Designer Dish: Tura Sugden & Blackbird and the Snow

JCK Las Vegas 2016 is getting closer, and the excitement continues to grow!  I can hardly wait to see fresh new jewelry designs, jewelry friends, and I’m especially looking forward to meeting IRL (in real life) some recent jewelry designer discoveries. Register to attend JCK Las Vegas 2016  today!

TuraSudgen-RSTura Sugden

Tura Sugden is a Rising Star in the JCK Las Vegas 2016 Design Center.  Her sophisticated, quiet color palette intrigued me early on, but I was even more taken with her jewelry when I discovered that it is all handmade in her studio in San Francisco.  This kind of commitment to hand workmanship—Sugden is a trained goldsmith—is a rarity in the jewelry world, and I needed to know more about her collections, crafted in recycled gold, 18k palladium white gold, natural ethically sourced diamonds, and a few worthy colored gemstones.

Have you always pursued jewelry as your medium and muse?

I studied fine art and goldsmithing, and I have always been dedicated to both of those disciplines. I pursued goldsmithing as a career because I felt a deep connection when working in precious metals. I continued my studies outside of university by chasing education in San Francisco, Maine, Kansas, Tennessee, and Belgium.

You employ a relatively rare soldering technique, using a German blowpipe. What motivates you to use this method, and how does it set your finished jewelry apart?

I have a BFA and completed seven years of traditional silversmithing and goldsmithing assistant-ships. For four of those years I assisted a German goldsmith, who used only a traditional blowpipe in the studio. It was a full-immersion learning process, and at first it was daunting; I had to relearn everything I knew about heat, hand placement, and flame work. A blowpipe incorporates the power of breath to supply oxygen and a gas, which is controlled by a hand-adjusted valve. You’re using your breath and your hands together to control heat, which makes it possible to solder pieces that might otherwise become easily overheated. It’s an intuitive process, and after hours of practice it begins to feel natural.

And now, years later, the blowpipe is the tool that has allowed me to build the settings that make my collection unique. I build each setting individually to showcase white space below every stone, creating delicate and intricate pieces inspired by architectural framework. While it still employs traditional goldsmithing technique and design, the collection redefines classic composition by focusing on negative space and shadows.

Are you excited about being a JCK Design Center Rising Star?  How are you preparing?

I am so excited to be a Rising Star! I can’t wait to see what the redesigned Design Center will look like. To prepare for the show I’ve been working on new designs, developing my recycled gold and vintage diamond bridal line, building new pieces, and setting a lot of stones. Most of my work is one of a kind, so I’m constantly making brand-new pieces. I’m planning on traveling with a lot of jewels to this show!

How does your home city of San Francisco inspire your work?

San Francisco is a huge inspiration in the design and development of my work. It’s a beautiful city with a rich history and a love of gold. The skeletons of abandoned buildings that are sprinkled along the Bay, and the new horizon of skyscraper frames here are an inspiration. The fog blanket and wind in our neighborhood sets the tone in the studio on most days. There’s a calm and coziness about a studio that is isolated by fog that dictates a peaceful environment and soft sentiment, which is when I work best.

I can feel it! Are you inspired by a specific gemstone or do you create the design first and look for the gem later?

I select gemstones based on the needs of the design, but I also allow for flexibility within each piece because the stones I use are unique every time. I guess that means it’s a little of both!

What would you do if you weren’t involved with jewelry?

I love owning a small business and I love treats and cozy afternoons, so I interpret that as meaning I would have to open a small pastry shop with a specialty in beautifully crafted classics.

Maybe you should combine this with jewelry—we would visit that place! Did you (do you) have a mentor in the industry? 

I wouldn’t have gotten very far without my mentors, advisers, idols, and peers, and I’m lucky to also call them friends. This industry is saturated and there are so many jewelers. Instead of thinking of each other as competition, it has really benefited our community to consider each other as resources. I meet monthly with a group of peers to talk about business, commiserate, celebrate milestones, and support one another as we navigate the jewelry industry.

To flip this around, what would you say to an emerging jewelry designer?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, to reach out to designers you admire, and to ask for a little help. Create or join a community that supports you and encourages you, because some days you might need a little extra boost. And don’t forget to give that back to your jewelry friends, because even if they look like they’re killing it, they might feel just as lost and confused as the day they started their business.

What do you think Tura Sugden Fine Jewelry offers a retailer partner?

This collection is defined by a commitment to distinctive, one-of-a-kind, quality pieces. Each piece is designed, hand-fabricated, and set from start to finish in our San Francisco studio using traditional techniques and a distinctive approach to stone setting. What I love about this collection is that it’s transitional—it bridges a gap between traditional fine jewelry and handmade designer jewelry. It fits into conservative fine jewelry stores, jewelry stores that are dedicated to showing contemporary design, and boutiques that feature clothing and home goods. It fills a gap in the marketplace for transitional designer jewelry and creates a sense of urgency by offering one-of-a-kind pieces.

Marie-JulietteBirdBlackbird and the Snow

Recording artist Marie-Juliette Bird founded the memorably named Blackbird and the Snow in 2012.  While living in London for 10 years and working under master jeweler David Courts, Bird collected antique Victorian charms. These charms, vignettes from nature, form the basis of inspiration for the Blackbird and the Snow jewelry: swallows, stars, moons, bugs, wings. Her current renditions speak to a modern sense of scale and layering but use traditional artisanal methods with specially cut gems and the use of rhodium for textural depth. I thoroughly enjoyed getting a sense of Bird’s muse and background as a recording artist and how that shapes her current collections.

You started Blackbird and the Snow on Black Friday of 2012. How hard was it launching a fine jewelry line in such a challenging environment?

I don’t think I realized that I was entering a challenging environment! In retrospect, I was completely naive about the business dimension of jewelry-making: I had a strong aesthetic vision…and that’s about it! To be honest, I was surprised by how easy it all felt at the beginning, compared to the music industry! But now that I am three years into running a company, I have a different perspective. It is not easy. Unless you are independently wealthy, it is a real challenge to grow a business.

You were named a JCK Rising Star in 2014 and are back again in 2016. What did you get out of the experience the first time?  What are you hoping for this year?

Being a JCK Rising Star gave me a lot of exposure. It gave me confidence, and it gave me some clout—I was picked up by Fragments showroom soon thereafter. Thinking more about it, I actually didn’t write that many orders at that first Rising Star show, but I did meet a lot of people (and I collected a lot of business cards!). This time around, I hope to make new connections and to continue fostering relationships.

You are also a recording artist. How does music inform your jewelry designs?

Both my music and jewelry are inspired by nature in an essential way. I’m working on a birdsong album right now, in collaboration with Audubon. We actually won an Independent Music Award for the project this year, which is pretty cool. My jewelry designs are symbolic of the natural world: moons, stars, birds, wings, bugs. The wilderness is definitely my muse, and I consider all of these efforts as an ode to our beloved natural world.

What are the materials you typically use in your line? 

I use a lot of 14k gold because I love the delicate color of the gold. And I have created a very soft rose gold alloy that is reminiscent of Victorian rose gold. I also love moonstones and enjoy finding new ways to use them, for example incorporating rose cuts and custom creating moonstone doublets. I think moonstones are mystical and subtle and also very feminine; they change color depending on how you set them, how you cut them, the light under which you look at them. I think modern American culture is very male, we value speed and toughness and aggression, and women are encouraged to embody these traits. But I think there is also value in the hidden beauty and ever-changing qualities of the moon and all that it represents.

Can you tell me more about your commitment to responsibly sourced materials?

I use recycled gold and ethically sourced stones. Every single Blackbird piece is hand crafted in NYC.

Your Instagram is currently revealing some truly lovely new designs—will we see these at JCK?  What else is in the works?

I’ve been working a lot on the full moon collection. These designs incorporate moonstones and moonstone doublets in combination with precious stones. My goal is to have 13 moons—one for each of the 13 full moons that transpire in a calendar year. I’m not sure I’ll have all 13 finished by JCK! I’ve also got a very exciting new project that I’ve been developing for two years. It involves butterfly wings. But that’s all I can tell you…

…Or you’d have to kill us (I know the drill). What’s the biggest/most memorable moment of your jewelry career so far?

A pair of my Fancy Star earrings were featured on the cover of Vogue magazine in May of 2015. That was a pretty great moment. I had just joined Fragments, and the PR rep, the lovely Alison Cohen, very kindly took me on some editor desk sides. That was pretty much the first press I every received. So it set the bar pretty high!

Do you have any lessons learned in your years so far that might help an emerging designer? 

Hmm, I would say: You need a distinct voice. And, you need some capital. I (naively) figured that I would invest my savings into creating a sample line, go to one trade show, and that the income would start pouring in! But, in reality, the expenses are ongoing: You need to continue creating new work, attending trade shows, you probably need help with different dimensions of the business like sales (in my case). I’ve been very surprised by how expensive it is to run a business! And it takes a lot of time.  A buyer might need to see your line several times at a show before he/she feels comfortable enough to take a risk. And many accounts want pieces on consignment now, which is financially brutal for emerging designers. I am learning to develop my direct relationships with customers, through social media, especially Instagram. I’m working to find the balance between direct sales and wholesale accounts. This is all a learning curve, and it’s changing quickly, as people shop more and more online.

Your favorite gemstone or the one most intriguing right now?


Paint a picture for us of where you are in five years.

I would love to be able to build up my team a bit more. It would be wonderful to have a full-time sales rep and a full-time PR rep. I would love to be able to pay everyone—including myself!—a salary. In essence, I would like to create more stability and support so that I am able to realize my creative visions. As an introvert, I find most aspects of running a business to be anathema to my personality. I would love to be able to focus 100 percent on designing and creative direction and delegate other aspects of the business to people who are more qualified and better suited to the job! In five years, I would love to take my place as the Oz behind the curtain of Blackbird and the Snow.

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