Working in the heart of California's historic gold country, jewelry designer Sarah Williamson brings a golden present to the area's rich past. Old mining equipment and buildings are scattered throughout her town of Nevada City.
She has panned for gold in a nearby river that was once lined with gold seekers, and she once went with a couple to pan for some of the gold for his & hers wedding rings. The impurities in the natural gold nuggets were removed when the gold was melted, and additional gold added, but the couple will always have an extra special connection to their rings. "I'm trying to be a little more involved in the process, to get to know the miners. I'm typically buying refined gold, but I do want to start buying more local gold."
Sarah always loved making things with her hands, learning carpentry from her father as she grew up. Not ready for college after high school and unsure of another direction to take, she began traveling. She started making wire-wrapped jewelry to make a little money, and her career evolved from there. "I was attracted to the level of detail," she says. "I feel like a lot of people spend their lives looking for their passion and I stumbled into it." Self-taught, she was making a living as a jeweler before she went to jewelry school.
Now, 14 years into her career, she prefers working in gold. Sarah says, "There's this innate attraction that we have to gold, something about the richness and the royal feeling of the gold. I can make something that is a royal object that can be passed down. If I showed you the same piece in gold or platinum, I think you would reach for the gold."
Each piece of her jewelry begins with a sketch. While some jewelry designers have a favorite style they prefer to work in, Sarah uses many styles. She'll usually sketch five or more options, each very different, and have the customer choose the direction. A profile emerges that touches on the aesthetic elements, historical references, and more. Care is given to what the chosen metal does well. "Gold is lovely and soft to work with. It does what you ask it to do. Setting a stone is just a pure joy."
Jewelry begins with a design, then moves to the metalsmithing and Sarah enjoys every stage of the project. She plays with finishes, smooth and textured. "I love the way I can change the mood of a piece of jewelry through texture. A satin finish, high polish, deep scratched texture or antiquey and rough — each gives the jewelry a different character, and all of them are easy to achieve with gold."
Her work is evolving, combining new techniques such as the use of granulation—tiny gold beads that are heated and fused to a gold base—in her Unfurl Rebel Jewel necklace that won first place in the 2017 Gold/Platinum category of the prestigious Saul Bell Design Awards. Granulation is detailed work that begins with making everything including the beads and wire by hand in 18k gold. "You get a little bit more into the alchemy of the metal." The work is less polished, has more of an antique feel to it. She says, "The little places where it's less symmetrical and has nicks; that’s what gives it soul."
Whether with granulation or another technique, Sarah enjoys working with gold. She says, "I think some of my greatest pieces will be made with gold. There's something about gold that has this magic to it."