(Capitol File) 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.) See the full slideshow here.