Spotlight on JCK Tucson 2016 Keynote Speaker: Sarah Graham

It’s holiday season, and in the jewelry world we all know what that means: crunch time. I’ve been quite the busy bee, I’m sure you can relate, and imagine my horror when I realized I completely had blown through the allotted time slot for a conference call with one of my idols. Apparently I had nothing to worry about, for Sarah Graham is probably one of the nicest jewelers I’ve ever encountered. She definitely hasn’t let fame go to her head, and it’s easy to pick up on the fact that she is completely committed to her craft, her design work, and the community at large. I loved getting a few minutes with this jewelry superstar, who I’ve admired for years, but the coolest part was the impact of our dialogue. She is smart, encouraging, and she has her finger on the pulse. I quickly understood why she had been selected as a keynote speaker at JCK Tucson 2016. She is an inspiration to us all.

The first thing I noticed on your website is that you list yourself as Sarah Graham Metalsmithing rather than using the nomenclature of jewelry designs or jewelry designer. Why is it important that metalsmithing be highlighted? What does it mean to you?

I’ve always been a metal-focused designer, as metalsmithing is my first true love. I love playing with the elements and I’m fascinated by their properties and malleability. Gold, which is considered a hard metal, is also supersoft. I love all the ways you can create a completely new aesthetic just by playing with the finishes or the processes. There are so many interesting ways to manipulate metals, such as hammering, developing a shiny, matte, or sandblasted finish, or by texturing. Although I’ve started to incorporate diamonds and some colored stones, I keep my focus where it belongs: on building tiny wearable sculptures in gold.

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Oak leaf band in 18k yellow gold and oxidized cobalt chrome with diamonds, inspired by oak leaves from central California

Why did you decide to incorporate oxidized cobalt chrome into your work?

While doing my apprenticeship I visited a store in Mendocino, California, that featured some estate jewelry. I became captivated by some antique baubles marked anodized steel. The steel was very black, not shiny, and looked like a frozen black viscous liquid. For the next seven years, as I was learning, I kept asking everyone I knew how to create this medium and was told, time and time again, that it was impossible.  Finally, I found a company called Tech Form in Portland, Oregon. They build medical body parts (think knee parts or toes) out of a completely hypoallergenic and rust-free metal called cobalt chrome. They sent me home with some samples, and the rest is history. I use various processes to oxidize the metal to get the rich black finish that my audience immediately associates with my jewelry.

Who is your jewelry idol and why?

My absolutely favorite jeweler is Atelier Zobel. It’s the one piece of fine jewelry that I ever bought from another artist. I find their designs very innovative and dynamic.

Can you tell us more about your philanthropic efforts?  Why is this an important cause to you?

I grew up in a family in which my father emphasized the importance of giving back. My dad was always involved in nonprofits. When he turned 50 he realized he had done well enough in his career to devote 50 percent of his time toward his chartable efforts. He started a nonprofit that provides business loans as well as financial education with a focus on women. Through research he had discovered that women tend to reinvest back into their families, which raises the health of the entire community.

My inclination toward philanthropy was just a natural progression. Also, I find it builds beautiful synergy between your art and your surroundings. By involving myself with various causes helps me engage not only the audience that wears my work but with the people that will benefit from its sales. Jewelry is always an emotional purchase, and I think it’s so important that my work is tied back to a story. It’s been powerful connecting with others on initiatives that we believe in.

What is your favorite collection right now?  Favorite piece?

My rattlesnake grass necklace is by far my favorite piece. We’ve been redefining and redesigning it for about seven years now. I’m just finishing up a new clasp that I built in CAD, and I believe we finally got it.  The necklace has 275 individually cast pieces, which can be extremely time-consuming to clean, as one might imagine. But it’s totally worth it, as when finished it really does move like a snake.

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Rattlesnake necklace in 18k yellow gold and oxidized co­­balt chrome, cast from the shells of rattlesnake grass

Can you tell us more about your decision to close the California studio? Is this temporary? What will you be doing on this new adventu­­­­­­re?

Well it’s important to note that this a personal change in my life and won’t provide any interruption to my brand. I’m just shifting my focus back to my artistic pursuits. My longtime dream was to become more mobile so I can explore the world and become inspired by my surroundings and experiences. This is now becoming a reality, as I’ve learned how to work in CAD and bought a mobile 3-D printer. It allows me to see the piece before it goes into production. I’m very grateful that my business has grown in scale so much that I can get back to my true passion: design and metalwork. I’m so excited to see where my travels take me, both physically and artistically.

How do you start each collection? 

Everything is always sketched out on paper, but there’s not much that I would feel comfortable showing to the public. It helps me get my thoughts down, and then I immediately move into CAD. Having a sketch is helpful, but working in a three-dimensional medium allows me to immediately see parts of the structure that may or may not work in manufacturing. Something that could easily be missed in a 2-D format.

How would you describe your work in one sentence to a blind man?

Texture plays such an important role in the jewelry that I’d probably suggest for him to touch it! The best way to describe my jewelry is to find something in nature and then take it apart, like the spine of a leaf.

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Oak leaf pendants and earrings in 18k yellow gold and oxidized cobalt chrome with diamonds, inspired by oak leaves from central California

What changes would you like to see happen in the jewelry industry?

I would love to see retailers really embrace technology wholeheartedly and realize that although people are buying differently today, there is nothing to fear. I think we all get caught up in demographic analysis (millennials are a great example) when the focus should be brought back to the buying process. Each retailer needs to think about how they buy product. How do they buy pots and pans or gifts for friends? Are they only shopping in brick-and-mortar locations? I’m guessing they do a lot of their shopping online as well. Instead of focusing on who they need to market the goods it would be a great idea to look back in the mirror. How do you like to shop? Do you offer that sample buying process to your customers? Do you go on Pinterest to find ideas? Do you talk about goods with your friends on Facebook? It’s not as huge of shift as one might think. Some retailers are scared to make changes, but the idea is becoming more adaptable to the buying trends, and starting with yourself is always a good method.

Do you have any advice for someone just getting started?

Unless a designer has an ability to compete from a price-point perspective (which is rare in the beginning) then you must be completely unique from other products on the market and you must have a strong voice.  What sets you apart? Your process? Your medium? Your designs? Polly Wales is a great example of a designer who’s tried a new stone setting process, which is now synonymous with her brand. Keep trying things. You never know what might stick.

Why are you excited for JCK Tucson?

First off, although my focus is metal, I’m slowly starting to incorporate colored stones into my work. My trip to Tucson is one of exploration, and I can’t wait to shop for gemstones. I’m also extremely excited to be asked to speak at JCK Tucson alongside the renowned Todd Reed. It’s important for me to give back, and I hope my words will be useful to our tight-knit clan.

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Flowering coral fall necklace and earrings in 18k yellow gold and oxidized cobalt chrome with diamonds, inspired by scientific drawings of anemone coral