By Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief
While most jewelry designers have pretty gems and Pearls in their work, Robin Callahan may be the only artist who features custom cuts and carvings exclusively. Every significant gem and Pearl in her body of work (she is a bench jeweler) is a one-of-a-kind, a move that has generated a frenzied following.
“I love the fact that clients are a little addictive,” says the owner of nine-year-old Robin Callahan Designs in Bainbridge Island, Washington. “I have a core group of clients who buy multiple pieces a year.”
Among them is a woman from California who even has an annual “Robin jewelry budget.”
“This is the third year I’ve worked with her, and she found me through one of the lapidary artists I buy from,” Callahan adds.
Gem Geek in the Making
Callahan’s love of gemstones and cultured Pearls took root in her hometown of Tucson, Ariz. Here, she grew up attending gem shows and falling in love with jewelry making in high school. Strict parents, however, put the kibosh on her budding artistic interests, encouraging her to pursue a more mainstream career.
She went into film and TV, writing news and working on production. After she married, she explored some entrepreneurial pursuits, including opening a video rental store in Maui, where she and her husband lived for a while. When they moved back to the mainland, the couple opened an art gallery, and Callahan reconnected with her inner artist. She started making belts and earrings, which a buyer for a specialty store saw and loved, placing a massive order for 13 stores.
By the time Callahan was in her early 50s, she and her husband had moved to Washington state. It was there that her kids surprised her one Mother’s Day with a jewelry-making class at a community center. An overachiever from the first project, she finished pieces quickly, and after the course ended, pursued even more jewelry education.
One of her first completed pieces was a pawprint ring made in fine and sterling silver, which she donated to a local Humane Society; it sold the piece at a charity event for $975. From there, business took off, and in 2015 Callahan executed 85 individual jewelry commissions. By 2016, Callahan returned to the Tucson gem fairs of her youth. This is where her signature style of showcasing one-of-a-kind cuts was born.
Queen of Custom Cuts
At her first-ever gemstone appointment, she met Ales Patrick Krivanek of Ravenstein Gem Co., who at one time owned the PANA Oregon Sunstone mine. She was drawn to the beauty of his material and the custom cuts he commissioned from other lapidaries.
From Krivanek, she bought concave cuts and angular, untraditional silhouettes impeccably crafted by artisans. These individuals, she learned, could maximize the yield of rough by creating interesting angular designs. The results were “wild, unique pieces,” she says. “These Inspired me to an even greater level of creativity.”
Though not yet a cutter, she even bought rough.
After that visit, she moved on to meet master cutters like John Dyer, Ryan Joseph Anderson, and Dalan Hargrave—whose work she had seen online and thought, “Who is this god?”
“I was blown away by what I saw in Tucson from a handful of lapidaries,” she recollects.
This is when she decided to not just design something and search for any old gem; she let special gems cut by lapidaries pave the way for jewelry magic to occur.
“I buy cut gems or commission cuts and then put them on display in my studio—for me to see as much as my clients,” says Callahan. “Then I sketch out concepts until I land on something that I’m excited about.”
As Callahan buys more rough—“About 80% of what I set now are custom cuts,” she says—she digs deeper into her encyclopedic stable of talent to bring beautiful designs to life. Callahan has an astounding knowledge of cutters from all over the world (she’s even sent gems to Italy for finishing). Most in jewelry know about Dyer, Hargrave, and the legendary German House of Munsteiner, but Callahan could—and should—teach a seminar on all the lapidary names that roll off her tongue with such ease.
“I pick only talented cutters, and they refer work to me, which is super cool that we support each other,” she says.
The incredible creativity and precision of her gemstone purchases even inspired her to seek out two separate weeklong periods of faceting instruction from Larry Woods and Hargrave.
And after just one year of instruction, Somewhere in the Rainbow (SITR) curator Shelly Sergent challenged her to cut a Sapphire that now resides in its collection. A goal of SITR, a private collection of gem and Pearl collectibles, is to inspire, and so it did; in 2020, Callahan cut a 20.20 ct. stone. “It was super intimidating,” observes Callahan. “Shelly knew I had only been cutting for a year, but that was her point—I learned a lot while doing it.”
One important Callahan caveat: just because gemstones are such a focal point in her work, don’t think that cultured Pearls are overlooked. About two years ago—a time when Callahan had not yet bought a strand or a pair of studs—she saw faceted cultured Pearls from Kazuo Komatsu of Hanashinju Pearls during a Tucson gem show. Stunned by the beauty of faceted cultured Pearls, she was inspired to create a completely different design process that made her fall in love with “every kind of Pearl,” she explains.
“I’m Pearl obsessed,” she continues. “Faceted Pearls gave me the appreciation to look at all the different varieties. Now I don’t want to sell most of what I make.”
The Pearl pieces were also a hit among clients. After Callahan bought her first few strands, she sat down for lunch and emailed pictures to clients. Upon finishing her meal, she jetted back to his booth to buy more. “I sold all the ones I bought,” she explains.
Accolades, Mining Trips & Commissions
As Callahan’s work became increasingly bolder and more memorable, accolades started mounting. She earned recognition multiple times as a Best Jeweler in a local magazine’s Best of Bainbridge Island Awards. Then a Spectrum Award in 2021—an Honorable Mention in the Business/Day Wear category for a ring featuring a custom-cut watermelon Tourmaline from John Dyer—was a dream come true.
To keep fueling her imagination and handiwork, she and her husband take annual trips to gemstone mines in Oregon and Montana, among others. “We come back with lots of rough,” she notes.
And from her private studio workshop, Callahan turns out about 250 jewelry projects a year, with two-thirds of them being commissions, a source of joy.
“I love making a memorial piece—mixing mom’s and grandma’s Diamonds into a new ring,” she says. “Sometimes these jobs inspire other work, too. I landed on a new design when I made my vine band with petals in 2019; the first one was a commission, and it led to so many variations. I love connecting with clients and taking that journey with them. It’s so rewarding.”
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