"I sat on this plum blossom jasper stone for 10 plus years. Many design ideas came to mind over the years but it wasn't until I came across a company that makes cast succulents that the right design presented itself. My process is very organic much like the elements in nature that inspire me and my designs. Crazy as it may be I don't often lay out sketches before hand. Instead I gather different components and lay them all out and keep rearranging until I get the piece right. There is nothing more therapeutic than laying pearls, gemstones and metals in a pile and matching them together to best enhance the beauty in all the elements. This approach may cost me some efficiency but to me the sacrifice of time is worth the resulting reward of my finished designs."

Q: Who or what is your greatest creative influence?

A: From a historic perspective Claude Monet is a huge influence; the way he mixed color and the watery/ethereal feel of his impressionist style relate well with the look keshi pearls offer in my work today.  His Water Lilies Collection is my favorite and I am currently working on a water lily inspired collection for Ko Designs.

Nature surrounds us constantly and has always been something I have enjoyed and taken note of, whether it be a sunset or flower.  I am constantly admiring the play of color in the sky, or the shape of a flower, and filing it away in my mind to use later - or to just enrich my soul with the beauty that abounds around me.

I also follow several ladysmiths on Instagram; ESB Jewelry, Tavia Metal, Coppertide, and CameraShy Cove, whose style and aesthetics are vastly different from mine but I appreciate their work. I own pieces from each of them and love seeing the techniques or tricks used in creating their art, some of which helped me speed up my production.


Q: How long do you work on a piece before deciding that what you have is 'it'? 

A: The timeline on discovering my final product on a piece of jewelry varies greatly.  Many keshi and beaded pieces have a quick start to finish, under an hour in most cases. For me it is a matter of picking out the best color combination first, then laying out a section of the pattern, three inches or so, and rearranging the beads until I have a sense of ‘ahh’.

For my one of a kind pieces like the Plum Blossom Jasper necklace, showcased in this summer’s virtual all-media gallery Longwood Creates, my active production time was about four hours. However, that piece was truly years in the making. I had that piece of  jasper for ten plus years and pulled it out several times trying to pair it with different things. No combination ever felt right until I discovered metal casted succulents. That was my ‘ah-ha’ moment. Next, it was a matter of playing up the “blossoms” in the jasper with a peach keshi pearl and rose gold prongs.  My process may cost me some time in the long run because I don’t lay out every detail before I get started.  For me, it’s the enjoyment I get out of the creative journey that makes it worthwhile.


Q: Is there a particular metal or material you gravitate towards? 

A: Sterling silver is the most prevalent metal in my work because of its affordability to myself as well as my customers. It is a material that lends itself well to a multitude of finishes, giving you more flexibility in your design. A high polish, satin finish, or black patina give a different feel to your work. In my opinion, a high polish feels regal or refined, a satin finish is more casual and laid back, while a dark patina is more industrial and can be a bit aggressive. Most often my designs incorporate both high polish and satin-finished metal components.

The most prevalent material in my designs by far is pearls. I started out using the traditional round white pearls as the accent in my beaded gemstone designs. Over the years, pearls have taken center stage and gemstones the accent; but not just an ordinary pearl. Now I use the irregular and uniquely shaped pearls, such as but not limited to keshi, biwa, and coin all in various colors. Faceted gemstone beads have become the accent to my pieces. 

I love the tension created by the juxtaposition of the organic, irregular, luminescent pearls next to the precisely faceted gemstone beads or square satin-finished sterling wire. I feel that is where my style truly lies, balancing that tension in a pleasing way.


Q: For those interested in getting started in jewelry making, what specific tools should they invest in to get started?

A: The nitty-gritty basics to get yourself going in metalsmithing…you need a way to cut, form, and polish and a good workspace. I would recommend a saw frame with plenty of blades. A steel ring mandrel, rawhide mallet, planishing hammer, a basic set of pliers with cutters, various grits of sandpaper or grit sticks 240 through 800, and a tumbler for polishing. Also, a table or a bench. You can do wire wrapping, beading, and cold connections with these. 

For more in depth metalsmithing with soldering and faceted stone settings you need more advanced tools in addition to your basics. A torch of some kind; I prefer a mini torch using oxygen and propane. A flex shaft with many different types of burs for different applications. You will also want a fume extraction system. At this time, you may also wish to invest in a jewelers or watchmakers bench (watchmakers is what I use), small ultrasonic, polishing wheel with hood, as well as a steamer.

These last items are not critical to have, but will make life easier in the long run. From there, the sky's the limit. There are lots of specialty tools depending on the direction you go with your jewelry making.


Q: What does one year from now look like for KO designs? Five years? Ten years?

A: One year from now, I hope to be back to vending at art and craft shows while having fine-tuned my website. I had just taken the leap to push from a side hobby business into a full-fledged micro-business. I spent the last 18 months doing shows regularly and getting my website, www.kodesigns.net up and running; Covid-19 has put a damper on that.

Five years from now, I hope Ko Designs has a thriving online presence in addition to participating in some higher-end shows like the Craft + Design held in Richmond, VA every November, while continuing to sell at local retail shops. You can currently find Ko Designs in several locations around the RVA area.

In ten years, I hope to have a large enough demand in the Richmond and surrounding market to sell exclusively at one retail location and online-only; while doing just a few larger art shows during a year.


Q: What advice would you give to a young inventor or entrepreneur?

A: Tinker and do what makes you happy. Keep at it, just a little bit at a time; you never know how far you will go unless you keep at it.  I graduated in 2006 and primarily sold to family for years. Now I sell in established storefronts and online.  Clearly, it has taken some time, but I have always loved what I do.

Also, jump at chances to learn what you can whenever you can. I would not be as accomplished in my jewelry making if it were not for my jewelry professor Mark Baldridge. He saw the potential for me to succeed as a jeweler and pushed me to learn new techniques other students were not doing. He would invite me to go to different craft and metals conferences, even after I graduated.  When I started working as a polisher at Jeweler’s Services Inc. I would look over everyone’s shoulder to see what they were working on.  Soon I was doing pearl stringing, and ring sizing in addition to polishing.  Once I took on the role of a bench jeweler full time, Jeweler’s Services sent me to an advanced stone setting workshop to further my skills even more.  Working there has without a doubt been my biggest provider of technical jewelry knowledge and skill.


Ashley Jones '12 & Katie O’Neil ‘06

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