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Renaissance woman: Temple St Clair discusses diving and design

Diver, literature graduate, model, mapper of reefs, designer, jeweller... Is there anything Temple St Clair can’t do, asks Harriet Mays-Powell.

On the eve of her company’s 30th anniversary, as we sit in her offices in downtown New York, Temple St Clair still has the gracious manner that came from her Southern upbringing. Growing up in Virginia left her with a deep appreciation for the region’s architecture, interiors and lifestyle, she says, citing Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, as an enduring influence. At a young age, she was also exposed to boats, while staying with her grandparents on Chesapeake Bay. 

“All of those early places informed a certain aesthetic,” she says. Clearly those childhood days continue to inspire the jeweller who boasts collectors such as Roy Lichtenstein, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Naomi Watts and Meryl Streep. 

In her 2008 book Alchemy: A Passion for Jewels, St Clair devoted a chapter to “My Life Aquatic”. As soon as she could swim she was ready to snorkel and, by the age of 14, she had learned to dive. She even fancied she might become a marine biologist inspired, perhaps, by her summers in high school when she went on college study trips with Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau’s eldest son, and stayed with the Cousteau family. “Jean-Michel was a real jokester,” she recalls. “He practically threw me off the boat when we were a long way out to see how good I was at swimming!” 

Later, she travelled to Honduras to help make maps of reefs, learning to track fish populations on both day and night dives. And, taking a month off from her master’s degree, she sailed on a 27.4 metre yacht in the Maldives, working as an underwater model for a travel company. While on that trip she encountered the hammerhead sharks and flying fish that later inspired pieces of her haute couture jewellery. Indeed, jellyfish, dolphins and, more recently, sea biscuits, have all appeared in her collections. 

It was Italy, however, rather than the ocean that first inspired St Clair to try her hand at jewellery design. Her junior year at college was spent in Florence studying Italian Renaissance literature, and later she returned while studying for her master’s degree. During that second spell her mother came to visit and sought her help in having an ancient coin set as a piece of jewellery. It was a request that proved a harbinger of her future career.

Gradually, St Clair found herself becoming more and more fascinated by Greek and Roman coins, as well as the world of the venerable. Initially her interest was academic but she became captivated by how things were made and the centuries of experience that the Florentine jewellers relied upon. “When I started to design, I wanted to work the gold myself,” she explains, “but I soon realised these were great masters, with an incredible depth of knowledge and skill, so I let them do their thing. I focused on the concepts and ideas.” 

Today, the Florentine artisans she works with are like family; the oldest goldsmith is in his 80s but he still goes to the workshop every day. “It is very unusual having a workshop that includes nine masters,” St Clair says. “The norm is just one master goldsmith, with others doing the more mundane tasks of setting, polishing and so on. We are preserving this art. I work with the last chiseller in Florence. He is responsible for hand-texturing the gold. No one does this any more. It’s like the way Cartier or Bulgari worked back in the 30s and 40s.”

Nowadays, St Clair’s business is structured as a pyramid: haute couture is at the apex, where her work is primarily conceptual; high jewellery is gemstone-driven; and the foundation of the company is her fine jewellery collection. “Essentially I make jewellery in a traditional way, for modern women who are mostly buying for themselves,” she says. “I call it ‘slow jewellery’. It requires focus and patience. Sometimes you need to take a piece apart and to begin again. It may take months to get right.” 

Through this painstaking work, St Clair can relate to the Italian craftsmen she has met working on superyachts, with their meticulous attention to detail. During Boat International’sWorld Superyacht Awards, held earlier this year in Florence, she took people on tours of her workshop.

Her most recognisable creations are perhaps rock crystal amulets, inspired by a collection assembled by the Florentine Medici family. She says she is “a bit of an anthropologist”, striving to understand how and why people choose their jewellery. “People are drawn to certain stones,” she says, “especially materials that are from the earth, which have a certain resonance or grounding.”

She is fond of blue moonstone because of the stone’s elusive watery quality and the way that it changes in different lights. It also reminds her of her childhood by the sea. Even on daily walks with her dog along Manhattan’s East River, she finds the water’s changeability a source of inspiration. “The colour, reflections, wind and current are always moving and different, but beautiful no matter what.”

Ultimately, however, St Clair says her pieces are very personal. “So much jewellery today is used as a mere accessory, but for me it has to go beyond your outfit. Jewellery has to become a part of you and reflect your individuality.”

Visit templestclair.com

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