People You Need to Know Magazine Spotlight: Barbara Garwood ~ Jewelry Maker Extraordinaire
It was Barbara Garwood’s first trade show. She had seen intricately designed jewelry in Hong Kong, pursued the craftsmen to a small village near Chinese Mongolia, gave design instructions through an interpreter, and was displaying her imported wares at one of the biggest wholesale shows – The Atlanta Gift Mart.
“A jeweler kept bringing people over to our booth saying our pieces were amazing,” she says. “He would tell people this is the same as the Faberge eggs, this is an ancient art, and this is not done anymore. The whole time I’m taking notes, and telling my business partner, ‘Hey, I think we’ve got something here.’”
“I liked it. I designed it. I picked the colors, but actually I knew nothing, “ says Garwood, who invested $5,000 on her initial inventory. “After all, my background was in designing home furnishing textiles, what did I know about jewelry?” While Barbara lost money on that first show, she found she had something much more valuable: Good Instincts. From that learning experience in 1993, Garwood realized her Mongolian-style filigree and enameled handmade bracelets, necklaces, pendants, and pins are far too unique to sell to mass-market, mall type jewelers.
That is why the Atlanta-based designer is bringing her collection where you can see and buy her works of art. Currently you can see Barbara’s designs in National Geographic and Smithsonian gift catalogs, as well as in the Uno Alla Volta designer catalog, and Ross-Simons and Stauer catalogs. Also, in addition to museums, Garwood’s designs can be found in high-end boutiques, gifts shops, and art galleries throughout the USA and internationally. Barbara also has been commissioned to design the Queens’s Brooch for the Genghis Khan traveling exhibit.
Barbara has been refining the designs over the last 18 years to fit Western tastes and fashion. It took some fast talking—through an interpreter—to break thousands of years of tradition, on how the pieces should look. Asian custom dictates that the jewelry fit the countenance of a Chinese Qing Dynasty queen in the 1600-1700’s. Think big and ornate. Her sterling silver pieces, including many that are 24kt. gold plated, feature Russian and Chinese influences handed down by master craftsmen over the last 1000 years. Barbara’s challenge was to make the pieces smaller, more feminine and practical to wear while using a computer at the office.
Other changes involve the stones and the color of the glass enamel. “Asians have yellow skin and they wear more olives, oranges, red and brown; things that compliment their skin. Much of the Western population is pink-toned and wear more blues, purples, teals and pinks and those type colors. The gold looks great on darker skins and so I’ve been able to design something for everyone to look great in!” You don’t realize it until you start working and designing with it and you see the difference.
However in rural Asia, old habits die hard. “In Oriental craft, you can only make changes when you are a master,” says Garwood. “Here I was some American designer trying to mess things up. You can only become a master when you have copied your mentor a zillion times and you have the age of an old Buddhist monk! That is just the way they look at it.”
On the other hand, when Barbara’s orders flooded in, the keepers of the faith began to see things a little differently. Garwood says, “They began to ask me what NEW designs did I want to do next!” While Barbara is now able to flex her creative muscle without too much resistance, she emphasizes, “I do not change the craft; I only change the shapes and colors and add things like safety clasps. In fact, one of my major goals is to preserve this dying art and provide steady employment for the 20 women who put the pieces together.”
Initially an artisan uses tweezers to hand-fashion the filigree: sterling silver wire turned into intricate patterns, as well as butterflies and flowers. Also, they design very small shapes that will later gleam with multi-colored enamel glass. All the filigree wires are fused together with silver dust in a kiln, fired to approximately 1700 degrees Fahrenheit.
After the filigree work, the enamel artists take over. The designed forms are filled with blends of very fine ground enamel powder according to Barbara’s drawings. The entire piece is then fired once again in 1500 degree heat. This turns the enamel into beautiful glass tints with a permanent high gloss finish. Because the filigree and enameling skills are so different and precise, each piece of jewelry typically requires two different craft persons to make it.
During the process, the enamel artist must use extreme care not to melt down the silver body of the jewelry with all its painstaking detail. “It’s very intuitive,“ says Garwood. “It’s an art. They just know how much time to leave the pieces in the kiln and how to control the temperature. It is all part of this incredible handmade process, handed down from generation to generation.”
Today Barbara continues to fly by the seat of her well-worn travel trousers, buying different eye-catching stones that adorn her designs. “When starting out, we didn’t know what type of stones they really were” says Garwood, “so we actually took a few pieces to the Nature Store at the mall to figure out what all the stones were. I use many unusual stones such as iolite, chrysocolla, serpentine, and exotic jaspers from far away places, as well as semiprecious stones such as garnets, peridot, amethyst, topaz, lapis and turquoise. We bought a book to help us, too. It was a learn as you go experience.” The last step is to set stones, and to either 24kt gold plate or antique finish the pieces.
The entire process takes 4-7 days to make one piece of jewelry. Widely recognized arbiters of good taste—and good art—have kissed Garwood’s designs with their seal of approval. With such a ritzy pedigree, you would expect to pay a small fortune for these museum pieces, especially those with the deep, rich color of 24kt gold. But that’s where more beauty lies.
“You get the look of high karat gold without paying the price, especially NOW with precious metals at an all time high,” Garwood explains. “People say ‘Wow, your prices are great for all that work!’ You can‘t tell it is 24kt gold over sterling silver.”
Garwood says, “The craft is marvelous. Because you don’t see this type of jewelry, people often stop me and ask if what I’m wearing is antique, and where did I get it. I have one longtime customer who paid me the highest compliment. She said, ‘I’ve come to the conclusion that if I don’t want to be bothered on a particular day I don’t wear your jewelry because people stop me all day long!’”