Amy Kahn Russell

 

Bracelet - CopyPurple Necklace

 

“I try to have something for everybody,” she says, noting in the next breath that producing a diverse line is important to her.

 jewelry for the more conservative customer. “I am only five feet tall and I wear quite big things,” she explains, but intimate and subtle are also part of her vocabulary. Russell aims to make “art to wear” that is affordable to many –“instead of making it really expensive where only a couple of people can have it and enjoy it,” she argues. At the same time her fondest hope is that her intergenerational jewelry will be kept forever, collected and treasured, transcending “trends and seasons.”Creating a sensory delight, Amy Kahn Russell’s jewelry is a culmination of her love of travel, cultures, art, and nature. Many of her pieces are bold and brash, yet she also produces smaller scale

While a lot of her jewelry is one of a kind, Russell will often produce a particular group that offers variations on a theme or arrangement. The coloring of the stone will vary from brooch to brooch even as the configuration remains the same. These bodies of work are related directly to the available supply, be it a batch of fine freshwater pearls, a collection of oriental scrimshaw or a cache of Vaseline glass beads from the African trade.

Russell actively seeks unusual components and artifacts from around the world, including South America, Australia, China, India, and the American West. While quite a lot of the tourmaline she uses is from Brazil, some of the material is from Africa and was mined especially for her. “I actually started my business from a lot of antique things,” Russell recounts. She collected Asian pieces while living in Hong Kong and developed a passion for Chinese and Tibetan art.

She uses antique porcelain, jade, enamel silver and fossil ivory in her work. Her early work was almost one hundred percent ethnic. Today, it continues to evoke an exotic feel.

Green Pendant

The jewelers’ excitement about her work is palpable when she starts talking about her materials, whether its hand carved vesuvanite (“it’s unusual to hand carve a semiprecious stone,” she says) or citrine, which she uses as “accent drops.” Her jewelry often falls under the heading of “naturalistic.” She uses a lot of natural minerals—amethyst, jasper, drusy quartz and agate, cinnabar, hessonite, carnelian, gaspeite—while avoiding, for the most part plastic and other manufactured material. She often incorporates fossils, shells (nautilus, abalone and spiny oyster).tourmaline, to red and purple amber from Africa, to rainbow pyrite from Russia, which, she says, “naturally has a lot of fire in it—reds and greens and golden hues.”Among Russell’s favorite materials is bolder opal, from Australia. She loves its array of colors, from purples to blues and yellows and browns. The same passion for color variation draws her to

Amy Kahn Russell was born in Tennessee but grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She studied art at Newcomb College, a part of Tulane University in New Orleans that is renowned for its ceramics. At Newcomb, Russell focused on bronze casting, but also studied lithography and drawing. For her junior year, she attended Exeter College of Art in England, which sharpened her focus. After earning her bachelor of fine arts, she took graduate courses at the University of Houston, working towards a master’s degree in studio art.

Russell began at age sixteen simply selling jewelry in a department store. After college, she and two of her father’s friends opened a business called Fiddlers Three. They bought materials and designed necklaces and bracelets, which were sold to stores and individuals, wholesale and retail. Moving to Houston, she managed a Fine Jewelry department store at Sakowitz, handling gold and precious stones.

Russell continued her involvement in the field after moving to Hong Kong with her husband, Scott Russell, a consultant in human resources. During their three-year stay, she managed a wholesale pearl and jewelry outlet. She also did commission work, including trompe-l’oeil paintings in gouache and acrylic, with dragons as a favorite subject often incorporating antique chines wood carvings.

More significant to her growth as a jeweler, Russell absorbed the art and culture of her surroundings, falling in love with temples and complex carvings. She also became an avid collector and remains to this day. Everything from Chinese and Japanese embroideries to Tibetan purses, ink sticks used for Chinese calligraphy to gold weights from Africa caught her eye.

After returning stateside, the Russell’s lived in New York before settling in Wilton, Connecticut about an hour and a half-hour ride by train from Manhattan. It proved an excellent place to raise a family as they expanded their household with two sons: Joshua and Nicholas.

A lot of Russell’s jewelry skills were self-taught. She learned a bit in college and a bit more while at Exeter College of Art in England. Over the years she has taken courses, including a wax-making Woman Broochworkshop with model maker Kate Wolf in Maine. Her knowledge of casting has come in handy. “I like combining three-dimensional and two-dimensional with color,” she notes. Russell also enjoys creating small-scale sculptures, frames, and shadow boxes that incorporate fossils minerals, paintings, jewels and semiprecious stones to be used as a backdrop to showcase the jewelry.

In creating an ornament, Russell begins by arranging the various elements on a worktable, moving them around, eventually taping them in place. “It’s a question of colors and shapes,” she says. After coming up with the design, she then makes a drawing of the configuration, with notes, which can then be used as a template. “All of my pieces have loops on the back so you can wear them as a brooch, or you can pin them to beads,” Russell explains, allowing the owner to be the designer of her wardrobe. It’s all about versatility making it wearable for you. Likewise, her earrings can be converted from pierced to clip.

Some of Russell’s work is hand carved into animal shapes, including fish, frogs and turtles. “The carvings go back to my sculpture and art interests,” Russell says. Animal imagery is quite predominant in her jewelry. “I’ve always had a fondness for lizards and frogs,” she notes. With two boys in the household, we always had a lot of critters. Dragons have also been a favorite motif, going back to college days.

The time it takes to make a piece of jewelry, from design to completion, varies a great deal, but generally is about three months total. At the same time, certain functional elements, like a magnetic clasp Russell developed require years of trial and error.

Earribs(2)Russell does make special commissions, trying to accommodate customers and collectors. A lot depends on the availability of the materials. Special orders sometimes take a while to fill as Russell tries to fit them into the middle of other production work.

The main part of the business is wholesale. Russell sells through catalogs and to jewelry shops, boutiques, specialty store and high-end art galleries across the country in Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Over the years, larger stores like Nordstrom’s, Bloomingdale’s, Lord and Taylor, Marshall Fields, Macy’s, and Saks Fifth Avenue have carried her work. She also has an extensive presence on the web, with her own site, online trunk shows, and a multitude of jewelry dealers showcasing her work. Russell and members of her staff attend trade shows and craft expositions each year, including JCK, NYC gift show, American Craft Council shows.

The studio is pretty much in a constant production mode. “I always have a lot of projects going on,” she says with a laugh, surveying a somewhat chaotic-looking workstation. She will sometimes start a project, then walk away from it, often not retuning for several weeks or months. “Sometime it takes time to get the kinks worked out,” she notes, speaking from experience.

Celebrity collectors, including Madonna, Iman, Halle Berry and Mary McFadden, have placed Russell’s jewelry in the limelight, as have appearances on television (soap star Linda Dano has worn her pieces) and in the movies (Tess Harper sported her jewelry in Dirty Laundry). The work has also been featured in Vogue, Essence, Mademoiselle, and Glamour magazines and exhibited at a number of esteemed venues, including the American Craft Museum, the Smithsonian Institution and the Asia Society. She currently appears on TV shopping channels nationally and internationally. She is regularly featured on air in Canada, Italy, and Australia. JBA

 

To find out more about Amy and her work you can go to her web site Amykahnrussell.com.

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Author:Jewelry Business Advisor

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