"I like old things. I like really, really old things," goldsmith Sharona Wolff says during a recent interview at the Davide Bigazzi Studio in Menlo Park's Allied Arts Guild, a cozy metalworking studio where she makes meticulously crafted jewelry inspired by ancient techniques and styles.
When she says "really, really old," she's referring to a very specific period of time namely from 700 B.C. to roughly A.D. 200, which covers a time span in which ancient jewelry was created by the Greek, Roman, Fertile Crescent and Byzantine civilizations, she said.
Wolff, who has only been working with gold since 2014, launched her own jewelry business, Atelier Wolff, in 2018 and this year was represented at the prestigious trade show Metal + Smith, based in New York.
Metal + Smith announced her as "Best in Show" and awarded her for her "originality, designer spirit and unmatched technique," according to a press announcement.
Wolff said she loves ancient jewelry because it's beautiful and provides plenty of inspiration with little risk of being accused of plagiarism. Finding an original jewelry style is surprisingly difficult, she said.
"People have been adorning their bodies with jewelry in some form … (for) millennia. There's not a lot that's new in terms of design under the sun," she said.
However, she's carving out a niche in using ancient techniques and styles but adapting them for modern life.
Over the years, the ways that people wear jewelry have changed. While King Tutankhamun may have worn a large intricate breastplate in ancient Egypt, there are few people who would choose to wear the same thing in the same way today, Wolff said. Maybe Beyoncé could pull it off and look gorgeous doing it, she laughed, "but most of us would look a bit silly." Instead, she'll take some colors or a motif from an ancient jewelry or art piece and scale it down for a more modern article of jewelry, like a choker or pendant.
Wolff said that she's still evolving her style. Great designers offer some distinctive element within their work that tells people it's theirs. "There's a particular way they put a finish on something. There's a particular use of color, or an angle or something," she said.
One of her signature techniques is fine granulation work on 22-karat gold, or what look like very tiny round balls set upon the edges of a surface of a jewelry piece. Another technique she uses is eutectic welding, an ancient technique that involves carefully heating a metal until it flashes a "sort of wet look" and removing it from the heat before it melts into a blob, she explained. The method enables metals to be welded together without the use of soldering – and generates a flame a little bit like a fire-breathing dragon, she said.
She said she draws a lot of inspiration from both nature and history, drawing upon tribal jewelry and museum collections of ancient jewelry for ideas.
As the daughter of a gold geologist, Wolff has lived in 34 places throughout her life, including in rural areas of Australia, Africa and Asia, bringing a unique background to her work. She studied cartography at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and worked around the world before coming to the U.S. and reconsidering her career, according to a press announcement. She decided in 2014 to become a jeweler and began to study with Davide Bigazzi, a Florentine jeweler whose California studio is located in the Allied Arts Guild.
Growing up in the mining industry, she said, she saw firsthand some of the problems with it, which has shaped how she approaches her work making jewelry.
"I use recycled metals," she said."I know where my (gem)stones come from. I know where they're mined. I know who cuts them. I often buy directly from the mines. And I don't use those that come from conflict areas. ... I know exactly the mines that they come from."
"Mining ... is an extractive industry so you can't pull it sustainably in that sense. But what is important (is) that the people that work in it are paid fairly."
"That's something the industry has to work on," she said. "Most people that buy jewelry aren't really aware of where their gold, their silver and their gemstones come from, and I think they should be. They should be better educated."
During the pandemic, she said, she's also had to adjust to some changes in what customers want. Bracelets and rings generally were less in demand because people couldn't see them over Zoom. Engagement rings have increased in demand, as did talisman-style jewelry, she said.
"Maybe when terrible things happen in the world, where times become really tough, people want to wear something that's really meaningful," she posited.
Looking ahead, Wolff said, she's committed to continue to make everything she sells herself.
"If you buy a piece from me, it's made by me, and I want to keep it that way," she said. "You hear of the Slow Food movement; I guess this is the slow jewelry movement."
"It is time consuming ... to do all of this intricate work. But I do think there is beauty in this intricate work. And I do recognize that it's not a style that is for everyone."
"I'm making the jewelry that I like and I know that there are people that do like this style, that do find beauty in hidden details or tiny details," she said. "I … want to keep making the jewelry that I've always wanted to wear myself."
Atelier Wolff and the Davide Bigazzi Studio are located at 75 Arbor Road, Studio K in the Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park. Both Bigazzi and Wolff also offer classes in jewelry-making techniques.