January/February 2002

Artistic Gems

Works that are wearable and precious

A pair of tiny flip-flops, cast in gold and dotted with a ruby or other gemstone. A 400-year-old coin, wrapped in gold banding and set so that it can twirl back to front. A gold replica of the Key Marco cat or of local sea life. A large, shield-cut citrine nestled in a cage of gold.
    These are just some of the custom designs available at Southwest Florida jewelers, pieces that bespeak the area or simply reflect a creative flair. Think of them as works of art, wearable special somethings that can’t be found just anywhere, that are as unique and individual as their creators and owners.
    “Jewelry is something you decorate your body with, so that makes it personal,” says Carley McGee, jewelry designer and events director for Dunkin’s Diamonds in Ft. Myers. McGee, like many designers, grew into the art gradually. “I started here as a salesperson,” she explains, “but then I found my niche.”
    That niche is helping customers get exactly the distinctive piece of jewelry they want. It may be an old family heirloom that needs updating, a wedding band to match an engagement ring, or a brand-new piece of which the customer has only the vaguest idea. McGee sits and talks with them until she can begin to envision their desire, then sketches out a few ideas. Once an idea is agreed upon, a model is carved from wax. When that’s approved, the piece is cast (using the lost wax process) and finished—much to the customer’s delight.
    Sometimes, the requests are simple. Other times, they are specific, involved, and extraordinary. “I had one lady come in and want a bracelet with every stone mentioned in the Bible,” McGee recalls. “There were at least 30 different stones and I wasn’t sure they would go together. But it was just a knockout when it was finished.
    “We also had a woman,” she continues, “who found a mounting she loved and a diamond she loved. But the two didn’t go together. We had to set the diamond with the points exposed, which you shouldn’t do. But it turned out absolutely gorgeous and she loved it.”
    McGee, who designs perhaps 50 custom pieces a year, does her designing strictly on a client-request basis. That’s something all designers do, but many will also create pieces for their stores, inspired by a random idea or a particular stone.
    The latter was the case with a large, honey-colored citrine, according to James Franklin of the Ft. Myers-based Fishel & Dowdy Jewelers. “It had an unusual shield shape that seemed to call for a big, bold, modern pendant,” Franklin explains, “so we wanted a unique way to set it.” Working with his two other jewelers, he came up with a striking “cage” of gold that cradles the stone without obstructing its luminosity.
    Franklin, whose father bought Fishel & Dowdy in 1969, literally grew up in the business, attending Bowman Technical School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, (then the premier jewelry school in the country) after high school. With his background, he tends to eschew the classification of “designer,” pointing out that, for him, design is simply part of being a jeweler.
“In today’s market, with the stress of competition, you have to collaborate with all your resources,” he explains. “People with mechanical ability can sometimes see things a designer might not be able to see. And the most important thing is listening carefully to the client.”
    At his Paradise Jewelry shop in Naples, Barry Nicholls, a former commercial diver drawn to the trade by a lifelong fascination with rocks and gemstones, has examples of pieces inspired by random ideas, just fooling around, client requests, and local history.
    “Where the ideas come from, that’s hard to say,” he says. “Maybe I’ll be driving, and while I’m driving I’m thinking—about a thousand ideas.” That was how he came up with his “Last Petal” pendant, a replica of a daisy center with one last petal attached. The reference is to the “He loves me, he loves me not” game of picking petals off a daisy. The last petal, Nicholls explains, carries the romantic message.
    A rather free-form Christmas tree, by contrast, is a design he devised simply by playing with gold wire.
    On his Web site, Nicholls has a picture of a widow’s pendant created as a means for a client to retain—and wear—her memories. The wedding bands she and her husband wore were cut and soldered together to form a figure eight and a large gemstone (the last gift from her husband) was mounted in the middle.
    The inspiration for the Key Marco cats Nicholls makes came from the archaeological discovery of Calusa artifacts on Marco Island. Although a custom design, it is reproducible, a necessity demanded by economics.
    “I had a museum-grade carver carve it because I wanted it to be accurate,” Nicholls explains. “I was trying to get a piece to sell for less than $500, but it cost me more like $1,500. So I made it something I could reproduce. You lose money on the first ones, but eventually you break even. And it’s a piece of history.”
    Pieces of history are exactly what Gene Gargiulo of Mel Fisher’s Treasure Company on Sanibel specializes in. A diver who worked with the Fishers and taught himself the art of crafting jewelry, Gargiulo opened Sanibel Coin and Jewelry a year ago as a gentle little retirement venture.
    “Of course, I wound up working seven days a week,” he says with a laugh. “And when I opened, I hadn’t made enough jewelry to fill my showcases, so I took my old treasure coins and poured them in. It turned out people were the most interested in them.”
    The demand prompted Gargiulo to contact the Fishers, initially for more coins, but, as the interest mounted, he and the Fishers began discussing the idea of opening a Mel Fisher’s on the island. Now Gargiulo’s efforts are mainly centered on creating custom designs around ancient coins, emeralds, and other artifacts raised from the Atocha shipwreck.
    While all of the pieces are handmade, some are made from silver salvaged from the wreck, so there is a variety of historical pieces and authentic replicas.
    Replicas of things found in the sea are bound to be popular on an island, a fact that nearby Congress Jewelers realized more than a decade ago when it developed its Sealife line. This extensive collection is modeled after creatures that live in the gulf or near its shores. Some are dotted with gemstones or pavé diamonds. Others are plain and simple.
    “We also have all the shells that are indigenous to Sanibel,” says store manager Carlos Fernandez. “And these are actual imprints of natural shells.”
    A recent addition a few years ago were the highly popular Sanibel sandals, tiny flip-flops hand cast in gold and sometimes decorated with gems. “The idea for those came from Larry Congress,” Fernandez explains. “He’s a very creative guy—plays piano and paints. He came up with the idea of flip-flops because they are very casual and comfortable. They make a great keepsake from your visit to Sanibel and we take a lot of orders from different parts of the country.”
    The Sealife line, as well as the one-of-a-kind works, is designed by Congress’ full-time designer, Michael Manfredi, but the effort is really collaborative. “It’s a real team effort,” agrees Fernandez, who majored in architecture. “I’ll sketch but I won’t get into the true drawing. Michael does that and the wax work. But we all put our heads together.”
That theme of sharing in the creative process is a refrain that comes up time and again. At Mark Loren Designs in Ft. Myers, the multi-award-winning designer talks as much about the designs of his protégé, Anisa Stewart, and of his collaborations with area artists as he does about his own creations.
    “Anisa started here at 15,” Loren notes. “Now she’s a national award-winning designer. She’s won two or three Spectrum Awards; they’re really the Oscars of the jewelry business. We also have three full-time jewelers/craftsmen from the Dominican Republic, Germany, and Sarasota. We really operate as a team, even the administrative staff. Everyone has a hand in it.”
Despite the varying personalities and perspectives, Loren and his team seem to share a unified vision; they want to make pieces that are distinct, different, and artful. Consider, for example, the love cuff wedding bracelet that has to be put on and removed using a tiny screwdriver (which the husband wears around his neck). Or the lion’s claw earrings, inspired by a big game hunter. Or the delicate necklace that combines diamonds and tourmaline with a tiny, ancient, bronze ax head.
    The artistry is what keeps designers like Loren going. And yet, in the final analysis, it’s the look on the customer’s face when the jewelry is finished that makes all the effort worthwhile.
“I’ve been in the business 25 years now,” Loren says, “and I’ve realized that jewelry is really about the clients we get to have a relationship with. That’s the real gem, the real precious material.”
    And that’s what makes custom design jewelry a work of art—and heart.

Freelance writer Janina Birtolo has an eye for the gems that make Southwest Florida sparkle.