Warm, Honest, Wooden

New York Times, May 1, 2009

NEW YORK — Peter Carl Fabergé’s final grand commission for Czar Nicholas II was an Easter egg made of Karelian birch, intended for the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.

“Fabergé had his own wood workshop staffed by Finnish craftsmen, who worked hand in hand with the goldsmiths,” said Kieran M. McCarthy, director at Wartski, an art and antique dealer in London specializing in fine jewelry, gold boxes, silver and works of art by Fabergé. “For Russians, exotic tropical wood was as fascinating as nephrite jade.”

The egg was never delivered — by Easter of 1917, the czar and his family were imprisoned in the Alexander Palace: and the revolution put an end to Fabergé’s business.

From then on, wood largely disappeared from fine jewelry — apart from a brief moment in the 1970s, when Cartier turned to ebony for its Touch Wood pendant collection — displaced by a preoccupation with precious metals and gems.

“You wouldn’t go into Graff or Winston or Van Cleef and see wood,” said Rahul R. Kadakia, Christie’s head of jewelry in New York. “Wood jewelry branches more into fashion.”

Now, however, the pendulum is starting to swing back.

“We take three things from the earth — metal, stones and wood — and they’re all natural things, which is why they have harmony together,” said Axel H. M. Scheffel, principal of Scheffel-Schmuck in Munich, which began making a line of wood jewelry, using computer-controlled milling machines, three years ago.

The Scheffel collection pairs more than 20 different types of hardwoods, including Australian sheoak, amaranth and walnut, with a rainbow of semiprecious gems such as lemon quartz, green amethyst and moonstone.

“Wood is a way of being fashionable and trendy without having to say, ‘Here, buy this $5,000 metal cuff,”’ said Helena G. Krodel, director of media and special events for the Jewelry Information Center in New York.

In that spirit, the Italian jeweler Roberto Coin included reclaimed African ebony in three collections unveiled at the Baselworld fine watch and jewelry fair in March. His Capri Plus bangle in ebony and 18-karat yellow gold with cognac diamonds carried a suggested retail price of $6,800, compared with $13,500 for an all-gold version.

Another Italian jeweler, Vhernier, based in the traditional gold-working center of Valenza, is also using ebony, combined with rose gold in a collection of sinuous pieces evoking the simple, yet sophisticated, forms of modern and contemporary art.

Some designers are drawn to wood not for how it looks or how much it costs but for the way it feels. Gustav Reyes, owner of Simply Wood Rings in Chicago, handcrafts salvaged lumber in designs that “bring out the warmth and honesty of the wood.”

“Wood has a rich color that naturally oils and darkens when it’s worn,” said Katey Brunini, a designer based in Solana Beach, California, whose Twig collection of cuff bracelets and pendants incorporates cocobolo wood from Costa Rica. “Its earthy palette and grain patterns can be gorgeous.”

The designs of Umane Paris, which earned the prestigious Joaillerie de France label in 2007, revel in the contrast between wood’s dimpled, uneven texture and the smooth polished surface of metal and stones. A British designer, Anthony Roussel, on the other hand, is intrigued by a different sort of contrast: He uses 3D software, rapid prototyping and laser-cutting to sculpt wooden rings and bangles with a mathematical precision that contrasts with their organic appeal.

“With the use of wood, I am questioning the traditional notions of preciousness,” Mr. Roussel says in a statement posted on his Web site. “In using new technologies as a tool, I am questioning existing perceptions of craft.”

Christine J. Brandt, a wood carver and jeweler based in Brooklyn, New York, poses similar questions with her phantasmagoric wood jewels, which, while handmade, are anything but homespun. In her hands, wood is less a hippie-chic accent than a blunt instrument.

“I wanted to make a killer piece,” Ms. Brandt said of a fierce Macassar ebony cuff that she created for a traveling Swarovski Elements exhibition, introduced at the Baselworld fair in 2008. The cuff, which required half a year to carve and polish, is set with an icicle-like specimen of jagged white crystal sprinkled with green epidote.

Ms. Brandt’s attention is currently focused on a new line of knuckle-dusting bridal rings fashioned from milky-colored tagua nut and chocolaty African olivewood, and topped by Herkimer diamonds, a type of quartz crystal. Unconventional, to say the least, the rings call to mind solitaires from a parallel universe.