A Conversation with Jewellery Designer and Lapidary Artist Robin Callahan

by Reema Farooqui
Conversation Robin Callahan

An Award Winning Artist Whose Jewellery Pieces Brim With Light and Joy

When you look at a Robin Callahan jewellery piece, you are immediately struck by a feeling of exuberance and delight. All her pieces are unique, featuring beautiful gemstones and pearls, in breathtaking settings. Robin’s work is bold and creative. Her finely crafted pieces are the perfect showcase for her love of colour, light and custom- as well as fantasy-cut gems. Recently, Robin has also started creating jaw-dropping pieces with faceted saltwater and freshwater pearls, using this gem material in brilliantly artistic ways.

Given her vast and impressive repertoire of jewellery pieces, it is not a little surprising to discover that Robin started her jewellery journey, as a designer and bench jeweller, only nine years ago. Her jewellery journey can best be described as circuitous but one that came back full circle. After taking metal-smithing classes in high school, Robin discovered her love for jewellery making. However, she did not pursue this field and instead went into communications and broadcast media, at one time working for NBC. After she married, she moved to Maui (Hawaii) with her husband where they both started a video production company and later even ran a local airline. After 14 years in Maui, the family moved to Washington state, where she opened an art gallery with her husband. This reignited her interest in jewellery making and design and after successfully completing some metalsmithing courses, Robin established her eponymous jewellery brand, Robin Callahan Designs.  

Today she is not only renowned for one-of-a-kind jewellery pieces but has won multiple awards and accolades for her work. Every year, Robin crafts upwards of 200 jewellery pieces, new as well as repeat commissions from her loyal clients, both women as well as men. Robin also enjoys redesigning pieces from old but loved jewels, tapping into the sentiments and memories residing in those pieces. In my conversation with Robin, we talked about her artistic process, the gems she loves to work with and the awards she has won as a jeweller and lapidary artist.

From running an art gallery to becoming a jewellery designer, goldsmith and lapidary artist, please tell us  a little about your jewellery journey? Did you work at your art gallery inform your jewellery design repertoire?

When I was in high school, in Tucson, Arizona, they had an incredible metals program, which was part of the curriculum back then. That was how I got introduced to jewelry making. In high school, I was super into jewelry-making but I was also really into photography. However, my parents were very conservative and were against my pursuing an art degree. So I ended up doing communications at university. After I got married, I moved to Hawaii and just as a side hobby, I got into this stuff called plastic. This was very popular in the 1980s, where you would cut and melt it and turn it into jewelry. I knew that if you added gemstones and stainless steel spacers (from a hardware store), you would end up with something pretty striking. Again, this was just a hobby. But one day, I was at the Liberty House department store, wearing one of my belts and a pair of earrings and just coincidentally met their buyer, who loved both pieces. Next thing I know I have an order for 13 stores. So I got into jewelry then, but as a hobby. However, when we ended up moving to Bainbridge Island WA, I gave up that hobby.  

Back in Washington, my husband opened a beautiful art gallery in Seattle on Pioneer Square. About eight months in my husband, who is a lawyer, took a case that required him to step away from the art gallery. Which meant I needed to step in full time for some time. During those eight months I started bringing in Russian art and art  from all over the world and in the process fell madly in love with the art gallery. We ran the gallery for a little more than 10 years. But when my daughter went to college at Pepperdine, I decided to sell the gallery. This was because the work at the gallery was such that it  difficult to get away from it but I wanted to have the freedom to go and visit my daughter. Of course, nobody wanted to buy the gallery without me staying on but that defeated the whole purpose of me leaving. So I just decided to retire and sold everything.

Along the way, I also came to represent three jewelry artists and would find myself giving creative suggestions to them. That is how I started thinking about making jewelry myself and taking a metals classes. In May 2014 my two adult children signed me up for a metals class, as a Mother’s Day gift, at the local Parks and Rec Centre. This class was being taught by Jane Martin, an instructor, from the Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle. Taking that class with Jane ignited the flame for learning more about jewelry. I really wanted to learn more and go beyond the curriculum of the class.

How it all really started was when I decided to donate the second ring I made for the class, a fine and sterling silver ring with a labradorite, to the Kitsap Humane Society live auction. It sold for $975 and I posted it on my Facebook. The following year I got eighty-five commissions. So, my hobby organically exploded into a business. To help me with my work, my husband built me a beautiful studio in my house.

The reason that I accelerated as fast as I did was also because of my friend Maya, who had moved from Israel to Seattle for a year and had a master’s degree in jewelry making from Germany. So, I hired her to teach me jewelry making. For seven months I did full time learning from her and that definitely put me ahead of the others.

I also learned rendering from an instructor at the BARN (Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network) and it helped me take what was in my head and get it on paper better. The interesting thing is that I literally feel like my art and skill was just laying dormant but once I started making jewelry, I had the desire to see how far I could push myself.

Recently, I was talking with my husband and I said,  just think where I’d be had I started when I was young. To which my husband replied that maybe it’s all those this varied experiences, like the film and photography, running the art gallery and representing the jewelry artist, that have led you to where you’re at. People get frustrated thinking they are too old to do this or that. I don’t think that way. I didn’t really start this until I was 54.

I just firmly feel that it’s never too late to start something new, to do something you have wanted to do all your life.

Conversation Robin Callahan
Faceted Tahitian Pearl Earrings, Robin Callahan Designs

Tell us about your jewellery design and artistic process? Does it start with an idea or inspiration or does it start with the gemstone itself?

It usually starts with the gemstone itself. But every now and then I’ll get an idea for something and then select the gemstone. But most of the time I sit down with the gem and do what I call concept sketches, until I feel like I’ve nailed it. These concept sketches are not extremely detailed. If I’m doing it for a client then I will number the face and letter the side views. What’s cool about this is that it gives the clients different options and they choose the face and side they like best. So, it becomes a custom piece organically. Once the design is chosen, I go into the next round of concept sketches or make a 3D CAD design where the jewellery piece comes to life. We can still tweak and fine tune things but my clients enjoy being part of this collaborative process.

What I love about CAD is that it gives the client peace of mind because they are able to visually see the piece in 3D. Because I work with people from all around the world, if my client in Idaho is still really struggling with proportion or how a ring would have look on her finger, I just 3D print a wax model of the piece and ship it them to try on. I just feel that this process creates a situation of ease for the client. And it works because there’s so much trust between my clients and myself and I am definitely grateful for the trust.

But on the practical side, when I am taking a commission, I try to find out simple things like if the client uses their hands all the time, like a gardener. Or if they are a nurse or doctor and have to wear gloves. All these considerations are important because then I am able to suggest a jewelry piece that suits their lifestyle – modern and simple or more ornate like my flower vines pieces. All this is so important to understand the direction the project is going to take.

A very important aspect of your jewellery designs is how light interacts with the gemstones within the jewellery setting. Why is “light” such an integral part of your jewellery designs and have you ever faced any challenges in incorporating it within your jewellery pieces?

I want the gem to not be suffocated by the metal, so that light is not blocked in reflection. There’s nothing  sweeter than for a gal to look at a ring from different views and see the color of the gem shining through. So for every single piece that I make, I am really aware of how light is going to affect the gem. I pay special attention to the light aspect when the gemstone is of light colour itself. I worry about how the metal is going to affect the colour of the gem, the way you can see metal lines in the light coming through. I had that issue with the  piece that I won the Spectrum award for, which was a really beautiful watermelon tourmaline. For that piece, I ended up creating a pattern in the metal to frame the circles that had been faceted on the stone.

Being a lapidary artist yourself, what are the main characteristics that you look for in faceted gems?

It’s interesting because even at 63 I can spot an unevenly faceted stone a mile away. I like facets that bring out the best of the gem.  Gems should not be cut in a way that makes them dark. I’ve re-cut a lot of stones to give them beautiful facets. I love fantasy cutting, I love concave cuts, I love a beautiful facet job that’s all about colour and brightness.

I have passionately thrown myself into this journey and I feel like I am doing exactly what I was supposed to do.

As a jewellery designer and lapidary artist, do you have a favourite gem, one that you love to work with, and why?

I love the color pink so it could be a garnet or a tourmaline, but really, I just love tourmalines. I love many different colours and they all inspire different designs. Of course my new love is pearls. I remember the first time I saw a faceted pearl and for whatever reason I wasn’t drawn to it. But then I remember coming across this Instagram post from a wholesaler who was selling  faceted pearls and I just loved them. Since then, I have spent thousands of dollars on faceted pearls because so many of my pearl-crazy clients are just like blown away buy them. But what is cool about discovering faceted pearls is that they made me fall in love with all pearls. I’ve just never been a pearl person. But now I’m obsessed. What’s great about the pearls is that they totally hit me in a different creative way.

Robin, you are renowned for giving “new life to old treasure.” Why does refashioning old and loved jewels into more contemporary designs appeal to you?

I have a lot of clients locally and from afar too who want their old pieces refashioned. Their goal is to still be able to use their gemstones and this is usually tied to sentimental reasons. A lot of times they have two stones that they were given by their mother and then I have to find another stone to match, to make a three stone ring. But I love these projects.

Sometimes people will literally bring me a box of old jewelry pieces where they let me assess everything and come up with a plan to give them one piece to start off with and then do some other things down the road with the remaining items. I’ve done so many of these projects that I can actually look at a box now and start talking with the customer about their life and what they love.

A lot of times these projects start off with a gemstone recut, not just for colored stones but sometimes even a diamond, if there’s a little chip. I always tell the client upfront that their gem is scratched,  chipped or kind of dark. But then I explain that if we re-cut it just a little bit,  it’s going to brighten it up without affecting the weight too much. A lot of these stones are pretty beat up but they have sentimental history, like it belonged to the client’s mom and she wore it all the time. But I know that I can bring it back better than it was before. Gold, I usually recycle. Either I just scrap it with a seller or I save it just give them the credit, that is unless they absolutely insist on using the same gold.

You have won several notable jewellery design and lapidary awards over the years. Among these is there any award that holds special meaning for you and why?

Well, there are two that are very important to me. We have what’s called is the Best of Bainbridge awards, where everybody in the city votes for the ‘best” in different categories -best jeweler, best restaurants and so on. In 2017 I won first place for Best Jeweler, but keep in mind I took my first metals class in June of 2014, and only started working with gold in 2016. What’s great is that I won first place for best jeweler against competitors who had been making jewelry for 20-30 years.

Then, they also have the Best of Kitsap awards, that is, it’s the winners from six cities competing against each other for the best in their category. I have won the Best of Kitsap in jewelry for three years in a row. In fact, I just recently found out that I won again. And by the way, I’m not a jewelry store, I work out of my studio. These awards were given to me by my community which makes them very special to me.

I have also won one AGTA Spectrum award- an Honorable Mention in the Business/Daywear category, for a ring featuring a watermelon tourmaline, custom-cut by lapidary artist Dalan Hargrave. I remember, back in 2018, I was attending a meeting at the BARN, where we, as jewelry artists had to introduce ourselves. We started talking about our goals and where we wanted to take our jewellery art. And I said I really would like to win the Spectrum award, even though I had only started making jewelry four years ago. And I did.

You were selected as one of “100 women in Jewelry” for a set of two coffee-table books about the top 100 women jewellery designers from around the world. Could you tell us a little about this initiative and what was your reaction when you found out about this honour?

This book is a compilation of 100 women in jewelry from all over the world. Here’s what’s really funny about that. So I saw an Instagram post that explained what Linda Kozloff-Turner was doing and I decided to message her and congratulate her on this amazing project. And it was then that she told me that I was also on her list, at number 76, and she just hadn’t reached out to me yet. Our interview, for the book, was done on Zoom but she did fly out here with her photographer to do a photo session with me. But yes, it was a huge honor.

Most of your jewellery pieces are client commissions. What has been the most memorable jewellery piece you have designed and why does it have this significance for you?

Gosh let me think. Well, they are all special because I literally bond with these ladies. I also work with a lot of guys and some of them are so clueless that I really have to walk them through the whole creative process. But when the piece is done, seeing their response is rewarding in itself.

I had a local client who had a ring which she had worn for 20 years. It had a pair of diamonds and an infinity symbol on the back of the ring shank. There was a clear sentimental aspect to this design. The ring was platinum so it was looking very beat up. It was also broken where the Infinity symbol was connected to the back of the band, since it was done in sheet gold which was too thin. The whole ring was too thin and I was surprised it had lasted 20 years. She asked me to refashion it but wanted me to incorporate the same style as a tribute to her husband. I recrafted her ring and when her husband came to pick it up, he was so moved by how beautiful it looked that he gave me like the squishy hug and teared up a bit. Later on, my client told me that he literally asked her to marry him again in front of their teenage kids.

The truth is that each story touches you in a different way but this was super sweet because you got this big old masculine dude asking his wife to marry him all over again, in front of their teenage kids, with the ring that I had made for them. So that was kind of cool.

Conversation Robin Callahan
The Gold Hana ring and matching ear studs. The ring is set with a faceted golden South Sea pearl, yellow sapphires and diamonds, Robin Callahan Designs

Your style statement, timeless, trendy or a bit of both?

In my jewellery design style I am all over the place because I love my dragon piece which is so wild and different but I also enjoy making art deco style jewels. I look at every piece that I make as an individual opportunity to express my art. Similarly, my personal style in jewelry is all over the place too because I love art deco jewels but I also love super modern designs. I love big dynamic pieces but when it comes to commissions I’ll design as delicate or bold as a client wants.

Your favourite time of day and why?

Gosh, I would say morning. I get a lot accomplished early in the day. I love mornings for working and then in the afternoons, around 3-ish or so, unless I have a deadline, I love doing product photography. I do most of my own photography but sometimes I will hire Daniel Zetterstrom who will come in and work with eight or nine pieces. But that’s only a few times a year.

I consider myself a happy and bright person

The one piece of jewellery that you just can’t be without?

Actually I have two pieces that I wear all the time. One I named Harlowe as a tribute to my sweet yorkie who passed away suddenly at 13.5. Steve Ulatowski from New Era Gems sent Troy Richardson a piece of peachy pink tourmaline and he cut it and named it Harlowe. He created a new design and sent me this stone with the most beautiful note. When I read it, I bawled my eyes out and I quickly made myself a pendant in my flowers design, with marquee diamonds all around it. My Harlowe pendant is really pretty.

Then my other special piece is a flawless, investment-grade 3 carat diamond that I have worn on my neck for 30 something years. I wear those two pieces pretty much all the time. So while I do trade out, those two are very special pieces to me. But don’t think that I don’t love my wedding rings. I love my husband, but those two personal pieces are very special to me.

Conversation Robin Callahan
White Australian faceted pearl, garnet and diamond ring, mounted in 14K gold, Robin Callahan Designs

Is there a celebrity you would love to see wearing your jewellery pieces?

Someone like JLo who just rocks the most incredible things or Princess Diana who had such amazing style. You could see Princess Diana in pearls but you could also see her in something leather and more contemporary. I think either one of them would be amazing.

Three words you would use to describe yourself as a jewellery artist?

Brave, determined and a perfectionist. This is beyond things like being creative and artistic, because you need those to be a jewelry designer and maker. But I think you need to be the other three in order to really succeed.

You can find Robin Callahan at robincallahandesigns.com or follow her on Instagram @robincallahandesigns

Featured Image: Sumire ring and matching necklace featuring faceted freshwater pearls and a statement pendant

The images used in this article are the property of Robin Callahan Designs. Any person or organization not affiliated with Robin Callahan Designs may not use, copy, alter or modify any of the images used in this post, without the advance written permission of Robin Callahan Designs.

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