Here Comes Santa Claus: The 2011 Edition (Pt 2)

So now that Part 1: Food Fight! is dispatched and out of the way, we can concentrate on the meat and potatoes of holiday gift giving guides — Sparklies!

*NOTE 1: You know how I mentioned in Part 1 that I can’t see a pot of jam on a store shelf without thinking of “Six Degrees of Separation”? Well, I also can’t mention the word “sparkly” without thinking of “The Secret of NIMH“:

“Oooooh . . . you’re wearing a SPARKLY!”

Which is kind of my own personal reaction when faced with creatively produced jewelry. The stuff is fascinating, which is why I find it a futile task to walk into a Macy’s, Costco or Jareds in order to find a meaningful way of saying, “Hey, I think you’re special” — unless, of course, your definition of special includes factory assembly lines and outsourced labor in “emerging” (read: startlingly low-wage) economies. Which can still result in plenty of sparkle, but at what social and economic cost?

*For example: Do your diamonds come from hell?“Dude, all I need is one customer with a mental picture of a kid with an AK-47 and it’s all over.”

Not to be the Debbie Downer at the table, but if you’re buying from a big conglomerate, chances are that you (or your salesperson) will never be able to trace from where, or in what conditions, the gift items you’re browsing truly came from.

*NOTE 2: If you’re already willing to spend time and energy researching small batch coffee roasters, artisan chocolate makers, organic produce and free-range meats, then it’s not much of a leap to start thinking that way about clothing, leather goods and jewelry, too.

Which is why I’m happy to feature independent and artisanal jewelry makers for Part 2 of this year’s holiday gift guide — and what with the rise of interest in artisan craftsmanship sparked by the desire to delogo and unbrand our daily lives, quality handmade work is now more accessible than ever.

So this Christmas season, my wish is that all your gift-givings be unique, and all your sparklies be kind.


*THE EAST COAST (RIGHT) STUFF: Occulter Jewelry by Derrick Cruz — Derrick is a New York metalsmith and jewelry designer, with a focus on crafting gothic-inspired pieces that somehow manage to transcend the “If it’s not covered in thorns, it’s not a rose” crowd.

For example, his splinter earrings are a dose of spiky punk-rock fun, sure, but they’re modeled after early-1900’s wood beam splinters and so possess a hepped-up type of antique drama that would look good on almost anyone.

Well, anyone with a slight touch of attitude, and I think we all have at least one of those near and dear to our lives, ammiright?

Splinter earrings from Derrick Cruz’s Occulter jewelry line

I also like his tiny hand-hammered silver key necklaces, his ancient-looking “old soul” horned owl stickpins, and his highly unusual American horse hair and leather bangles.

Derrick is a honeybee activist and enthusiast, as well (see: Occulter Black Honey), contributing to organizations that work to re-establish local beehives while also building awareness through a line of high-end 18K gold jewelry modeled from the actual wax comb of Brooklyn honeybees.

Honorable jewelry mention: Art Jewel Designs by Jan Dunsford & Rick McMahan — I was all set to do an intensive artisan series interview last year with this Maine-based metal working duo, but then the move to New Zealand happened and I dropped the ball, but I still love their work and have ordered a few pieces in the past as gifts for friends and family.

Prices range from under $50 for tiny ear hoops and turquoise sterling posts to over $2,000 for intricately wire-wrapped and pearl-beaded works of geometric splendor. Personal favorites are the stackable asymmetric bangles and simple pearl-lock earrings.

Art Jewel Designs, pictures by AJD — click for larger version

*NOTE 3: If Dunsford will forgive and forget my vanishing act, I’m hoping to actually do that artisan series interview with her next year.

*I’ll say it again: Betsy Bensen — I did a two-part interview with this Portland, Oregon based artisan back in 2010, featured her work in last year’s holiday gift guide, and I continue to be an enthusiastic advocate for Bensen’s singular rough-yet-refined style.

Utilizing materials like fossil corals and bones, boulder turquoise, freshwater pearls and colored glass cabochons set in silver and gold, Bensen’s creations dovetail nicely with today’s trend for chunky statement jewelry.

Statement jewelry (and photographs) by Betsy Bensen – click to see larger

But if you’re looking for something less wallet-intensive than colorful jaspers and fossil corals, my stocking stuffer suggestion would be her $58.00 sterling silver party dress earrings — hand cut, shaped, chiseled and brushed so that every pair is unique. Perfect for the fashion-hounds in your life.

*Bonus points for going artisan: Bensen can even custom design items for you, like these animal-print versions of her party dress earrings that I had her make for Louise: Wild Little Sterling Party Dress Earrings. Handmade and on trend!

*Other small jewelry creators worth exploring: 1.) Boston, Massachusetts’ innovative Nervous System, founded by a pair of MIT fellow alums who employ 3D printing technology to create organically inspired pieces made from steel, rubber, felt, nylon and silver — not artisan, but way cool; 2.) New Rochelle, New York’s adorable and affordable Sparkle Farm, mostly assembled from found vintage parts with an endlessly appealing vibe; and 3.) Pennsylvania’s whimsical Jibby and Juna by Genevieve Williamson, a collection of bracelets, rings, necklaces and earrings hand-shaped from lightweight polymer clay, then etched, colored and distressed.

*Last Call: I like Venessa Arizaga‘s funky, urban-boho, world-traveler aesthetic, but what was once a very hands-on, DIY outfit with yards of quirky charm has quickly morphed — in the space of, like, two years — into freelancing the manufacturing to locations in New York and New Jersey, plus drafting a business plan for growing so big she has to take the whole thing to China. For real.

Which is just depressing when you stop to think about it. The whole reason for Arizaga’s initial success was that she was creating limited-edition pieces that shrieked of a highly individualized personality with a knack for mixing a magpie’s nest of bits and baubles into envy-inducing fashion must-haves.

But now it sounds like she wants to Target-Macys-TopShop the thing, which, fine, she’ll make a lot of money . . . maybe. If she doesn’t get completely knocked off and knocked out of the business in the process.

Because once you start mass manufacturing charm bracelets, you’re pretty much competing with Wal-Mart.

Can individuality be mass-manufactured?

*NOTE 4: Venessa Arizaga is a graduate of the Parson’s School of Design and a former design director for Zac Posen, which perhaps accounts for the stuck in the noughties expand-and-outsource mindset.

So before she completely destroys the whole thing with her lollipop dreams of Chinese factories and her sugar plum visions of assembly line labor, maybe check out what she’s now offering for Fall of 2011 and get yourself (or your daughter-sister-best friend) some.

You know, before the magic is gone.

***NEXT: Here Comes Santa Claus Part 3: Stuff! — and you can find Part 1 of the 2011 Holiday Gift Guide at the following link: Here Comes Santa Claus Part 1: Food Fight!