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WomanOf the Month 11-06: Kristine Martin, Jewelry Designer

The story of how Kristine Martin became a designer and maker of fine jewelry reflects her evolution as an entrepreneur and her imaginative yet practical approach to her unique—almost storybook—creations. Beyond the beauty of their strung gems, pearls, and ornaments, her pieces evoke history, romance, whimsy, and the exotic. Today she blends business with her passion for travel as she searches the far reaches of the globe, from flea markets in New Zealand and Australia to antique shops in Europe. She returns to her studio/home in Washington, D.C., with her unusual and striking finds—a 1920’s silver lipstick holder from Prague or an Edwardian watch fob from Ireland—which then await placement in just the right design.
She launched her business as do many entrepreneurs, first enjoying the support, a.k.a., the “I Want That”, of friends. “I have several necklaces with antique coins and one with a Victorian seal,” says one. “They are so flattering and youthful to wear; the creative and unique designs complement both casual and evening wear. When I travel, I can###t get on a plane without a flight attendant asking me about my unusual jewelry and where it can be found.”

Q. Where did you grow up and how did your family influence your artistic interests?

A. I grew up in rural Australia, the second daughter of two school teachers. My mother was a home science teacher, and a very accomplished needlewoman. One of my earliest memories is of her handbeaded wedding dress and beaded jackets that she had worn in the 1930s and ‘40s. When I was a teenager, Mum taught me to bead on fabric, knit, quilt and embroider. In the country towns where we lived, no-one, including my mother, wore such fancy clothes, but I loved using her beads and scraps of beautiful fabrics. In fact, I still have some of her beads from the ‘40s and they are a wonderful memento.

A. When and how did you begin your professional artistic career?

After university, I taught English literature in high schools inCanberra, the Australian capital. For creative relief, I learned a variety of decorative painting techniques to use in my own house, and also developed a small wearable art business, concentrating on beaded and quilted jackets. I never planned to do either of these activities full time, but when my husband was offered a job in Washington in 1990, I was able to give up teaching and do something I really loved.

For the past 12 years, I have run my own faux finishing business, and through trial and error, managed to learn some business practices that have paid off. Since developing the jewelry business, I have found that basically the same principles apply. I invested money in doing classes from well-regarded teachers, bought the best-quality tools and materials that I could afford, and built personal relationships with both my suppliers and my clients.

While I still do some faux finishing, I am now concentrating on building the jewelry business, and I find it is really what I want to do.

Q. How did you build your clientele, and what prompted you to move into jewelry design?

I started making jewelry for friends and for myself when my husband discovered the pearl market in Beijing and brought home strands of pearls from every trip. When I realized that I would either have to make more friends to give these pearls to, or develop my own little business, I decided it was more realistic to develop the business! I took a trip to the Beijing market and bought a variety of pearls to start.

Ihave always loved antique jewelry and have worn an antique watch chain and fobs for many years. I wanted to find a way to recreate this antique look using pearls and vintage and antique pieces. Initially, I found that the lockets and watch fobs were too expensive, and so I turned to using old silver coins. Even though I have now found some good sources for vintage pieces, my clients still love the combination of pearls and old silver dollars and these pieces are central to what I call my "Classic Collection".The women featured on the old Morgan dollar from the 1880s through to 1921, and the Peace dollar after 1922, are very lovely, and this is a great way to bring these ladies back into circulation.

Through developing a good relationship with a couple of vintage and antique jewelry dealers, I have been able to find affordable pieces to incorporate into my own jewelry. I still always look for lockets, watch fobs, interesting pocket watches, pins, and old medals when I travel. I have been lucky to find some wonderful little treasures in secondhand shops, antique markets and flea markets in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, England and Europe. In general, I try to buy those pieces that I can envisage combining with the pearls and semiprecious stones that I already have, but sometimes I let loose and buy something that I hope will inspire a design when I get home!

Q. What is your approach to design in your pieces generally?

A. In terms of design, I try to keep things pretty simple, and let the materials do the talking. For example, I like to use large pearls, quite often very baroque and irregular. I might combine pearls with semiprecious stones or with coral, and I like to combine turquoise with coral and old silver in dramatic, "ethnic"-influenced designs. Given the natural beauty of these stones and pearls, I like to let them shine without too much interference.

Most of my pieces are pretty substantial and they are intended to be noticed. I always love it when someone I###m talking to never makes eye contact, but stares at the necklace before asking "Where did you get that jewelry?" Even though some of the pieces are quite large, I make sure that they are comfortable to wear. Clasps have to be simple to use and sturdy. The stones and pearls have to be smooth against the skin. I saw some interesting cross-shaped pearls at a jewelry show, but knew as soon as I put them on my skin that neither I, nor anyone I knew, would be able to suffer the sharp ends of those pearlsfor more than a couple of minutes, so I decided not to use them in any of my designs.

Q. How do you want your jewelry to make people feel?

A. I want people to feel that my jewelry flatters them, in style and color, and I want them to feel that they can wear it comfortably all day. I know that I do not even bother to put on the earrings that pinch or the necklace or bracelet that does not sit comfortably no matter how trendy or expensivethey may have been.

Q. How do you go about creating your pieces?

A. Each is made by hand. I have concentrated on necklaces, bracelets, and earrings using stringing and wire-wrapping techniques. I have chosen to make my own pieces rather than employing others to do the stringing. I actually love to handle the materials, and often ideas for another piece will come while I###m working on the first design. This way I can also be personally responsible for quality, with no one to blame but myself if there is a problem.

Q. How do you research designs?

A. Ideas for designs come from a lot of sources. I love to look at vintage jewelry books, and find ideas in books like Angela Fisher###s Africa Adorned from the ‘80s. While I always like to see what is being worn in current magazines and I want my pieces to be current, I don###t think it wise to slavishly follow every trend in an impossible race to cater to every taste. For me, that is not a winning strategy.

Q. How did you learn how to select gems, pearls, etc.?

A. I like to personally select all the materials I use, from pearls and stones to the clasps and silver and gold "findings". After trial and error, I now buy from a handful of dealers I have got to know and trust. I have driven them all crazy with questions, but they have been happy (or at least they pretend to be!) to educate me about pearl quality,and stone cutting and color. I like to buy locally wherever possible and have developed a good relationship with a coin dealer and a gem dealer. I buy the pearls now from a wholesaler in New York, and find this much more satisfactory than relying on shipments from China, which I cannot personally select.

Q. How do you hope to develop your business, and where is your jewelry sold now?

A. I currently sell from my home at trunk shows, through special events in stores, and by appointment. The mail order side of the business has expanded following the development of the website. I am currently talking with two local store owners who are interested in carrying a selection.I will also participate in the craft fair organized by families of the World Bank in Washington, DC, at the beginning of November. I am keen to develop the web site,, mainly for potential clients to get a good feel for what I do. For me, choosingjewelry is so personal, that I doubt whether online buying would ever replace touching and trying on the actual piece, but I know that not everyone feels tha