BY PIP CUMMINGS | May 7, 2012 | Style & Beauty
Ross's silver heart pendants, from the Fine Jewelry Collection.
Ross reviews the technical specs of one of her designs.
Scarab pendant necklaces, from Kara by Kara Ross.
A shirt cuff bracelet hewn from magnolia wood, specially made for Michelle Obama.
Sweet magnolia: Kara Ross in her NYC showroom
A ride in a manually operated elevator to the top of a building in New York's Garment District will deliver you to the atelier of Kara Ross, a veritable Aladdin's Cave of jewelry. It is the heart of her thriving company and a showroom for three jewelry lines and an accessory line, and it is also where she receives clients by appointment to view items from her one-of-a-kind fine jewelry collection.
Drawers open to reveal cuffs carved from volcanic lava and embellished with diamonds like the night sky; necklaces of pink or black corals, or chunky raw emeralds; a bangle hewn from a piece of rock crystal quartz and embellished with 18k gold, diamonds, and colored sapphires; and titanium cuffs studded with those same stones. Ross's attraction to unusual materials is unmistakable. "I sometimes allow them to dictate the design," she says, producing a ring made from jagged African dioptase (a mineral, typically emerald green, rarely used as a gemstone), cradling a beautifully cut diamond "like a cave."
Also part of the collection is an intriguing range of items fashioned from finely carved wood, subtly embellished with 18k gold set with diamonds, or finished with sterling silver findings and colored gemstones. Ross has been crafting works from this prosaic but striking material for a long time—zebrawood, maple, ebony, cherry—including her iconic "puzzle piece" necklace, which is held in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
It was this particular work that caught the attention of the White House as the administration sought an American jewelry artist for a special commission. Around 18 months ago, the office of the Chief of Protocols reached out to Ross to create her "shirt cuff" bracelets, with a special twist: She was to use fallen limbs from the famous magnolia tree on the White House grounds, planted by President Andrew Jackson as a tribute to his wife.
"They sent us these blocks of wood, and we would make the bracelets for the first lady to give to visiting heads of state and their wives, or departing members of staff," she says. Ross has since designed a few trays for the president to give as gifts, as well as a couple of cuff links and a pendant for the Obamas. "Hopefully, it's seen as a piece of art, made by an American from a piece of the White House," she says. (More recently, Michelle Obama has been wearing items from Ross's Gemstone Collection, its forms inspired by the work of Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, and Zaha Hadid.)
Aside from the distinction of being associated with the White House, Ross has her own strong connection with the nation's capital: She is an alumnus of Georgetown University, where she now sits on the board. She remains fond of the city, visiting at least three times a year. Ross adds that she has her "fingers crossed" her 17-year-old daughter will share her affection for the school when the time comes to choose a college.
After graduating as an English major and an art history minor, Ross worked briefly in publishing before completing a six-month certification course at the Gemological Institute of America. While working with a high-end pearl supplier, Ross sold her first line to Neiman Marcus. After a few years, she moved into designing exclusively for private clients, until, seeking a new challenge, she launched Kara Ross New York in 2003, selling through Bergdorf Goodman.
The business has since expanded to include luxury belts and handbags, made from exotic skins with gemstone closures, plus a more affordable boutique line, Kara by Kara Ross, and the recent Gemstone Collection (which Ross describes as a "happy marriage between one-of-a-kind jewelry and her fashion line Kara by Kara Ross"). These days her designs are sold by Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, Carolina Herrera, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Net-A-Porter, and as far afield as London's Harvey Nichols and Harrods, and Moscow's iconic TSUM; locally, her wares are stocked at a few high-end boutiques, including Dalton Pratt and Julia Farr.
As well as finding inspiration in travel—most recently, she took a biking trip in Morocco with her husband—Ross says her primary muse is contemporary art and architecture, "whether it's the complementary or opposing colors, or the textures or the shapes," she says. "Sculpture is really interesting, too." This is why she is most thrilled to see her work exhibited by museums: She believes jewelry is often overlooked and underrepresented, "like the ugly stepchild of fine arts."
Given her ability to draw beauty from the most unusual places, her current project comes as no surprise. Ross describes a necklace she is creating for the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, whose primary material is a piece of concrete salvaged from the Hudson Yards site. "This will look beautiful with sterling silver and black and white sapphires," she says. "It's going to be awesome." Dalton Pratt, 1742 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-333-3256. Julia Farr, 523 44th St. NW, 202-364-3277.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIC RYAN ANDERSON
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