For These Jewelry Designers, All That Glitters Isn’t Gold

While metals, gemstones and pearls have been the staples of jewelry design for centuries, some makers are now finding inspiration in more unusual materials, such as glass, horn and wood. Even soda cans.

“Disposable cans and plastics have been considered inadequate for jewelry,” said Eunseok Han, a jewelry artist based in Seoul. “However, I thought we could make beautiful jewelry with these discarded non-precious materials.”

Here are the stories of Ms. Han and four other designers who are working to elevate unconventional materials to jewelry art.

Seoul, South Korea

“I started making jewelry with recycled cans in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic began,” Ms. Han, 49, said in a video interview from her atelier in the Korean capital. She noted that she had been thinking about working with discarded objects for some time, but the environmental improvements that occurred during the early lockdowns — like the global decline in greenhouse gases — inspired her to begin experimenting, crafting pieces out of aluminum soda and beer cans .

Friends and family now provide her with cans, and she collects others from recycling bins — separating them by color and lettering style — then cutting each can into pieces and using adhesives to glue the pieces together. The final part of the process involves using polylactic acid, a renewable plastic commonly called PLA, to affix the aluminum pieces around a core in the shape that she wants to create.

“I prefer bright colors,” Ms. Han said, adding that she sees this eye-catching palette as a way of focusing attention on the vibrant colors of corals that are disappearing because of pollution and global warming. Her collection includes earrings, rings, brooches and necklaces, with smaller pieces starting at $300 and more intricate ones going for $1,500.

Ms. Han began creating jewelry in 2000 after earning a Master of Fine Arts in metalcraft from Dongduk Women’s University in Seoul. Initially, she produced traditional Korean styles in gold and silver; she then began incorporating gems, wood, plastic and enamel into her pieces for more variety. She sells her work through her Instagram account and through galleries such as the Mobilia Gallery in Cambridge, Mass.; Charon Kransen Arts in New York City and Bini Gallery in Melbourne, Australia.

“As we pass the Covid-19 era, we realize again the importance of nature and the need for efforts to sustain it,” Ms. Han said. “As an artist, I’m making jewelry out of recycled cans in a small effort to do my part.”

Los Angeles

Ms. Wheeler, 37, said she believed that there’s something about wood, in particular, that made for special jewelry. “I think it brings a real grounding, earthy element to it. It’s so dense and dark,” she said in a video interview from her home in Los Angeles.

Recently the designer has been working with ebony. Since the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the material as endangered, she had to find an ethical way to obtain it. “It ended up being a sculptor who had purchased a big log in the ’80s and had some left over,” she said. for her Belle earrings and cuff set, ($119,000 for the earrings and $116,000 for the cuff), Ms. Wheeler paired the dark wood with diamonds, white enamel and light pink morganite. “I have always liked to combine matte carved material with more traditional faceted gemstones,” she said.

The designer, who is self-taught, introduced her fine jewelry collection in 2016. She now works with a sustainability coach to ensure that her designs are made of recycled gold and responsibly sourced gems, and she typically employs local artisans in the United States to craft her designs, in order to reduce waste and decrease the carbon impact of her work. “Nothing we make is mass produced,” she said. “We look at the individual piece and think: ‘Who is the best person to make this piece?’”

This summer, Ms. Wheeler introduced a new collection, called Bernadette, in honor of her daughter, who was born in April. The designs, which pair vibrant hues with soft pastels, are a nod to 1960s statement pieces. “These have petrified wood on the outside,” she said, referring to the Painted Desert earrings. ($50,000) “This particular piece I found in Tucson, and it was just so colorful and beautiful.”

Ms. Wheeler’s jewelry is sold on her website and by Net-a-Porter, as well as in stores, including Harrods in London and boutiques such as Elyse Walker in California and Marissa Collections in Naples, Fla.

Yamanashi, Japan

Glass is the only material used by porridge, the jewelry line made by the wife-and-husband team of Megumi Jin, 38, and Nobuyuki Jin, 43. In Japanese, bubun is the word for “part” — the couple chose it for their brand because they believe jewelry becomes “ part of a person, both in the physical sense and in the spiritual sense,” Ms. Jin wrote in an email from their home and workshop in Yamanashi, Japan.

The pair met about 10 years ago while they were working for a leather goods manufacturer; they left in 2016 to start Bubun. “Nobuyuki saw a pair of glass earrings that I had been making and said he wanted to develop a collection based on them,” Ms. Jin said, adding that she first became fascinated with glass as a teenager.

“Over the years, I have come to feel that glass is a medium that can express an inner feeling that is difficult to express in words alone,” she said. “It’s not a standard material for jewelry, and compared to precious metals and precious stones, the material itself has little value. But its value is created by the intensity of expression of its concept, shape, technique and handwork.”

The couple craft their jewelry from glass that has been made for commercial use — plate glass, glass rods and glass pipes made in Japan, Germany and China. They cut and shape the glass, working the glass at a very low temperature, then wrap a clear thread around each piece and sew those pieces together.

Each piece in the Organ series, which the couple based on their interpretation of body tissue, is made of dozens of circular pieces. “We feel that transparent, light-permeable glass is a material that, when worn, visually blurs the boundary between the body and its environment and loosely links them together,” Ms. Jin said.

The pieces, which are handmade by the Jins themselves, are priced between 20,000 and 50,000 yen ($148-$370). The designers sell the pieces from their online shop, and they have stockists both in Japan and around the world.

Nanyuki, Kenya

Writing from her home in Nanyuki, on the northwestern slopes of Mount Kenya, Ms. Dejak explained that her jewelry and accessories are about “capturing the spirit of Africa — her wealth, her character, her culture — and bringing others into this experience.”

One material that the designer uses are horns from Ankole cows, which she obtains from reclaimed horn suppliers in neighboring Uganda. Ms. Dejak then has local artisans process the long, upward-curving horns, which the staff at her Nairobi atelier in turn fashion into earrings, pendants and bracelets. (She now employs 12 full-time workers, far fewer than the 40 she employed before weathering economic challenges.)

The designer notes that she also uses other environmentally friendly materials, such as recycled fridges, doorknobs and car engines, along with “recycled metals sourced at scrap markets and sold per kilo.” Her brass jewelry retails for $40 to $510, while the bags made of cowhide with Ankole horn fittings run $80 to $910. Both the jewelry and the bags are sold online and at retailers around the world.

Ms. Dejak was born in Kano, Nigeria. “Ever since I was young, I admired my mother and grandmother’s style. They wore bold, vibrant adornments, and they inspired my love for African, handmade accessories,” she said. She graduated with a law degree from Middlesex University in England, but then decided to study typographical design at the London College of Communication.

As a self-taught designer, she started the brand under the name Magik Grace and rebranded in 2009 under her own name. “My collections are heavily influenced by the Kenyan tribes,” she said. “The Turkana, Samburu and the Masai body adornments and culture have had a huge impact.”

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