Rapaport Magazine
Style & Design

Through the eye of a needle

Goldsmith Tura Sugden sets diamond slices and portrait cuts in slender, wiry frames that draw on her background in sewing.

By Jennifer Heebner

Images: Tura Sugden. 

When Tura Sugden was a child, her grandmother gifted her a sewing machine, unknowingly charting a creative course for the future goldsmith and influencing her design DNA.

Sugden made little purses, but never a garment. “I was more interested in the details of the stitching than actually finishing pieces,” recalls the jewelry designer, whose signature style now features a needle-eye motif and wire-thin bezels that let flat diamond cuts take center stage.

While studying fine arts at university — she thought she might be a sculptor — she took a metalsmithing course and got hooked. At 20, she shifted her focus to jewelry, and a year later, she started working as a goldsmith’s assistant. She spent seven years acquiring advanced metalsmithing skills at programs all over the US, from California to Kansas, as well as abroad in Belgium. By 2013, she was ready to debut her own hand-fabricated jewelry line.

Enamored of diamond slices, she aimed to develop a setting that would enhance the stones’ dimensions while highlighting the beauty of the gold. “I didn’t want to hide the metal behind the stone,” she says. “This led me to building my elevated settings, which began to influence my entire collection.”

Slim aesthetic

Her brainchild was wire bezels with the same lean profile as the thread she’d once used to sew. The bezels framed short diamond slices at an elevation, creating an airy and architectural vibe with plenty of negative space. When developing chain, she once again borrowed from her sewing background by using a repeating needle-eye pattern.

“I really liked that element visually, and now I use it in a lot of my designs,” she says. Those include her cuffs, which are a best seller.

As for the flat rose- and portrait-cut diamonds she uses, there are several reasons she favors them. First, the silhouette: string-thin and window-like for maximum viewing of the crystal structure. Then there are the flat backs of rose-cut diamonds, a nod to vintage jewelry; Sugden likes them for their older look and for the treasure hunt that finding a good one entails. Finally, customer preference plays a role in her affinity for slim stones, since many clients today want that low-setting look for wearability.

“Diamond slices are each so unique,” she remarks. “My elevated settings give dimension to them, lifting them off the skin subtly to let light in and balance the artisanal craftsmanship of the goldwork with the beauty of the diamond.”

Ethical emphasis

Responsible sourcing is an important part of Sugden’s business. Her father, a biologist and environmental-rights activist, instilled in her a desire to minimize her impact on the earth.

Today, her green efforts start with her stone-buying. She shops recycled, antique and post-consumer diamonds, and purchases from small-scale cutters and sellers who often source directly from mines.

“The first step toward responsible sourcing is to close the gap from mine to market,” she explains.

Her precious metals of choice are recycled gold and platinum from sources monitored by the Responsible Jewelry Council (RJC). Then there’s her certified Green Business status in San Francisco, California, where she is based. To maintain the status, Sugden complies with strict requirements, such as using a specialized air ventilation system.

“The range of ethics in jewelry is broad and not well defined,” she comments. “It’s important that my company be transparent, minimize our carbon footprint, and not contribute to human rights abuses in other countries.”

A serendipitous outcome of these actions is that they appeal to young shoppers who want to know about the ethics of the companies they support. Sugden is happy to be in the hot seat. “It pushes me to find more transparent sources.”

Artisanship matters

Staying small-scale is another priority for Sugden. There is no outsourcing to casters and stone-setters, because all designs are made in-house. She thinks of this production as both a promise of quality and a nod to her artisan roots — her preference for combining a modern design sensibility with old-world techniques.

One example of her love for craftsmanship is the German blow pipe she uses to solder intricate pieces — some with up to 100 seams. To use it, a jeweler manipulates a fine flame of propane through a mouthpiece, keeping a steady hand. “It’s an ideal instrument and a rare tool to find in a modern jewelry studio,” she says.

Her clients, including other metalsmiths, recognize her devotion to her craft. Fellow jeweler Sarah McGuire sells Sugden’s and others’ work along with her own pieces out of her Sailor boutique in Chicago, Illinois. “[Sugden’s] Riverside chain is absurdly labor-intensive, but she does it,” marvels McGuire. “She thinks carefully about her mechanisms, and her connections are beautifully constructed.”

Sheri Evans of San Francisco retailer Metier feels similarly: “You can see the hand work in every piece. There are just not that many jewelers who make their own designs.”


Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2022. To subscribe click here.

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