Rapaport Magazine

Gold Connection

Designer Donna Distefano brings back the art of creating jewelry by hand with 22-karat gold pieces that bring a high-touch craft to a high-tech world.

By Amber Michelle

Drawing upon the ancient traditions of goldsmithing, designer Donna Distefano combines those techniques with her modern sensibility of design and social responsibility to create jewelry in 22-karat gold that is a contemporary collectable. Opulent and talismanic, the jewelry feels as if it came from the Italian royal courts of another era.
   When Distefano was 16 years old, she discovered her love of jewelry making while studying at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.As soon as she finished the first piece, Distefano knew she would be a jeweler and went on to major in jewelry design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Following her Italian roots and love of gold, Distefano traveled to Italy, where she studied art and literature in Rome and at the University of Urbino. While in Italy, her gold jewelry was featured on the fashion runways.
   After a year in Italy, Distefano returned to Manhattan, where she landed a job as senior craftsperson for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1994, she left that job to open her own studio, where she meticulously handcrafts rings, bracelets, earrings and pendants in 22-karat gold. One of the factors that defines Donna Distefano jewelry is the handmade chains forged in her private New York City atelier.
   Chain making is a complex art that is rarely seen anymore due to the time-consuming nature of the work. It can take 50 to 60 hours to make one simple handwoven 16-inch chain and up to 100 hours for something more intricate.
   In her studio, Distefano demonstrated the step-by-step process required to produce a chain. She starts with a gold ingot, which looks like a smooth, gold pebble. The ingot goes into a rolling mill, a pasta maker–like machine that is hand-cranked until the ingot becomes wire. Once the gold ingot is formed into wire, it is put into a drawplate, a device that looks similar to a flat cheese grater with various sizes of holes. The wire is put through a hole and pulled to create the thinness needed. Once that is accomplished, the wire is heated with a torch to soften the metal so that it becomes easy to bend. The wire is then wrapped around a wooden dowel. At this point, the gold looks like a slinky. It is cut off the dowel so there are single circles of gold, which are then individually fused together with a torch so that each one is a link with no break. The links at this stage are malleable and can be pinched to form ovals or other shapes. The next step is to weave the links together. This is done by sliding one ring through another and pinching it shut with pliers. The process is repeated until the chain is the proper length.
   During the demonstration of chain making, Distefano also discussed high-karat gold and the techniques used in the creation of her entire jewelry collection.

What does the term high-karat gold mean?
“High-karat gold is a descriptive measure of purity. Gold above 18 karat is considered high-karat gold. “High Karat” literally means a higher percentage of pure gold in the jewelry and a very small percentage of alloy. 18-karat gold is 75 percent gold and 25 percent alloy — which includes other materials such as fine silver or copper. 22-karat gold is 91.6 percent pure gold.”

Is 22-karat gold always yellow, or can it be rose or white?
“High-karat gold is always a lustrous, deep gold. There is not enough presence of alloy to affect the richness of the gold color. High-karat gold in rose or white would have to be plated. High-karat gold can have an all-copper alloy without fine silver, which gives it the color of apricot or peach.”

Is high-karat gold softer than other gold and will it endure as well?
“High-karat gold is softer than gold with more alloy. It is extremely durable and endures for thousands of years, as I can personally attest from my years working for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I used to do reproductions based on Egyptian, Byzantine and Greco-Roman jewelry artifacts made in high-karat gold; some were 5,000 years old.”

Do gemstones look different when set in high-karat gold?
“Gemstones will take on a warmer appearance. Rubies will have an added fire, diamonds will create a dynamic contrast. Emeralds are much easier to set in high-karat gold because they are soft; the gold is malleable so there is less risk of breaking an emerald.”

How does one care for high-karat gold?
“High-karat gold doesn’t require anything special, but it does need to avoid certain situations. Excessive exposure to salt water or chlorinated water can damage any gold. I advise collectors to proceed with caution when swimming to reduce damage or loss.”

Why do you choose to work in 22-karat gold?
“For me, it is as much a pleasure to work with high-karat gold as it is to wear it. It fuses easily, minimizing the need for solder. It is extremely ductile and highly malleable. And its beauty is unrivaled. There is nothing else like it.”

Is there an advantage to owning a piece of jewelry made in high-karat gold?
“The advantage to owning a piece of high-karat gold jewelry is that the higher gold content makes the piece more valuable. There are fewer goldsmiths than there are jewelry manufacturers so high-karat gold jewelry tends to be more rare. And the deep, lustrous, rich gold color is highly attractive. Once you develop an eye for high-karat gold, it draws you in, in the same way that we are attracted to sunlight. Nothing else ever looks as vibrant or as bright; we want to bask in its presence. There is a strong bond between the jewel and the wearer. The elevated purity gives the high-karat gold an elemental charge that is extremely attractive.” 

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2015. To subscribe click here.

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