3 Designers on a Pearl Challenge

Aesthetic interpretations are as unique as fingerprints. Give three people the same trendy sweater and each will wear it in a different way. Give three jewelry designers the same unusual cultured pearl and each will design a distinctly different piece. Such was the challenge MJSA Journal posed to three innovative talents in the jewelry industry: Katey Brunini of Solana Beach, California; Ernesto Moreira of Houston; and Alishan Halebian (best known as only Alishan) of Irvine, California.

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By Deborah A. YonickMore from this author

Aesthetic interpretations are as unique as fingerprints. Give three people the same trendy sweater and each will wear it in a different way. Give three jewelry designers the same unusual cultured pearl and each will design a distinctly different piece. Such was the challenge MJSA Journal posed to three innovative talents in the jewelry industry: Katey Brunini of Solana Beach, California; Ernesto Moreira of Houston; and Alishan Halebian (best known as only Alishan) of Irvine, California.

Unusual pearl

The pearl - an Australian beauty cultivated by Paspaley Pearl and supplied by its U.S. distributor, Stuller Inc. in Lafayette, Louisiana — is truly one of a kind. Measuring 19.75 mm long by 17.15 mm wide, the unusual drop circle pearl has a smaller pearl protruding from a hole in its top. On the following pages, Brunini, Moreira, and Alishan tell how they arrived at their design choices given the curious characteristics of this pearl. Brunini's Wild Orchid Of the three designs, Brunini's brooch was the only one to call attention to the pearl within the pearl. "As a designer, my job is to draw the viewer in to the most unusual quality of the pearl, which I saw as the pearl within the pearl," she says. "The organic, sensual nature of this pearl lent itself naturally to a flower, specifically an orchid a la Georgia O'Keefe style. Pearls for me are the most feminine of all gems, especially those of unusual shape."

Brunini's Orchids

The timing for the MJSA challenge was ideal for Brunini, who is developing a new collection of orchid pins for 2007 that will include South Sea and Tahitian baroque pearls, accented by colored diamonds, in a variety of hothouse and wild orchid designs. Her orchid idea for MJSA is a modern take on the flower pins of Chanel in the 1950s.

To represent the big, flat white petals of the orchid, Brunini's design calls for two pieces of carved bone, an idea chosen to enhance the organic nature of the design. Fellow studio artist Augustus Hettig, a native of Tonga with 16 years' experience in Polynesian bone carving and metalwork, will craft all of the bone elements for her latest orchid collection.


The pearl symbolizes the orchid's central column. "I tried to put the pearl in the forefront, drawing the attention to its most unusual aspect," she says. A small section of 18k yellow gold dusted with yellow diamond pave adds a hint of sparkle and color at the internal lip. A textured 18k yellow gold twig extends behind the bone petals, representing the stem.

Brunini felt it important to use a simple palette of colors in order to bring out the beauty and extraordinary nature of the single pearl.

To construct her floral fantasy, Brunini would drill a series of holes in the bone for wire pegs to go through, which would then be welded in the rear to the 18k gold twig/pin assembly. "Essentially, the front is connected to the back with a series of rivets," she explains.

The pin on the back would be laser welded to the twig, which represents both a structural element and an aesthetic reflecting Brunini's signature style, which focuses on unusual textures in metal, although she has always mixed her metal-intense designs with diamonds, gemstones, and pearls. She notes that laser welding is essential for the construction because of the fragility of both the pearl and the bone.

"The metal comes together in the back, so that the front looks very organic and clean," she explains.

For this piece, says Brunini, the challenge is in keeping such a large design feminine and delicate. "Delicacy comes through refining a piece over and over again, and is really the apex of finely crafted handmade jewel-ry as an art form, which I think is lost in much of the mass production we see today."

Aside from the stem, Brunini's wild orchid is a departure from her signature style. "It was fun for me to create a piece in which the majority of the design was lacking metal, and to showcase the beauty of the pearl with other organic materials," she says.

Brunini, who founded her design studio in 1998, says she enjoyed working on this project. "It was totally my design aesthetic to do this with a pearl as the centerpiece," she says, noting that simplicity is central to amazing design. "I love taking a difficult equation and making it look easy."

Moreira's Honey Drop

Drawn to the curvaceous teardrop shape of the pearl, Moreira envisioned sweet, sticky, crystalline honey oozing from a funnel — a pearl drop pendant culminating from a fluid, sinuous necklace. Although the tiny pearl within the pearl intrigued Moreira, there was no angle at which he could position it that would both showcase its oddity and convey his honey-drop concept.


Moreira is no stranger to pearls, using all types in his designs, from South Sea and Tahitian to Akoya and freshwater, but they have always been round in shape. "When I first saw this pearl I thought, this is different than I'm used to, which is really good for me," he says.

In addition, the timing of the MJSA challenge was ideal for Moreira, who describes himself as at a crossroads in the evolution of his design style. About 18 months ago, the Houston Museum of Natural Science commissioned him to create a dozen jewels using gem specimens from its permanent display. His museum collection, which debuted in November, is a departure from his signature style of contemporary, understated European aesthetic.

"In working with large, unusual gems of 168 carats or suites of 200 carats for the museum collection, I had to switch gears," he says. "I found myself blending my contemporary aesthetic with an Old World sense inspired by years of traveling throughout Europe. I've always been intrigued by the ironwork of doors and windows that are rich in design and texture, particularly those of Moorish influence in Spain. I began incorporating scrollwork into my clean lines."

This new creative direction is reflected in Moreira's honey drop design, which also illustrates his fascination with repetition, odd numbers, and asymmetry. He saw the pearl as very sensual and feminine and wanted to highlight it in a design that would reflect the graceful movement of a woman's body. He thinks the piece should be made in icy 18k white gold or platinum as he felt it almost too obvious to make it yellow and warm. "The pearl itself seems warm to me," he says. "I wanted to contrast it with a cool metal."

For the necklace, Moreira envisions a circle-link chain made from drawn wire loosely bent around a steel rod so that each link varies slightly, reflecting the handcraftsmanship. Every fourth link would contain a 3 mm bezel-set diamond, and the three links closest to the front of the necklace would have a sprinkle of diamond pave. The necklace's tongue-in-groove metal ball clasp also calls for pave, and a spray of dangling metal drops to convey movement. The same drops are repeated in the front bib, two on the left, one on the right, connected by scrollwork. Two of the three scrolls and the funnel holding the pearl are adorned in pave as well.

Moreira notes that the diamonds would be set using the French pave method in the bright-cut classic style, which adds life to the design, with a mirror finished surface around the diamonds. He anticipates carving from wax, using a miniature lathe, the dangling metal drops and funnel shape, and making the clasp by way of sheet metal construction. The curved spew of wave-like metal emerging from the funnel and two of the three front scrolls would be hand-forged out of wire from thin to thick. The swirling scrollwork would be hand cut from thick silver and shaped with a file.

Because the scrollwork is designed at different levels for depth, Moreira would likely use tube-and-wire hinges to hold various sections together to allow the piece to lie naturally on the body. "We have to see how it lays and moves on the body to adjust any areas where elements are protruding more forward than others."

Comparing himself to a tailor, Moreira says the design of a piece does not end with the rendering. "When we start to construct a piece we play with what works best to achieve an ideal fit," he explains, noting that he would try the piece on several women in his design studio until it rests perfectly on all of them. Moreira would like to see the necklace made long with a clasp capable of connecting in various places to add versatility.

To attach the pearl to its funneled cap, Moreira calls for traditional post and epoxy construction. But he's inclined to preserve the unique characteristic of the pearl within the pearl, even though no one would see it, by drilling to the side of its unusual birthmark.

Moreira considers the design complex enough to hand-forge silver masters, which would take more time but would be more cost efficient in the long run than constructing it directly in gold. In this way, he could play with the piece as he builds it.

Alishan's Drop of Innocence

For Alishan, pearls have always had a fable-like existence, connected with kings and queens, mystics and pirates. Throughout his designing career, they have been one of his main subjects in the tales he tells with his jewelry. He is drawn to any pearl that moves him, but he has always been fascinated with natural pearls. South Sea and Tahitian cultured pearls also intrigue him with their character in color and tone.


"I consider the pearl to be one of the gems that do not need to be enhanced in any way, and as such, I look to create designs that will dress up the pearl without taking away from its natural beauty," he says.

When presented with Paspaley's jewel, Alishan saw it as a symbol of purity and innocence, and he wanted to deliver this symbol unencumbered to the wearer. (When he saw the pearl he immediately thought of a design that would look as if a package was being delivered.) For some, his design might represent a winged creature such as a butterfly. Other observers might see a young girl dancing with a ribbon fluttering behind her, or perhaps a stork delivering an anticipated package.

Design ambiguity is exactly what Alishan hopes to achieve. "My approach is not to create a motif, but rather to evoke an emotion," he says. With his design for a pin/pendant, Alishan looks to expose as much of the pearl as possible. He was most attracted to the downy rolls, curves, and indentations of its drop shape, and he did not necessarily want to cover the natural curiosity of the pearl within the pearl. However, to showcase the drop shape for his design the pearl needs to hang from its top, calling for traditional post and epoxy construction capped in 18k white gold or platinum.

The wings that deliver the pearl speak to Alishan's highly ornamented, curvilinear signature style. "My approach to the fashion jewelry I create is to fold gold to make it look more like fabric," he ex-plains. "To me, this design re-sembles tapestry." Made in 18k yellow gold, which Alishan alloys to look more like a greenish-yellow 22k gold, his jeweled wings are decorated with swirls of 18k white gold set with small diamonds and rubies.

In constructing his piece, Alishan would first roll his gold to achieve a desired thickness of about 30-gauge. Then he would cut the two winged shapes from the gold sheet, anneal them, and form them into wavering silhouettes. To add contour, he would slightly melt the edges with a hand torch. Next, he would texture the wings to resemble blended thread in fabric.

He would contrast this rich and dramatic matte finish with sleek, high polished white gold ornamentation hand formed in about 0.50 mm thickness, which he would overlay on top. Dotting all the swirls would be bezel-set diamonds and rubies ranging in size from 1.3 mm to 1.7 mm. Finally, he would join the wings together by soldering one on top of the other.

Like Moreira, Alishan says his design renderings are initial road maps, and as more direct paths are discovered, the course may change along the way. "I discover certain things during fabrication that I would like to change, like proportions, angles, and curvatures, so that the end result is usually different from the sketch," he says. "It's similar to a composer editing his piece."


Improvisation would especially come into play when Alishan creates the back assembly. "Because of the weight of the piece, I think the greatest challenge in fabricating it will be in determining the ideal position of the bail and hook [and] catch and pin so that it hangs accordingly when worn both ways. This is something I would do after the piece is constructed. It's something you have to experiment with to see how the weight distributes."

For Alishan, who has focused for the past seven years on building his bridal collection, this project was a refreshing change that came as he is beginning to explore his roots in fashion jewelry. He intends to create this design, with a similar pearl, and to unveil it in Tucson in early February.

In association with

The award-winning Journal is published monthly by MJSA, the trade association for professional jewelry makers, designers, and related suppliers. It offers design ideas, fabrication and production techniques, bench tips, business and marketing insights, and trend and technology updates—the information crucial for business success. “More than other publications, MJSA Journal is oriented toward people like me: those trying to earn a living by designing and making jewelry,” says Jim Binnion of James Binnion Metal Arts.

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Deborah A. Yonick

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