In the rarified sphere of high jewelry, the highest possible level is bespoke pieces, custom-made for individual clients. Like haute couture, haute joaillerie items are made to order and crafted by hand, with intense collaboration and interaction between the jewelry designer and the client. The items are heirloom quality and — like royal jewels – each one has a story behind it. If you’re operating at this price point, you have the option of working with one of the storied European jewelry houses: Asprey, Bulgari, Harry Winston, Van Cleef & Arpel, Graff, Cartier, Chanel and Dior all offer haute joaillerie designs that are essentially custom-made. An alternative that many sophisticated clients turn to is working directly with an artist who is classically trained in one of these maisons, but now creating work on their own. The advantage of that approach is that you are intimately involved in every step of the process, and you’ll receive highly personalized attention from a skilled artisan. You’ll also be the owner of a piece that is truly one-of-a-kind, created for your tastes and lifestyle. At Dandelion Chandelier, we’ve been exploring the world of fine jewelry. In an occasional series, we’ll showcase artisans and high jewelry that are the best of the best. First up: award winning jewelry designer Sharon Khazzam.
Sharon is a star in the world of haute joaillerie. She was the sole in-house jewelry designer for Asprey for eight years. With Asprey’s support, in 1993 Sharon launched her eponymous collection, which reflects her tastes as an artist and also her expertise with gemstones. You can find her one-of-a-kind collection of earrings, rings, bracelets and necklaces at Barneys New York, Isetan and Mitsukoshi in Tokyo, and Ylang 23 in Dallas. Or you can work directly with her to create a bespoke piece, choosing stones that speak to you, and seeing the design and the final product come to life in her studio.
On a balmy morning in early October, we met Sharon at her atelier to learn more about her vision and her lovely creations. She’s completely unlike what one might expect from a highly-skilled fine jewelry artist – she is unpretentious, humble, warm, and charming. We felt immediately at home in her studio, and her patient willingness to explain her craft to us was notable (we can only imagine how many times she has welcomed people to her studio, but to us it felt as if it was the first time). Her excitement about gemstones and working with clients to create unique and personal heirloom pieces is utterly infectious.
We step into the vibrant ground floor of her atelier and the signature elements of her work are immediately apparent. The colors of the décor are exuberant and optimistic, and the design elements are whimsical and well-curated. There’s a steely-silver suit of armor in the corner (named “Sir Hamilton”) standing watch over purple and black striped and damask chairs. The walls are coral red. The floorboards are reclaimed from a barn in Illinois, their color a range of gorgeous gradations of brown – from sand to dark chocolate. Tucked into a corner is a secret door made of scraps from the floorboards that she designed herself.
Like many elements of Sharon’s world, the floorboards bear a delightful surprise: in the knot-holes of the boards, she has tucked away gemstones that only catch your eye once you’ve been told they’re there. It’s easy to image mischievous elves installing these secret stones by moonlight one night, and awaking to find this hidden magic in the morning. It’s just that kind of place.
There’s a commitment to being a steward of the earth’s treasures that is apparent not just in Sharon’s work with precious stones, but also in the way in which she has designed her workspace. Almost everything has been reclaimed and repurposed, made newly functional and beautiful without creating unnecessary waste. In that way, her environment is truly like a jewel box – a place where things from the earth are polished and shaped into lasting objects of beauty.
Speaking of which: on to the jewelry! We examine three of the iconic pieces in Sharon’s collection. The first, the “Baby” necklace, is 100 inches long. Its name is derived from its status in the collection: “It’s my baby,” Sharon explains. “It’s my Birkin bag equivalent.” The Baby necklace features multi-colored stones set in white, yellow and rose gold, and it’s multi-functional: it can be worn as one long necklace, or a choker, or a belt – even a dog leash. Sharon laughs: “I had a check-up and they gave me one of those gowns that doesn’t really have a belt, so I took my necklace off and used as a belt.” We could see Wonder Women of all types deploying this necklace as a lariat – bad guys beware. Each one is different, and no machines are involved in the design process. Sharon notes, almost as an aside, “I don’t use CAD [computer-assisted design]. I sketch by hand, I prefer it that way.”
The second notable piece we spy is the “Victoria” necklace. It features larger stones than the Baby, and has a single pendant. Sharon explains that the piece is hand-made in 18-karat gold and platinum; the central motif consists of a 57.47 karat peridot, suspending colored diamonds, a marquise-shaped fire opal and orange sapphires. On either side are pink and blue tourmalines, rubies, and white diamonds. The various motifs are connected with diamonds, sapphires, prehnites and tourmalines. The clasp is a cushion-shaped blue tourmaline. It’s a stunning necklace.
The “Victoria” necklace on display in the studio took months to perfect. “I waited 7 or 8 months for the right stone to come along to complete this. It really needed one more element, and once I saw it, I thought ‘yes! Now it’s right.’” The missing element was a rougher stone – “more directly representative of the earth” to balance the highly polished elements in the piece. “Sometimes it just needs time to come together.”
The third signature item is a piece we’ve seen in our dreams a few times already. We originally saw Sharon’s “Bauble” bracelets when we met her for the first time nearly a year ago at Barneys New York on Madison Avenue at one of her special events. She made only 9 of these bracelets, and has kept 2 of them for herself. Both are hand-made of 18-karat gold and platinum with eleven motifs, several of which are set with a single sizable gemstone. They’re done in surprising color combinations, and arranged in a visually compelling sequence, with no two the same. So a simple turn of the bracelet makes it appear that you’re wearing something completely different than before.
The bracelets have delightful “Easter egg” surprises in their designs, including two “poison boxes,” or secret compartments. Sharon explains that in earlier times, women would keep pills or other small objects in concealed compartments in their bracelets. She has fashioned hers to function as “a place to keep Tic-Tacs, or daily medication, or any other small object that you like.” There’s one on the front of each bracelet, and a second hidden one on the back. No one but you will know that it’s there. And what you keep in it is of course up to you.
As we gaze admiringly at the Bauble that Sharon is wearing, we think of it as the “summer” bracelet – it has a silvery-blue stone, a white stone that reminds of us of coral, and in general exudes the spirit of warm-weather freedom and beachy happiness. The other one reminds us of autumn (our favorite season): warmer stones in a refined range of shades from blush pink to deep burgundy. We learn that among the gemstones on this bracelet are a faceted pear-shaped kunzite set in an 18-karat pink gold prong setting; a rough diamond cluster set in 18-karat white gold; a leaf-shaped ruby set in an 18-karat pink gold prong setting; a diamond slice set in 18-karat white gold bezel; an elongated pear-shaped watermelon tourmaline; and a faceted triangular fire opal set in 18-karat yellow gold. Wow.
“Why don’t you wear this one?” she playfully suggests, reaching for the autumn Bauble on display. We agree, even though we know that this is a doomed love affair – each Bauble bracelet runs about $80,000, and until Dandelion Chandelier goes public, we won’t have room in our budget for that. Still, it settles gently onto our wrist – a perfect fit – and we wear it very comfortably for the remainder of the morning, feeling like a princess. Take our word for it – if you have the resources, this is a piece you could wear happily for years – not too heavy, no annoying jangling when you move your arm, no jagged edges that will get caught on your clothing. And no one else will ever have exactly the same bracelet as you. Just sayin’. The holidays are not far off (are you getting this all down, Santa?)
In an adjacent room in her office, we are drawn to a long work table made of boards from the same Illinois barn. A reclaimed black wrought-iron spiral staircase snakes up to second floor. Sharon explains that this staircase had no railing when her team found it, so she added one of her own design, which is finished with braided silk rope. Her talent for making matches between the hard and soft, old and new; constructed and natural; and smooth and rough are clear. The ceiling is copper, with an embossed floral pattern. There’s a custom bookcase that stores volumes of fashion tomes behind a web of blonde wood slats. The rug is made of recycled plastic bottles – “it’s definitely waterproof!” Sharon observes.
Just outside, there is actually a secret garden that Sharon uses exclusively as a place for her team and her clients to unwind. “In the middle of an urban area, it’s a joy to have this little private green space.” There are a couple of wooden benches, and the climbing ivy and other greenery create a sense of seclusion from the cacophony of the surrounding neighborhood.
Awaiting us back inside is a mid-morning feast for the eye and the palate: tiered stands with assorted nibbles like edamame, almonds, and sesame-dusted cookies; croissants; a cheese plate; fresh Concord grapes and strawberries; fuchsia macaroons, and a lovely homemade apple tart baked by Sharon’s daughter. There’s cappuccino, green tea, and the aroma of sandalwood in the air (there are scented candles scattered throughout the atelier).
Sharon’s all-female team joins us for a snack, and we sit for a while enjoying refreshments while we hear more of her story. Her zest for life is not the result of a carefree childhood – quite the contrary. She grew up in Tehran, leaving the country only 6 months before the fall of the Shah of Iran. “When I was a child, Iranian life in the urban areas was quite Western – I have a photo of my mother wearing a leopard-print swimsuit. That seems hard to imagine now.” Her family was on a summer holiday in Italy, with no expectation that they would never return to Iran, when the unrest began. The family had a home in the New York area, so they decided to go there for what they thought would be “a couple of months.” They never returned to their home in Tehran.
“It’s a dangling participle for me,” she notes soberly. “So many photographs and mementos of my family are just gone now. I have no idea what happened to our house.” Her face brightens as she continues. “We made a life in the US, and I enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). I apprenticed with a master jeweler, and began to collect gemstones. That’s how I’ve developed relationships with the leading gem dealers; they’re willing to hold the best stones for me because we have a history.”
She began her professional career at legendary London jewelry house Asprey. “After my daughter was born, I decided I wanted to work for myself. Asprey was terrific – they worked with me to launch my first capsule collection.” In 1999, Barneys New York called. “They were expanding the jewelry offerings in their Madison Avenue store, and they asked me if I was ready to sell a full collection. I said ‘No! I’m not ready!’ They guided me through the entire process, and I have been with them ever since. They have been with me every step of the way.”
We ask about her passion for gemstones, and she reflects: “I consider myself a guardian for these stones. They’ve been on the earth for millions of years, and I feel that I’ve been entrusted with this precious part of the earth as my work. I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, and I am always still excited when I see a new stone. I like to think of my collection as ‘farm to table’ fine jewelry that is made sustainably and that retains its connection to the earth.”
While she works with white diamonds, Sharon’s passion is colored gemstones. “Colored gemstones are rarer than white diamonds. There are many fewer of them on earth. Plus, I love color, and I urge my clients to go with whatever combination of colors really pleases them. I generally use white diamonds to frame other stones, rather than making them the centerpiece. Stones have a magic of their own, and they speak to people. Every color has within it a very wide range of shades – so it’s not as simple as ‘purple goes with red’ – there are a lot of shades of purple stones, and a lot of shades of red. Each may speak to you differently. That’s why seeing the stones personally is so important.”
I ask about things she has learned through the years as a designer, and she notes that “the most important thing is to just walk away sometimes. If you can’t ‘see’ the design just yet, get up and walk away. It will come to you if you’re patient.” Good note for anyone working in a creative field.
Up the spiral staircase is another suite of offices. The walls are a vibrant shade of orange, and we learn that there is a story behind the color. “In one room, the color is yellow over orange. In the other, it’s orange over yellow. It’s subtle, but they give very different effects.” When we ask about one particular brush pattern in the paint, she explains: “Music is really important to me. It inspires me and moves me. The man doing the painting in this room was a native of India, and he kept trying to get the brush strokes right and it just wasn’t happening. So I put on some music from India, and I took the brush and started dancing to the music. ‘This is what I want!’ I said – and so he danced to the music, and this is the pattern that he created.”
As we view more of her collection in the studio, she notes that one of the most enjoyable parts of her work is interviewing clients. “I think there’s a role for whimsy in fine jewelry. My clients are confident women – often self-made – who are educated, well-traveled and interesting. Before I design anything, I ask a lot of questions: what’s the purpose of this piece? What personal feature is she most proud of? What would she like to accent? What’s her lifestyle? We all have areas of our bodies that we want to draw attention to – and we all have areas we’d like to de-emphasize. Jewelry can draw the eye of the observer wherever you want it to go.”
Despite the fanciful nature of her work, Sharon designs with pragmatism in mind. Many of the pieces are modular, so that a necklace can become a choker; earrings can dangle or be modified to become posts. “When you travel, you need options, and I try to create pieces that can be worn several different ways so that packing becomes a lot easier.”
Of course, none of this beauty comes inexpensively. The show-stopper in the collection is a very rare necklace made of fabulous gemstones that sells for $1 million. The starting price for a pair of earrings – the “Norma” – is $6,500, though, so the happy news is that the price range is sufficiently broad to accommodate a variety of budgets.
Sharon will be on the road starting in November to host special events called “The Signature Series” at Barneys locations across the US, so that clients can see her work and a sample of her gemstone collection in person. They’ll have the fun of hearing her story directly, sipping champagne, and being energized by her presence. And they can work with her at these events to begin the process of designing a bespoke piece of one-of-a-kind jewelry. For fall 2017, the schedule of in-store events is: November 3-4 in San Francisco; November 17-18 in Beverly Hills; December 1-2 in New York (at the Madison Avenue store); and December 8-9 in Chicago. Full details can be found on her website and also on the Barneys site.
You could surprise someone with a timeless item as a special gift – and of course, self-gifting is allowed. As Sharon rightly points out: “A piece of fine jewelry is a wearable piece of art. It’s a little treasure that’s just for you.”
We bid a reluctant goodbye to the “autumn” Bauble bracelet, the lovely studio and its dynamic proprietor. Wonder, discovery and joy are the overwhelming feelings that we’re left with as we depart. We can imagine that the owners of Sharon’s wonderful jewelry have that same feeling every time they wear their pieces – that something lovely has been created just for them, and that it carries with it always the magical powers of the bright spirit who hand-crafted it.
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