Jeweler Cleans Up with Oil Spill Jewelry

Jewelry designer Shondra Leigh is a pragmatist. When British Petroleum handed the Gulf Coast tar balls, she made jewelry. That’s right, jewelry. Last year Leigh and another designer started making oil spill jewelry that’s now the central part of an environmental awareness, cause marketing campaign for a fellow Atlanta-based retail jeweler partner.

Last September, Topaz Gallery owner Peter Embarrato was approached by longtime friend Leigh about her tar ball jewelry idea. The two not only share a passion for unique, high-end jewelry, but they’re also very committed environmentalists.

“There was never a doubt in my mind that we would do something about it [the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill],” says Embarrato.   

The opportunity to put words into action presented itself when environmentalist and friend Holt Webb asked Leigh to make jewelry using tar balls as part of a fundraiser for Vanishing America to benefit residents the writer, photographer and blogger had befriended while documenting the oil spill last summer.

Leigh liked the idea but wanted to produce tar ball jewelry that would be in keeping with her high-end, high quality designs. She also wanted her tar ball jewelry to be made with fair trade materials (such as recycled gold and leather). And the jewelry had to have an affordable price tag that would allow for enough of a margin to sustain production while providing proceeds to benefit Vanishing America.

These were tall orders, but Leigh was determined to make it all work. The designer made many inquiries within her network of technical and creative friends. “I even asked my daughter’s third-grade science teacher for advice,” says Leigh.

Shondra Leigh’s recycled silver tar painting “cocktail” rings; $185

The challenge was making sure the light crude didn’t spill again, this time on a customer’s body or clothing. To ensure the oil was sealed in an air-tight environment, Leigh put the tar balls on sterling silver then placed pieces of natural clear bezel-cut quartz crystal on top. 

The tar is not viscous and does not flow when the bezel cut meets the edges of the sterling silver plate. The unique shapes—which look like common animal print patterns (zebra and tiger stripes)—are created when pressing the tar in between the quartz and silver. Leigh knew then she had developed a viable technique to create consistent and repeatable results.  

Production quickly began in late September. Embarrato wanted to roll out the tar ball jewelry in time for the upcoming Christmas season. To meet anticipated demand in the Atlanta market, Embarrato introduced Leigh to his friend and jewelry designer Rochelle Nation. Also a supporter of Vanishing America, Nation was willing to see what interpretations she could create.  

In her studio, Nation was producing sepia-colored patterns that look like Rorschach ink blot tests. Light crude dispersions for Nation also produced rainbow-like colors, which inspired her to use various gemstones and pearls in her tar ball jewelry designs. Price points were also a consideration, so Nation used many alternative metals such as copper. She also incorporated Holt Webb’s micro-photographs in her designs.

Oval pendant

Shondra Leigh’s large oval pendant in recycled 14k gold and silver tar painting necklace with black diamond charms; $900

Last fall, the two jewelry designers each committed to making 40 pieces of tar ball jewelry. And in early November, they delivered a total of 80 pieces for Embarrato’s pre-Christmas soft launch. “We sold about half the tar ball jewelry we had in stock before Christmas,” says Embarrato. 

The soft launch was a good practice session for the main tar ball jewelry event happening on April 29. Embarrato garnered much in terms of media attention for the soft launch event by tapping in to Atlanta’s arts community. Part of the reason for the success of the store event was coordinating it with the Spruill Center for the Arts, Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, Chastain Arts Center, and the Georgia Goldsmith Group.

“Once these groups were on board, they sent out notices to their email distribution groups,” says Embarrato. “I also sent 2,000 invitations to customers from my store’s database. We held a reception on November 20 when roughly 50 people attended. But media coverage continued, which gave the tar ball jewelry the momentum it needed during the holiday season.”

Customer reaction to the jewelry has been positive. Those who attended the November store event liked the variety of tar ball jewelry designs and the cause marketing dynamic to Embarrato’s tar ball sales, which goes to Vanishing America. “Twenty percent of sales proceeds will not only go to raise environmental awareness, but will also help families affected by the massive oil spill,” says Embarrato. 

Retail jewelers always hear how civic-minded younger demographics are when it comes to fair trade jewelry, but Embarrato was surprised more younger buyers haven’t been snapping up more tar ball jewelry. “We’re getting some younger buyers, but most of those purchasing the tar ball jewelry are Baby Boomers,” says Embarrato. “But they’re buying the jewelry for their kids. This is getting the tar ball jewelry in front of younger people.”


Rochelle Nation’s handpainted tar creation hangs from hand-forged copper hoops accented with faceted smokey quartz on hand-forged sterling silver ear wires; $95

Embarrato’s tar ball jewelry roll out is scheduled for April 29, a that date works around a late Easter Sunday and will closely coincide with Earth Day (April 22), and the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion (April 20). 

The store owner will once again look to his arts community and school partners to help promote the event. Other distribution points for the tar ball jewelry will also prime the pump for the store owner’s event. “The more outlets that sell the jewelry the more people know about it in the Atlanta market,” says Embarrato.

The designers are once again working at a breakneck pace to beef up the number of pieces for the April 29 store event. Embarrato is looking to have bigger crowds given the buzz that will come with more jewelry sold in the market, Earth Day, and the one-year anniversary of the oil spill all coming together at around the same time.

And sales for other jewelry in Embarrato’s store are up. “The tar ball jewelry is affordably priced,” says Embarrato. “When people buy the oil spill jewelry they’re also looking at other jewelry in the store. I can directly link a number of sales of higher priced jewelry pieces in my store to these sales.”


Rochelle Nation’s oil-stained necklace in decorative paper with an abstract tar painting encased in resin; the lead-free pewter bezel hangs from gunmetal chain adorned with faceted labradorite and smokey quartz; $190

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