The nature of jewelry

It all began with a pair of earrings — glimmering Czech glass buttons set in stately sterling silver.

The pair on display at the Lyndhurst museum shop in Tarrytown was simply captivating.

With the purchase, we received a bonus of sorts — learning the jewelry was the work of a local artist.

Fast forward a few months and here we are, visiting Amy Kahn Russell, the designer of those earrings, in her Ridgefield studio.

As Russell takes us on an informal tour through her art-filled space — a warren of offices, work stations and showroom-like areas, peppered with her paintings and stained-glass work — we are dazzled by the array of bracelets and rings, pendants and earrings on display, some complete, others in the midst of production.

But it’s Russell’s own story, one influenced by art, nature and extensive travel, that’s equally memorable.

EARLY DAYS

Growing up in Louisiana, Russell would study painting, sculpture and lithography, earning a degree in fine arts from Tulane University in New Orleans.

Amy Kahn Russell designs include an “endless stones” bracelet containing Australian boulder opals with blue topaz, aquamarine, diamonds, apatite, iolite and diamonds in sterling. Image courtesy Amy Kahn Russell.

But, she long had an affinity for jewelry.

“I always, as a kid, worked in a department store and my favorite department was always jewelry,” she says. “They’d put me in men’s clothing, and I’d say, ‘Can I go back to jewelry?’… I don’t want to sell sheets.”

Self-taught when it comes to jewelry, Russell would have some early jobs in the field after her formal art studies ended. She began a jewelry manufacturing business with two of her parents’ friends before moving to Houston, where she would run the fine jewelry department at a local branch of the Sakowitz department store chain. Knowledge gleaned from these jobs would expand when she relocated to Hong Kong for three years — thanks to her husband’s job — and there, she managed a wholesale pearl company.

“Things were very different,” she says. “People would go to the Orient to buy their pearls.”

The time, she says, not only expanded her horizons but also fueled her collecting habit. 

“We got to travel extensively, to Pakistan, India, Thailand, Singapore,” she says. “We didn’t have kids and we knew what home looks like, so (we said) ‘We’re going to travel.’”

HOME AGAIN

Eventually, the Russells landed back in America, her husband’s job bringing them to the metro area. She started her eponymous jewelry design company in Wilton, her home base for some 25 years as she and her husband raised two sons.

Though based in Ridgefield since 2007, Russell is often on the road, including travels some four times a year to Australia, where she’s a home-shopping network veteran with a devoted following.

Jewelry lovers appreciate her detail-oriented approach, whether it’s integrating collected stones and artifacts from decades of travel or commissioning cameo carvings from Italian master craftsmen or lacquer work from Russian artists.

Russell’s pieces — which are often crafted in sterling silver and sometimes 14-karat and 18-karat gold — feature mixed metals, natural minerals, pearls, fossils and semiprecious stones.

Just a simple chat or a glance through her designs yields elements such as blue topaz, Australian opal, Botswana agate, chalcedony, amethyst, freshwater pearls, garnet, chrysoprase, lapis lazuli, amazonite, aquamarine, labradorite, turquoise and peridot.

Her surroundings are a constant inspiration, “a treasure trove of color and texture,” she notes. “We pretty much have every color you can think of,” she says of the seemingly endless drawers and bags filled with materials.

“Believe it or not, it’s organized chaos.”

She does often start with sketches in her own studio area and might play with countless elements before deciding how to proceed.

“Sometimes you just have to make a mess, get it all out, to try it.”

THROUGH THE YEARS

It’s no surprise that Russell’s creations have evolved over nearly 50 years of working with jewelry.

Earrings featuring a cluster of gaspeite, chrysoprase, turquoise and faceted yellow topaz stones. Image courtesy Amy Kahn Russell.

“When I first started, I was mostly antique and ethnic,” she says of her style. Back then, she adds, she surprised many a trunk-show customer expecting, “an older lady from the Southwest.”

“No,” she’d tell them, “I’m a short lady from Louisiana and 30 years old.”

Russell’s artistic eye has stayed the course. Typical is her exuberant approach, demonstrated as she takes a multistrand necklace that looks complete. But, she notes, her work is designed to be “buildable.”

“For me, more is more, so I sometimes put a pendant on it, too,” she adds with a laugh.

But she does, it seems, have something for everyone.

Her new bar necklaces, for example, have proven a hit.

“A lot of the fine jewelry stores really embraced them,” she says, noting even the understated work still reflects her aesthetic. “You have this more demure piece, but it’s very organic, very natural.”

ART TO WEAR

Russell, it’s clear, has the customer in mind at all times.

“Retail in America is changing, so you’re always finding your way,” she says.

She has been carried at major department stores such as Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue, and  today, her work is featured in museum shops, art galleries, boutiques, catalogs and specialty stores, as well as through her own site.

As her audience continues to grow, Russell is dedicated to what’s worked best for her — no shortcuts.

“I go to the mines. I go to the cutters,” she says. That yields not only unique materials but also an ability to price her work fairly. 

“I like people to get good value… That’s why we make the jewelry so versatile, because you don’t feel the same every day,” she says. “You can be the designer of your outfit.”

For Russell, nothing is more rewarding than having someone enjoy — truly enjoy — her jewelry.

“I don’t like them to sit in the drawer,” she says.

So, does Russell make pieces just for herself?

“I do,” she says, breaking into a smile. Many are underway, though often they are never finished. “It’s kind of like the shoemaker (who) goes barefoot. I have all these projects…”

For more, visit amykahnrussell.com.

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