Rebirth: a Devil's Island in silver and stone

New York Times, November 27, 2006

LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES: Two years ago, a wealthy European art collector gave Sandra Müller nine acorn- sized diamond pavé skulls and a rather vague instruction: "Make me something special."

"I was a bit shocked," recalled Müller, a 45-year-old jeweler whose eponymous boutique in West Hollywood is a gallery for sublime gemstone creations. "Did he want a jeweled box or some attention- grabbing cuff links? No, he said he had too much of that. He wanted something special."

After eight months and countless failed sketches, Müller was struck with a vision of how to please a man who wants for nothing. She would render his life story in precious gems and metals. Next month,after devoting 800 hours to the project, she plans to deliver the resulting $350,000 sculpture, weighing in at 176 pounds, or 80 kilograms - part artwork, part jewelry and the ultimate expression of the lack of distinction between the two - to her client in a special foam-lined suitcase.

She named it "The Rebirth."

"It is about pain, love, light and everything we go through as human beings," Müller said.

Conceived as a fantastical island, the sculpture sits on a craggy specimen of hematite, selenite and fluorite, which Müller cherry-picked from the private collection of Andrew Carnegie, a mineral collector.

Its central feature is a bonsai tree, hand-carved in silver and oxidized, with a height of 12 inches, or 30 centimeters. The tree lends its spindly branches to hold a plate-size slab of rock crystal composed of nine individual slices fused together and embedded with the original set of skulls - a ghostly, Gothic vibe.

The devil, in this case quite literally, was in the details. Müller and her assistant, Felipe Aguilar, spent the better part of this year hand-carving the silver base that surrounds the island. The base depicts waves crashing against the rugged coastline of the island, with the skeletal hand of Satan reaching out from the deep and flashing a groovy sapphire ring. Also included is a collection of metallic and stone ornaments, some of which can be removed and worn as pendants. These include a gemstone chakra totem, a caged garnet heart, an 18-carat gold-winged bat and a Bob Marley memorial which features a guitar set with sapphires and real working strings.

"There's a lot of protection and playfulness in the piece," Müller said, pointing to a pair of silvery extraterrestrials having sex in the trunk of the tree. The male alien is mounting the female alien while she drinks a glass of Pimm's through a straw, her pear- shaped diamond eyes flashing.

Müller, who was born in Chile, wasn't always so daring. She grew up in Switzerland, where her parents were hosts to a steady stream of society, including celebrities like Oscar de la Renta, Elizabeth Taylor and the Fiat heiress Marella Agnelli, whom she recalled as wearing "beads of emerald down her back with jeans and cashmere sweaters."

Such early exposure to exquisite jewelry instilled in Müller a passion for gemstones and a refined sense of taste. She graduated from the Gemological Institute of America at the age of 19, married a wealthy Chilean and split her time between South America and Marbella, Spain, where she drove around in a white Porsche.

"But I wanted to be a jeweler, not a rich girl," she said.

Her marriage did not survive her ambitions. When it ended 15 years ago, Müller was drawn to Los Angeles. Since then, she has cultivated a private clientele based around her eye for rare, baroque stones - such as a pair of Trapiche emeralds from Colombia, which she has set in "lemon peel" yellow gold earrings sprinkled with yellow diamond pavé.

A series of intricate gold and diamond seahorse cuff bracelets are now on sale at Maxfield, the high-fashion mecca of Los Angeles. But Müller considers "The Rebirth" to be her magnum opus and she is eager to begin another.

"I was imagining Madonna with her Kabbalah and Elton John with his pianos," she said. "And I love Seal. I don't know why but I see him with a huge black opal with streaks of red in it."