Jewel Innovator: Kara Ross
Posted On Jul 22, 2014
Woman on the move Kara Ross invites us into her studio and into her beautiful mind.
BY Ruchel Louis Coetzee PHOTOGRAPHY By Michael Turek
It’s all art,” insists designer Kara Ross, looking chic and sure as light floods through the windows of her design studio. “I believe that what I make are wearable works of art. There are some really beautiful pieces using
concrete, for example…”
“Concrete?” I ask.
“Yes, concrete, diamonds, and sterling silver,” she says. “I made some pieces for Rio Tinto—the world’s second largest mining company—and I think they’re beautiful.” Such baubles may be difficult for the average mind to picture. But when Ross sets out to sketch, rules often fly out the window. Concrete, wood, marble, volcanic lava—each of these unconventional materials make dramatic appearances in her award-winning designs, some of which are on permanent display in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the San Diego Natural History Museum, and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. “I like the organic nature of all the different elements,” she says. “It’s just more fun this way.”
We are in her stark white workspace in Manhattan’s Garment District, surrounded by her many dazzling accomplishments. It’s here that Ross imbues precious metals with life, envisions chic shoulders that are elegantly bedecked by her bags, and has recently conceived an exquisite tabletop collection.
As I scan the space, I’m struck by the juxtaposition of marble against the curvature of a clutch on display in the reception area. Who would think that marble could bend in such a way? The idea came to her one evening, when the venerable fashion designer Norma Kamali suggested she meet an acquaintance of hers who might be a strong collaborator.
“I met with him the next day, and he showed me how these thin sheets of marble will become more malleable once they are heated up to a very high temperature,” she says. Surprisingly lightweight, with Ross’s signature clasp adorning the smooth marble surface,it’s more than an architectural feat. It’s a truly wearable and sophisticated clutch of the highest caliber—worthy of jet-set shoulders, indeed. As her eclectic pieces suggest, Ross draws inspiration from frequent, far-and-wide travel.
The lamp in her studio is made of the mineral gypsum selenite; Ross was attracted to its semi-translucent colors and unique textures. She went on to create a clutch flecked with translucent rhinestones—an homage to selenite—that flies off the shelves of her Kara Ross New York boutique. For another design, she photographed some of her fine jewelry, then printed and stained the images to create a kaleidoscopic pattern used on another clutch.
“I am constantly trying to think of new and different things,” she says. “If I design something that is so fabulous and then think, ‘Oh gee, I saw someone else doing that,’ it’s so important that I then throw that idea out the window. I don’t want to look like other people.”
As a teenager, Ross and her family went on safari in Kenya. It’s there that she fell in love with the art of jewelry making. Her mother allowed her sister and her to choose two stones each. On their return, the girls took their stones to Jewelers Row in Philadelphia. “I chose two emerald-cut green tourmalines and I created a really pretty, 14-karat-gold ring with a sort of ripped look,” Ross recalls.
“It was simple, but I would still wear it today.” After graduating from Georgetown, she acquired a gemologist certification from the very stringent Gemological Institute of America. “If you really want to do business with precious stones, you should know what you’re talking about,” she says. “There are a lot of synthetics on the market—a lot of doublets and triplets—and it’s very easy to be taken advantage of if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
While helming her own startup business has had its challenges, Ross knows in her heart that a mentor would have advised her early on to create collections that were easily accepted by retailers—“no-brainer” kind of work. Such has never been Ross’s style.
“You have to get used to having your head hit against the wall,” Ross says. “My mother taught me a very good lesson: Does the word ‘no’ hurt? Is the word ‘no’ going to affect you?”
Her unflinching devotion to her singular perspective, as well as a determination to never be part of the status quo, has earned Ross an impressive following (with last names like Obama and Winfrey— although she’s really not one to name-drop). Her individuality is palpable; her artistry is absorbing. We see no trace of “no” anywhere. We say “Yes,” to it all.