Puzzling A Beautiful Jewelry Design

The time of year when we release most of our new jewelry designs is fast approaching. Typically, we start designing after Christmas by appraising what our customers loved or didn’t the year before. Then we get to work readying ourselves to release new lines at the Atlanta gift show in early summer.

We’ve been designing jewelry for over three decades and through the years have come to adopt an uncommon methodology. Most jewelry and fashion designers start by assessing new trends like this year’s palette of popular colors. Then they outline their ideas and procure the elements, like gems or stones, that they need to execute their vision. 

We do the opposite. We start with the pieces. We like to say that we assemble our jewelry like a jigsaw puzzle and that the pieces are the secret sauce to the timeless originality of our designs. 

We didn’t intentionally set out to buck trends. When Susan Davis started Grandmother’s Buttons three decades ago she simply sought out pretty antique and vintage buttons and then transformed them into earrings and pendants. She learned jewelry design by trial and error before the existence of YouTube videos and tried to execute on fashion trends without success. Her fledgling new business only found its stride when she realized that the antique and vintage components she loved demanded a different approach. Susan says, “It’s not that we are impervious to the dictates of fashion, it’s just that our designs, in their essence, must honor the colors, and styles, and women of the past.”

So for us, everything starts with the button hunt. Every year Susan scours the forgotten corners of this earth for antique buttons and vintage glass. She climbs into grimy abandoned lofts and bargains with flea market vendors. She spends hours upon hours in dusty warehouses, sorting through long-forgotten attics, and rummaging through thrift store shelves. Like all good fisherfolk, she has her favorite honey holes and knows that certain deadstock warehouses and flea markets are more likely to unearth the best treasures. These jackpots are located throughout the country in areas as diverse as California, New York, Texas, and Rhode Island. 

Button hunting is Susan’s superpower. When it comes to finding beautiful antique buttons and vintage glass she’s endlessly passionate, tireless, and talented. She’s been at it for three decades and still, when it comes to looking for buttons, Susan remains a kid in a candy store with every special find sparking a ridiculous amount of joy.

The puzzle pieces she covets most often come in colors and styles that were trendy between 1880 and 1960. So at Grandmother’s Buttons, we are more likely to resurrect bygone trends than we are to feature the Pantone color of the year. We endlessly flaunt colors like jade green, lapis blue, and brownish-red carnelian because these were what was in vogue with the art deco styles of the 1930s. At the same time, we’ll develop jewelry lines that are monopolized by softer colors like opalescent pink, pale green, and sky blue because these colors were characteristic of the hand-pressed moonstone buttons and cabochons manufactured in Germany and Japan in the 1950s.

Once procured, the pieces are assembled on trays, sorted by color groups in complementary combinations. The trays are laid out on a large table in our design studio where they become the inspiration for the basic designs ideas like a long or short necklace, or a delicate or intricate bracelet with just one or multiple stones. Most of our designs have at least one unique century-old brass, steel, or pewter Victorian button, so the final step is to figure out where to place this.

Then we determine what settings will fit best and begin searching for stampings and castings that suit the pieces we’re working with. Inevitably we have one gorgeous glass cameo or opal in a bizarre size that no pre-made setting fits and so we’ll have a setting custom manufactured. 

Over the years Susan has hired several talented women to help her design our jewelry. One of them, Corda Walker, has worked at Grandmother’s Buttons for over twenty-five years. Corda and Susan work in tandem, pitching design ideas back and forth, each adding tweaks until it is just right. Corda and Susan are the primary designers but everyone working in the studio contributes.

The most exciting find this winter was a group of vintage German and Japanese glass cabochons with colored glass mixed to resemble natural stone. However, the manufactured colors are much more exuberant than they would be in nature, and these cabochons shimmer brightly with gold and amethyst, bold lapis, pearly white, copper, amber, and topaz. These will be the basis of some of our most exciting new releases in 2020.

We hope you’ll love them as much as we do!

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