Like many of us, the Los Angeles–based designer Emily P. Wheeler felt an acute sense of loss for Mother Nature during the lockdowns earlier this year, when beaches and hiking trails were closed to the public. In its own way, however, the deprivation did her some good. From her home studio in the Mar Vista neighborhood of West L.A., Wheeler began designing La Selva, a jewelry collection inspired by the flora and fauna of the Amazon, with the help of weekly deliveries of Amazonian plants from a florist specializing in exotic bouquets.
“My way of coping has been coming out here and getting lost a little bit,” she told JCK during a recent (socially distanced) visit to her studio. “I’d been circling this collection, getting the idea for it. When all the madness hit, I zeroed in.” Unveiled this month, the locally manufactured line is a paean to offbeat colored stones and unexpected color combinations, such as Shattuckite and peridot, Arizona turquoise and malachite, and green tourmaline and pink spinel. La Selva, which ranges from $2,400 to $48,000, features a healthy smattering of oversized studs, which boast a special backing that Wheeler designed to keep them from drooping, as well as plenty of super statement pieces, such as the green tourmaline crystal necklace at top.
Below, Wheeler talks about the starting point for her design process, her favorite gemstones, and what her journey into responsible sourcing has entailed.
You found a florist who worked with Amazonian plants? That’s so cool! Yeah, it was someone I followed whose arrangements I adored. It’s called Pretend Plants & Flowers, on the east side [of Los Angeles]. I reached out trying to take his temperature on how interested he’d be in working with me on the collection. I said, “I’m a jewelry designer, I’m trying to get inspired.” He got really into it. He was excited to work on something creative. I sent him the color palette I was envisioning. I get really inspired by color palettes. I like to come up with that idea first and go from there.
Kitty Hawk was a lot of turquoise and pinks. I still have pops of pink in the La Selva collection, but I brought in tones that were earthier, lots of greens. It still goes well with Kitty Hawk and the existing stuff, but it’s bringing in leopard skin opal and a lot of other materials.
What’s leopard skin opal? It’s from Mexico. It’s a mix of minerals and opal set inside. It’s this freak mineral that happens due to lava and a mix of other strange natural formations. One of those random minerals that nobody’s really heard of. I came across it in Tucson this year. I went up to one of my dealers there and said, “Hey, what do you have that’s really unique?” He showed me these pieces and a few others.
There’s still lots of turquoise in the line. I’m bringing in tiger’s-eye, which has been one of my favorite stones since I was little. I love the holographic effect it has. And I like pairing it with more matte materials as a background. It’s a way to bring in size and color without having to use too much gold. I like to pair it with pink stones like spinels.
You’ve made sustainability a core focus. How has that process been for you? I set out on a mission to figure out how to make my brand sustainable about a year ago. I know it’s a selling point, but that’s honestly not why I’m doing it. I genuinely think we should all be set to a higher standard. There are so many hands that touch what we do, and you’re using so many different materials, it’s hard to know how to be sustainable. I think a lot of people don’t try because it’s just too much. When I found out about the Responsible Jewellery Council, I was super pumped. Finally, an organization that’s setting the standard. I reached out to them, and though I know it’s more of a corporate thing, they said they were interested in working with smaller designers. I hired a consultant to help me because it’s honestly quite a beast to get through their self-assessment. Then there’s a long audit process and maintenance—you have to keep showing that you’re adhering to all the policies you’re putting in place. It’s a big undertaking.
How so? Part of it involves reaching out to all your suppliers and asking them to sign something that has all these standards on it, things around ethical labor laws as well as sustainability practices. But it depends on each person as well. If you’re talking to a diamond supplier, it’s going to be different than if you’re talking to an opal dealer.
What’s been the most challenging aspect? The whole thing is really challenging. The documents you have to get through are really intense, long, and loaded. There’s language in there we don’t quite know how to understand. Once I shake through the whole process, there are probably going to be dealers I can’t work with anymore because they won’t want to sign it or won’t have the answers that I want to hear. My main factory in Los Angeles has already become RJC-certified. My main manufacturer in Thailand is also RJC-certified. All the gold we use is recycled, but that’s really easy to do—everyone does that even if they don’t know. The diamonds are all sourced through my factory in L.A., so I’m not worried about the history of that melee. I use Perpetuum for large stones. I try to start with dealers I know have the same concerns, like Sheahan Stephen Sapphires.
And how’s business been these past few months? It’s all a little bit slower, but it’s been picking up recently. I’ve had great store meetings (on Zoom). Retailers are redoing their websites, doing social, trying new things like sending jewelry packages to clients at home. They’re getting experimental, for sure. Some kind of went quiet over the summer, and some went harder. We’ll see how it all shakes out, but in the last two months, it’s been a lot more normal feeling. Top: Tourmaline crystal necklace in 18k yellow gold with 127.91 cts. t.w. green tourmaline and 7.69 ct. t.w. sapphires; $48,000Follow JCK on Instagram: @jckmagazine
Follow JCK on Twitter: @jckmagazine
Follow JCK on Facebook: @jckmagazine