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Math Meets Motion

How does a self-confessed “math geek” morph into an award-winning jewelry designer with a shop on New York’s chic Madison Avenue?

By Nancy Pier Sindt
For some, it might be a stretch, but not for Yael Sonia. The majority of her designs are kinetic and playful, often inspired by children’s toys. “I do lots of sketching,” the designer says in explaining her intricate, interactive jewelry that moves with the wearer. But her sketching is not like the romantic renderings of some designers; hers reflects her mathematical, engineering bent. Sonia says she mentally envisions the completed version of the jewelry before working on drawings that include detailed illustrations for its construction. “I make a mechanical drawing when the piece is finished in my mind,” she explains. Although Sonia is comfortable at the workbench and capable of fabricating the jewelry herself, she now maintains a workshop in São Paulo, Brazil, where her collections are produced.

The Boston-born designer was raised mostly in New York City, where she attended secondary school and college. But she traveled widely, spending six years of her childhood in Brazil and summers in France. She also received on-the-job training from her mother, who owned an art/jewelry gallery in São Paulo. At her parents’ insistence, she completed a “classical” education as a French literature major at Barnard College, then immediately enrolled in Parsons School of Design to study jewelry design.

In fact, Sonia remembers sketching jewelry designs since early childhood. When her mother had one of Sonia’s sketches made up into a finished piece of jewelry as a sixteenth birthday gift, she knew she had found her direction. Although she says she loves all art forms, Sonia feels that paintings and sculptures are too static for her — they just stand in one place — and therefore not interactive enough to be of lasting interest. Jewelry, on the other hand, is tactile, portable and comes alive when it is worn.

Sonia spends part of each year in her workshop in São Paulo, but she was encouraged by the increasing international interest in her jewelry to open a retail shop on New York City’s Madison Avenue in 2007. Managed by Henry Elfering, the self-appointed “gatekeeper,” the gallery has been slowly building up a moneyed and stylish clientele that includes walk-in buyers as well as established customers. Elfering, a jewelry designer himself, says he enjoys showing Sonia’s playful jewelry and encourages visitors to try it on. Sometimes he makes appointments for clients to work directly with the designer on one-of-a-kind pieces.

Rainbow

One of Sonia’s early pieces, a spinning wheel necklace from her Perpetual Motion Collection, captured a top International Design Award, the Tahitian Pearl Trophy, and has been translated into a rainbow of different colored gemstones and a number of correlating designs.

Her stated goal is to offer clients original, limited-edition designs using natural Brazilian gemstones set in hand-fabricated 18-karat gold. Most frequently used gemstones include amethyst, citrine, blue topaz, tourmaline, morganite and aquamarine, but she also has appreciation for lesser-known stones such as smoky and rutillated quartz, rock crystal and onyx.

Sonia’s collection features kite shapes, cubes, pyramids, cones, wheels, spheres and multifaceted “rocks.”  Although she prefers to have her gemstones cut and polished in Brazil, she says that in the past, some of the more intensely colored gems she wanted to work with were unavailable to her because of the small quantities and unusual shapes she requires. Many of the vivid-hued stones were sold to larger jewelry companies or fabricated by non-Brazilian, usually German, cutters. To indulge her taste for more exotic colors and to satisfy her growing clientele, the designer has been forced to expand her scope in terms of gemstones. Sonia says she is on the lookout for other resources and future collections will feature non-Brazilian gemstones, such as rainbow-colored sapphires and mandarin garnets.

Diamond Accent

Diamonds have never been the focal points of her designs, but when she does use them as accents, they are always of good quality. Her jewelry uses pavé and bead-set stones of 1 to 3 points up to 10 points for her signature “rock” rings. One exciting new Perpetual Motion design — a pendant where the diamond spins around inside — features a D color, VS1, 40-pointer diamond. Swinging Circles, Sonia’s first bridal collection as well as her first platinum collection, features diamonds that roll and rotate.

Reflecting the current trend in the market, the lower-price-point pieces and the top luxury designs are selling the most briskly, the designer says. Opening prices begin at $960 for whimsical back-to-front loop earrings with geometrical-cut gemstones that move in their settings. Prices can go up to five figures for more complicated pieces. Most of the earrings and rings are self-purchases made by women. Sonia says she has enlarged her collection of earrings for these customers but is also exploring higher price points. “My new direction is to create more luxe designs to balance the everyday pieces,” she says.

Sonia’s Madison Avenue boutique is small in size – about 350 square feet — but is arranged in gallerylike formation, with each showcase displaying the range of each collection, including the rough-hewn “rock” rings, the finger-framing kite rings and drop earrings. Many pieces can be worn in a variety of ways: Rings morph into pendants or can be stacked on the finger; Perpetual Motion bracelets can be worn as pendants.

While not every piece is one-of-a-kind, there are not many repeats and most designs are unique. Of her carefully engineered designs with rolling spheres, revolving and tremblant drops, Sonia says, “I’m not crazy about placing stones in a stationary setting. I prefer for them to move and be exposed.”

As a designer with an international reputation and clients, Sonia’s travel schedule is demanding. In addition to her regular business jaunts between Brazil, New York and Paris, she has exhibited her collections in Vicenza, Couture in Las Vegas, JA in New York and the Paris Biennale. This fall, she will travel to Berlin for a guest appearance in conjunction with having been featured in a recent book on Brazilian design.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - August 2011. To subscribe click here.

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