For many years, I have admired the work of lapidary artist and jewelry designer Naomi Sarna, whose carved objets d’art appear to defy gravity. She has won 20-plus awards for her creations, which are recognizable for their curves and flowing lines. By chance, we happened to meet at a jewelry event we were both attending and agreed to meet again to talk about our favorite topic…jewelry. We met one afternoon in Sarna’s bank vault, where she pulled out myriad pieces of fabulous gemstone carvings and jewelry that she has designed.
Looking at her body of work and talking to Sarna, it’s hard to imagine her ever doing anything except jewelry design. However, her career path, like that of so many others, has been a long and winding road. But as she tells her story, it’s no surprise that she does what she does so well.
Born in Butte, Montana, walking distance from the many mines in the state, she grew up surrounded by minerals. Her grandfather had a store selling small mining tools and she would hang out in the shop, watching as the miners came in to show off their finds. Later, Sarna got married and moved a few times, eventually landing in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For three years, Sarna commuted between Atlantic City and Philadelphia, training as a sculptor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
A final move landed her in New York City, where she and her husband divorced. Not wanting to be a starving artist, Sarna began selling baked goods in Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village and eventually opened a bakery in the East Village. During that time, she started taking classes to become a psychoanalyst and hypnotherapist. Once her practice was up and running, Sarna decided to take some jewelry-making classes at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. Then about 20 years ago, she bought a faceting machine, which enabled her to learn about the faceting of gemstones.
“That was important because I learned the ideal angles for cutting a stone. I really began to understand what light return means,” explains Sarna.
The next step for Sarna was to head out west to Tucson, Arizona, where each year, gemstone dealers gather for several fairs and shows focused on colored gemstones and various minerals.
Sarna admits that she just started buying lumps of rock and then taught herself how to carve the rocks into beautiful sculptures. Her carvings have a feeling of flow and movement; they embody the look of wind and water as if they are in motion. “The Art Nouveau period is the most influential for me,” says Sarna. “Growing up, I had the complete set of “Wizard of Oz” books. They had Art Nouveau drawings. The Pre-Raphaelite period is also an influence for me. I love the sensuousness and curls. When I was in art school, I learned the art of draping, which also figures into my work.”
Sarna loves to carve stones from the beryl family — aquamarine and morganite are two favorites. “Beryl has a feel that is very nice,” she comments. Unlike most people, who look for clean material, Sarna looks for birthmarks in the stones that she chooses to carve. “The minute I see something, I know what I am going to do with it,” remarks Sarna. “I get rid of what does not need to be there. Most people like the stones to be clean, but I like to see things in the stone — they’re like road signs that say go here, go there. I work around the inclusions, but they are helpful in creating a piece.”
Many of Sarna’s carvings are large objets d’art that look fabulous sitting in a window with light shining through them. But some of her smaller carvings end up in jewelry. “First I carve a stone and then I envision a setting. If I can’t do that, then I know that the piece isn’t right, so I go back and carve some more. When I look at the finished stone and it’s right, then I can see the setting,” she says.
It can take up to 500 hours for Sarna to carve a single stone. “What I do is finesse the angles to get the most color and light return,” she says. “I don’t care about saving material. For me design is paramount.”
All of Sarna’s work is very tactile, the carvings feel good in your hand. The juxtaposition of the smooth curves with flowing lines has a relaxing, sensual feel. But it isn’t just her carvings that have that tactile sensation, it is all of her creations. Sarna creates movement in her jewelry by breaking the traditional rules. “The work that I love most has stones in multiple colors and sizes. They are not marching rows of stones all the same size. It makes a piece more dynamic to have multiple colors and sizes of stones,” she notes. The result is pieces that have more texture and flowing patterns that naturally evolve from the way the stones are set. Sarna has also been known to set stones upside down. “It’s another look,” she concludes. “Why do what everybody else does? Why not think around the corner?
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