By Laura Begley Bloom
This summer, jewelry designer Temple St. Clair joins Louis Comfort Tiffany and Alexander Calder as one of only three American artists to be inducted into the Musée des Arts Décoratifs permanent collection at the Louvre in Paris.
Some might call it the pinnacle of success, but for a designer who spent the first 15 years of her life in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and the Low Country of South Carolina, it’s just one more achievement in a career that has spanned three decades and taken her around the globe, and then some.
In a world of speed and instant gratification, Temple St. Clair is an anomaly, creating “slow jewelry,” collections made with handmade techniques used 500 years ago. She collaborates with Florentine artisans who practice an almost-extinct art and considers herself a guardian of workshops that are slowly disappearing.
Fearless and determined, St. Clair is also a passionate nature lover who is known to swim with sharks and speaks openly about coral preservation in an effort to dissuade fellow jewelers from destroying reefs. And her extensive travels — China, Japan, Italy, France, Maldives — also informs her work.
We caught up with the designer and found out how she turned a love of the arts into a career and how these journeys of inspiration and discovery have been a big part of her success.
How It All Started: An errand in Florence for my mom to set an ancient coin into a necklace was the catalyst for my life-long work with jewelry and my introduction to the world of the Florentine artisans. The history of gold, jewelry and its craft drew me in and I’ve used gold and gems and the abilities of the artisans to explore universal themes for decades now.
What I Was Doing Before This: I had just completed a masters in Italian Renaissance literature and was hanging on to the idea of living in Italy and creating some sort of livelihood out of creativity, travel and trade. I contemplated being a travel writer in the style of 19th century travelers — documenting “slow travel” — based on detailed diaries and sketches. I also contemplated traveling back and forth to India collecting tribal beads and jewels for resale. I did have a “day job” in Italy working for a market research firm for a couple of years. For that, I traveled all over the country to complete research for reports that I had to create. The work was beneficial in terms of developing a business mind for research and analysis. That, combined with a knowledge and love of art and literature, has served me well. I have an entrepreneurial gene and always knew I wanted to find an independent, creative “job” that could encompass all of my interests and passions.
Why I Love What I Do: I’m fortunate. I fell into an activity steeped in history that offers almost infinite possibilities for creative expression. I love the materials, the artisanship and the constant wonder at working with extraordinary colored gems. I enjoy running a creative business with my husband/partner, where we are constantly pushing ourselves to experiment and innovate and refine all the touch points of our brand from presentation to packaging to publications to watercolors to our approach to print and social media to the in-store experience. We are constantly strategizing and seeking to deepen the experience of our clientele by bringing them as close as possible to the inspiration behind the work.
How Travel Inspires Me: Travel was central to my childhood education. On family trips, I was encouraged to keep journals and scrapbooks. Before going on a trip, as a family we would take language courses to study the native tongue before departing. Later, I envisioned myself as a modern-day traveler on the Silk Road, gathering stories and treasures east to west. Right after school, I had the opportunity to spend time in India, Turkey, North Africa, Japan and China. My eyes were wide open. In a way, I had been trained to travel like an explorer. I absorbed the details of art and architecture, ceramics and jewels, the cultural histories and religious traditions. I was constantly reading and researching along the way. I bring this to my work today. Most every collection I work on is founded in a good degree of research, travel, thought and study. Lately some have referred to my approach to jewelry as “intellectual.” If that means that there is depth of feeling and knowledge behind the work, then I would agree.
Being Inducted Into The Louvre: This opportunity or possibility never crossed my mind. So many of my heroes are represented within the collection at the Louvre, not to mention the anonymous treasures of the ancient world, to kindred spirit, Louis Comfort Tiffany who loved Egypt, Orientalism, Blue Moonstone and Black Opal as much as I do. I am honored to have my work recognized by such an iconic institution.
Favorite Places: Difficult to narrow in on my absolute favorite places — there are so many, both man-made and natural places that inspire me. A short list might be from East to West: Saiho-ji (the Moss temple) in Kyoto; the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, China; my friend, artist Ritsue Mishima’s studio in Venice, Italy; Dali’s house in Cadaques, Spain; sailing in the Dodecanese; the Turkish coast; Ladakh in northern India; Sigiriya, Sri Lanka; the Pazzi Chapel and the Bardini Gardens in Florence; my friend, artist Nancy Lorenz’s studio and the Noguchi Museum both in Long Island City; the Galapagos; the tidal creeks of the Low Country in South Carolina; the Tyringham Cobble in the Massachusetts Berkshires; the Museum of Hunting & Nature in Paris; chute #9 in Telluride.
Secret Discovery: One of my favorite shops in the world is Saiundo Fujimoto in Kyoto. The shop supplies pigments, paints and brushes. I have my watercolors custom made there, including gold leaf. It is in this place that I also made two life-long friends, Ritsue Mishima, a glass artist based in Venice and Kyoto, and mutual friend, Giulio Bono, restorer of Titian, Bosch and other masters. We all met and became fast friends over selecting paints in this shop making the place an ever more memorable part of my life.
On Creating Slow Jewelry: We are so used to “instant” that it is particularly meaningful (and surprising) when you come across a product or a service that has a high personal touch. For me, true fine jewelry can be none other than slow, a combination of thoughtfully and thoroughly developed ideas, carefully chosen materials and meticulous craftsmanship. In my case, the materials and experience that accompany my jewels — handwritten notes, original sketches, watercolors, history, storytelling — contribute to the sense of discovery and intimacy of the work. A deep connection happens that takes curating and time; it’s the opposite of instant.
Working With Florence Artisans: My early fascination with jewelry originated with the Florentine artisans. I was drawn in by the tradition and humble dedication of these master craftsmen. I knew in the beginning that I had scratched the surface of a magical world that few are invited in to. It is not your everyday business relationship. It is a relationship of human connection to a history bigger than any one individual. It is the carrying on and participation in a tradition that is slowly disappearing as the younger generations, so accustomed to “instant” don’t have the patience to dedicate the years it takes to become a master. My work is appreciated for its depth of quality and the “feel" of the hand. I owe this to the Florentine artisans. I am privileged to work with them and to sustain their tradition.
Work-Life Balance: The best thing about being independent and running your own business is making it a part of your lifestyle and your family. It is a lot to balance, but the payoffs are grand. As a family, we have spent a great deal of time together in Italy and in other exotic places. My sons feel Florence is a second home, and they have a familiarity with the world of the goldsmiths that is truly rare and something to treasure. Just as I was given the gift of learning how to travel well as a child, I have been able to impart that to my children. They have seen a great deal of the world on “work” trips. They have learned the value of not just being a tourist or a visitor but truly being involved in the places that they’ve traveled to. I think it’s important to show children what it means to follow your passion and to go narrow and deep into things that you love and to create a life around that.
Fearless Determination: As I child, I was made to believe that anything that I set my mind to was possible. I have very strong beliefs and a vision of what is good work. I leave no stone unturned until I feel right about what I am producing. I am generally fearless and not easily intimidated. Having been around the world and often by myself, travel has certainly added to my confidence and “can do” attitude.
Worst Advice I Ever Got: Do a lower price point line. I never followed this advice because it just doesn’t work for what we do. We do not compete on price. What we do is try to make the most beautiful and interesting pieces possible without ever compromising quality of materials or craft.
Advice To The Younger Me: Buy more real estate. Buy workspace when and if possible. Be a pioneer in upcoming neighborhoods. I’ve done this a bit, but I wish I’d done more.
Advice To Other Women Who Want To Do This: It’s essential to understand the difference between being a designer and developing a career as a designer. Seek out experts in person or in print and become as much of an expert as possible on every aspect of your business especially at the beginning. Be humble and don’t rest on your laurels. There are ebbs and flows to every business and you need to take it all in stride. If you don’t have something to say with your work, it’s probably the wrong choice.
See the article on forbes.com.