s really great to be a working mother if you can swing it,” she says. “It’s a good thing for my daughters to see, and it’s gratifying that they’re proud of me.”

Ross is cautiously optimistic about passing on the family legacy. Her youngest, Drew, 17, is “very creative and crafty” and loves to accompany her to the flea market to hunt for vintage charms. Avery, 19, was the official face of the company in 2009, and is now at college.

Ross’ four daughters: Avery, Jen, Kim, and Drew

Ross still takes classes, though now they are continuing education in design and sculpture, at places like the 92nd Street Y. Her focus continues to be on jewelry as art: creating a motif or a design and taking it 3-D. “There’s so much more to consider in jewelry,” she says. “There’s movement, wearability, comfort. It can be more complex than doing a painting because there are so many factors to consider. To be a contemporary jeweler and to have my pieces collected the same way as art—I see that as an accomplishment.”

More designer showcases on JCKonline.com:
+ Magic Carpet Ride
+ The (Shaun) Leane Years
+ The Education of Waris Ahluwalia

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