Swan kings and mermaids, angels, and fairies inhabit the Silver Bonsai Gallery in Manteo. They share space with twisting vines, blossoms, and undulating waves. These images, engraved in metal, reflect historic art movements that inspire gallery owners and master goldsmiths Kathryn and Ben Stewart.
The Stewarts opened their gallery 23 years ago. It not only features work by a variety of artists, but it also is a working studio where they handcraft jewelry in gold, silver, and platinum, which can be engraved, enameled, and graced with gems such as diamonds, opals, topazes, and moonstones.
The couple have a love for line and illustration that inspire two of their jewelry lines, including Modern Heirloom – their signature design series inspired, in part, by the Art Nouveau movement of the 19th century. Modern Heirloom is a well-chosen name. These creators are fashioning heartfelt jewelry to honor moments in time – weddings and engagements, sweet sixteen birthdays, anniversaries, and memorials, to become heirlooms that are passed down from one generation to the next.
“It’s more of a feeling than even a design,” Kathryn Stewart said.
The rings, pendants and bracelets show the elements of the favored movement – organic, flowing, linear designs found in nature. The Stewarts incorporate modern techniques and utilize some science fiction and fantasy elements within the line. Their designs not only incorporate world history, but also personal history.
“Modern Heirloom came about from a ring I designed called Esther’s Garden,” Kathryn Stewart said. “Esther was my grandmother, a simple and beautiful woman and avid gardener as many locally may remember, and she wore a deco era ring she passed down to my daughter.”
The Stewarts also handcraft steampunk rings. The term steampunk came upon the scene in 1979, and it is said to be coined by science fiction writer Kevin Wayne Jeter to describe a style of three science fiction writers of the time.
While the term steampunk can cover a variety of creative endeavors, including literature, film, and clothing design, it found a home with jewelry designers interested in its Victorian and science fiction roots. A popular element used in steampunk jewelry is watch parts and gears. The designs that Stewart creates harken back to her grandfather who was a watchmaker.
A new series they are launching is inspired by fantasy art. Their daughter, Alyse, played a role.
“Our daughter is an illustrator, which has re-inspired that part of our brains, as well, specifically through the fantasy realism genre,” Kathryn Stewart said. “I have recently started a series called Illustrated Jewel, which is inspired by fantasy illustration both past and present featuring themes such as angels, fairies, mermaids, and the beauty of nature.”
The fantasy art movement has its roots in mythology, religion, and folklore. In the early days, it was used to illustrate literature. This is fitting for the duo who have illustration backgrounds as graduates of Savannah College of Art & Design.
It is essential to the couple to present jewelry that mirrors the person who will be wearing their creations. “We have a set of designs that can be customized,” Stewart said. “And lots to pick from.” This includes rings, bracelets, and pendants. The designs appeal to a broad audience.
“Our rings resonate with men and women because of not only the look of the design but the handwork we put into them,” Stewart said. “We are masters of hand engraving and stone setting, which are both very technical processes.”
Wedding and engagement rings are a specialty.
While they create individual pieces solo from start to finish, they also may choose to collaborate. For example, Ben Stewart might draw the design and set the stone. Kathryn Stewart may do the engraving and polishing. Both are adept at the techniques they use.
“Our designs are often born on paper, developed in a computer design program, 3-D printed or hand fabricated, and finished to a beautiful polish to set an extraordinary gem,” Stewart said. “A lot of the magic happens within the creative process behind making the piece, so we may sketch a bit for planning, but often things evolve through making.”
Successfully running a gallery and handcrafting jewelry for more than two decades has had its ups and downs. The years spent at their work benches has been invaluable.
“The greatest education comes through daily practice,” Kathryn Stewart said. “We have been making jewelry every day almost for 25 years, and we are still learning every day.”
On challenges, Stewart mentions flooding, the pandemic, and the economy upheaval in the 1990s and today. But she does not let challenges get her down.
“Honestly, these things have become such a part of our life, it seems almost secondary to our original goal in it all, to create jewelry,” she said. “But it’s not secondary, as it drives us forward, and every challenge has found a way into our work.”
Around Stewart’s neck is a silver and gold medallion she crafted that she wears every day. It features a phoenix. In mythology, the phoenix, having burst into flames only to rise from the ashes, symbolizes strength and renewal.
“My phoenix rose from water through a medallion …,” she said. “These moments don’t just challenge us; they push us and even inspire.”
The artisans pass on inspiration to the wearer. “Balance, strength, beauty, and empowerment are all feelings evoked through our pieces,” Stewart said. “I have been told they bring strength and comfort.”
And with inspiration comes the call to learn.
“I just recently started enameling and am excited to explore it further, and Ben has been mastering a computer program called ZBRUSH often used in the illustration world,” Stewart said.
Creating is a cycle for Stewart. “The creative process is something I have always thrived on, from concept to completion,” she said. “Through expressing it, I feed it.”
And, Stewart said, when creativity wanes, process kicks in. As the creative duo travel back and forth through time, inspired by global art movements and personal history, and especially for the clients for which they create, they always place the heartfelt in their work to craft treasured keepsakes that last through time.
Who: Kathryn and Ben Stewart, Master goldsmiths.
What: Gold, Silver, and platinum jewelry
Where: Silver Bonsai Gallery, 905 US-64, Manteo
When: Call for hours.