A Behind-the-Scenes Jewelry Designer Takes the Spotlight

A Behind-the-Scenes Jewelry Designer Takes the Spotlight

When she was 5 years old Kia Schwaninger designed her first piece of jewelry, a refined necklace of royal-blue polymer clay beads that was for her mother.

“I guess that was my first commission,” the Swiss-born designer who now lives and works in Brooklyn said as a joke. Her mother still has the necklace.

Ms. Schwaninger, 42, has been serious about jewelry design ever since. After training in metalsmithing during her teen years, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in jewelry and metalsmithing from the Rhode Island School of Design, completed a design internship at Tiffany & Company and received a Master of Arts in Design and Applied Arts at the Creative Academy, a program in Milan founded by Richemont, the Swiss luxury group whose jewelry houses include Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels.

It was Van Cleef’s president and chief executive, Nicolas Bos, who spotted her talent at the academy and later hired her as a junior designer. “She has an engineer’s mind-set and is very precise, but also has real creativity and a touch of whimsicality,” Mr. Bos said.

She spent 10 years working for the French jeweler in Paris and then New York, where she rose to a senior designer post. “She created a legacy of her work in the Van Cleef collection,” he said, “some of which still remains today.”

Ms. Schwaninger said Van Cleef’s heritage and craftsmanship shaped her aesthetic. “I fell in love with the Van Cleef artistry and universe, where everything from every angle is harmonious,” she said.

She later spent four years as Harry Winston’s director of design and then, in 2020, established her own business, Jewels by Kia Schwan, to make commissioned pieces. This month, she introduced a signature series available by order through her website or Instagram.

The series illustrates her affinity for precision and order along with a sense of spirit. Pieces are to be available with as many as 20 different colored stones, such as coral, turquoise, malachite and tiger’s-eye. They are being carved by German artisans in Idar-Oberstein, a well-known gemstone center, and then layered in designs that echo the geometric, minimalist lines of the Art Deco era.

“I like the play of matte and translucent stones that comes with hard stones, and the mix of textures and colors,” Ms. Schwaninger said. “I’m in love with the blue and green color combinations because it’s really alive and vibrant.” She was referring to a barrel-shape ring with a side view inspired by the curves at the top of the Chrysler Building in New York City. Another ring with stripes of tiger’s-eye and red carnelian reminded her of an automobile’s racing red stripes, she said. The pieces range from $5,000 to $20,000.

Custom commissions can be difficult, but Mr. Bos said that Ms. Schwaninger is well suited for the challenge. “She has the ability to listen and understand a client,” he said. “Even when an idea is difficult to put into words, Kia will somehow come up with the design the client expected, which is the talent of a great designer.”

That was the case last year when Gail Metcalf arrived with a jade bangle that had been cut in half to remove it from her mother’s wrist before she died. “She always wore the bangle,” Ms. Metcalf said, “and I promised her we would make it into two pieces of jewelry for me and my sister.”

Ms. Metcalf, who has been Van Cleef’s senior archives manager in New York for more than a decade, wasn’t sure what to do with two halves, but she did know who to call as she had previously commissioned pieces from Ms. Schwaninger. “Kia is highly sensitive, and she has the ability to read what people really want,” she said.

Ms. Schwaninger sketched several design iterations, all of which involved combining a half of the bangle with a gold bracelet engraved with peonies, which was the mother’s favorite flower. One of the sisters chose a 2.8-carat dark green garnet as her bracelet’s center stone while the other had a 2.6-carat bright green one.

On the inside of the bangles, she repeated the peony motif, but with six butterflies, each set with family members’ birthstones.

“I really love the conversations that I have with my clients,” Ms. Schwaninger said, “and I like the idea of creating a one-of-a-kind piece that fits them.”

Her usual process begins with detailed conversations, after which she submits sketches to the client. Once the design is agreed upon, she paints a finely detailed gouache painting of the design. Using her network of craftspeople, she selects the right artisans for the job and then collaborates closely with them on everything from the custom-cut stones to highly technical settings. It can take months for pieces to be completed; prices for custom work start at $5,000.

“Clients come to Kia because they feel she can translate their own emotion into a jewel,” said Anne Eva Geffroy, the design director at Graff Diamonds in London, who worked with Ms. Schwaninger at Van Cleef. “She’s really observant,” she said, “she does a lot of research, thinks of the spirit of the request and will give birth to an idea.” All these are skills, she said, which bodes well for someone nurturing a business.

Still, a jewelry business requires significant funding, so Ms. Schwaninger has continued to do freelance design for some European jewelry houses.

Ms. Schwaninger’s collaborative approach to her work is perhaps best expressed in the symbol of a bee, which is embossed on her jewelry boxes and used in her logo.

“The bee creates a precious substance through the collaboration of a whole hive,” she said. “I like to think of my jewelry in the same way; it’s created by many artisans, who have honed their crafts through years and years of experience, plus the client coming in with their wishes and their dreams, and we come together to make a precious piece of jewelry.”

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