“Italy has always been my foundation,” says the jewelry designer Temple St. Clair. As one of the last remaining jewelers who works directly with artisans in Florence, Italy, her pieces are sold at top retailers such as Saks, Nordstrom, Bloomingdales and exhibited at the Louvre in Paris. She built relationships with some of the artisans nearly 40 years ago, and has continued to work with them so long that she’s seen multiple generations take over niche business within the jeweler’s community. It's quite rare, given many of the jewelers in this tiny Italy city are rapidly disappearing.
“Someday I want to do a book just photographing their hands,” she says of her core group of artisans—the eldest of whom is over 80 years old. “I mean they have these incredibly strong hands that are also able to do such delicate work and then their minds are so trained for three-dimensional problem solving. The appreciation I have for them is just out of this world.”
St. Clair’s fascination with the Florentine jewelry scene all started when she was studying abroad in the tiny city in the 1980s. Her mother visited her and asked to have an ancient coin set in a gold necklace. St. Clair set out to find the perfect craftsman for the job. And that was it—she was instantly hooked.
“Certainly, there are Florentine artisans that, in their own way, are doing very interesting things,” she muses. “But I think that I've brought something that is just different over the years. The fact that I was an American woman and a young woman in my twenties, crossing the threshold to these Craftsmen's laboratories as they call them. I didn't know it at the time, but now looking at it and as my own art is developed, I was a young artist walking into their doors.”
One look at Temple St. Clair’s work and it’s easy to see the intrinsic Florentine inspiration. Her Angels collection, for example, is perhaps the most reminiscent of the Florentine aesthetic, with little cherubs embellished into gold pendants and rings, outlined by shining diamonds. Her Classic collection too, has chunky lined 18k gold bracelets named after the infamous Arno river that runs through the region, or stunning granulated gold cuffs that recall a similar look of something you might find on the once jewelry-rich Ponte Vecchio bridge, but with even more immaculate detail.
Still, Temple St. Clair has become well-known for imbuing that classic Florentine identity with her own artistic approach. Think: lots of colorful gemstones, and animal forms covered in some of the rarest stones on earth. These pieces make up the designer’s Haute Couture collection, which she custom designs for VIP clients. “We travel and have relationships across the globe with some of the most amazing purveyors of beautiful colored gemstones,” she explains. “I recently made a butterfly wing, inspired by a black opal that came to us that looked just like a butterfly wing.” The designer is currently working on an octopus piece which has involved a lot of unconventional research. “I did a lot of reading on octopuses. They are these emotionally sensitive, intelligent creatures. They collect pretty things. Divers have regularly visited habitats and see octopus will gather certain things around where they live.” St Clair’s bejeweled version will float under a sea of star sapphires, with a collection of little black opals. “There's always storytelling within the piece; a little bit of the characteristic of this creature.” Another extravagant piece, which the jeweler recently completed, was a black serpent. It took her three years just to accumulate the black opal needed for the stones along its back, and almost another year to set and produce the piece.
Her penchant for wildly colorful stones and creative story-telling can also be seen in the new Color Theory collection. Comprised of rings, pendants, necklaces, and bracelets all set with a rainbow of classic and unconventional color combinations, the designer considers it a look back at her roots. “It’s playing with color, which sort of goes back to my roots of when I started making jewelry and looking at jewelry and learning about the history of jewelry and gold back in the 1980s,” she says. “My very first pieces were archeologically inspired. So they were mostly gold. That was my first introduction to the artisans. I was having them work with gold granulation, but then I moved into sort of looking back at my own art history studies of Byzantine jewelry. That's when I started introducing colored gemstones.” St. Clair added in her own modern dose of inspiration, as she was influenced by the colors seen in the paintings of the Hilma af Klint exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2019.
Despite all of this, the Temple St. Clair’s biggest staple over the years might just be the amulet. Encased in 18k gold, the designer has used shiny, illuminative rock crystal as the base for different creations. “I go back and think of the history of jewelry and really, the concept of the amulet is rooted in the beginning of the history of jewelry,” she explains. She can often be seen wearing some iteration of it herself. “I get up every day, I put an amulet on and I love to think it has magical protective powers—some people think rock crystal does bring clarity.”
Right now, with most of Italy on lockdown from COVID-19, preserving the craftsmanship of the artisans who work directly on the Temple St. Clair brand has never been more important. “It's such a poignant moment right now,” she explains. “We’ve been continuing to work on major pieces remotely, and luckily, some of our goldsmiths have benches at their houses.”
At the end of the day, the designer’s biggest goal is bringing an element of story-telling to each and every piece, and above all, inspiring her clients. “If I can bring meaning and joy and inspiration to each individual collector in their own individual way, that's my biggest success,” explains St. Clair. “I’m not trying to just make a pretty thing, I'm trying to make stunning, beautiful things of high quality. But also they have to have something else to them.”