Jewellers Sarah & Sebastian
In Australia, jewellers have typically worked in hidden places, tucked up the stairs in office blocks or behind heavy doors at the back of shops. On the bottom floor of a small industrial park, in Sydney’s new rag trade district, Alexandria, Sarah & Sebastian’s studio isn’t exactly on a main thoroughfare. But with nothing but a pristine white wall divider separating the studio’s vitrines of finished product from its makers in their aprons, wielding pliers and blowtorches, it’s exposed enough to make a traditional jeweller feel naked.
The set-up isn’t the only sparing aspect of the brand, founded by Sarah Gittoes and Robert Sebastian Grynkofki in 2011. At first glance, their studio’s display cases look almost empty, their work is so delicate. Sarah & Sebastian ring bands hover around one millimetre wide. Their stones are typically just 1.3 millimetres wide. This is jewellery so fine you have to lean in close to see it on the body. So fine that you can wear 12 rings at once and still look understated. “Scale is a challenge for a lot of people, because we do work in such small, intricate details,” says Gittoes, of recruiting the five jewellers who make up just under a third of the label’s total staff. “There are people who don’t see the detail like others do… ‘aren’t perfectionists’, as Robert would always say.”
The drive for daintiness has helped cement Sarah & Sebastian as the most fashionable jewellery label in the country right now. Their pieces are stocked in trend-leading Parisian boutique Colette, and lately on e-commerce behemoth Net-a-Porter, and they have an ongoing collaboration with fashion designer Dion Lee.
Most of the label’s work is in sterling silver, and nine- and 14-carat gold. While their jewellery is physically fine, the materials are not always precious enough to qualify their wares as “fine jewellery”. But their work is not the cheap plated-nickel one would normally associate with costume jewellery either. It sits in between, in a new and rapidly growing category that is sometimes called “high fashion jewellery” or “demi-fine” jewellery. “It’s that price range where you can get good quality pieces of jewellery,” says Gittoes, “... and it can be affordable to me, and all my friends, and people who appreciate jewellery.”
That Gittoes’ friends could afford her work was a major driving force in the early days of Sarah & Sebastian. “When I first started, I knew I wanted to wear just fine band rings, and I couldn’t find them anywhere. So obviously, I made them for myself.” At the time, Gittoes worked at the upscale boutique Scanlan & Theodore. Her co-workers became the brand’s first patrons, best advertisements and entree into the fashion industry. “That’s how I met a lot of people.” Through the store, her jewellery was spotted by a stylist and included in an editorial in Sunday Life magazine. “I just remember getting a call one day saying, ‘Sarah, we’re going to use your pieces in the shoot. What’s your brand called?’ I hadn’t even thought about that whole aspect of it. I realised I’d actually started something.”
Gittoes and Grynkofki met while both were studying design – theory and jewellery, and industrial, respectively – on exchange at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Canada. Grynkofki, who hails from Germany originally, moved to Australia after completing his studies. With a background in goldsmithing, his initial involvement with the label was one of technical support, but as the brand progressed, he became increasingly instrumental in how their aesthetic and manufacturing strategy came together.
Though Sarah & Sebastian jewellery is described as “handmade”, the brand utilises the technology of a 21st-century design studio. For instance, their “long face” earring, inspired by Alexander Calder, looks at first like one of the American artist’s wire sculptures – one continuous line coming together to create half a wide-eyed human face, with a heart for a mouth. You imagine one of the brand’s jewellers, hunched over a bench and with heat and pliers, slowly manipulating the golden wire into its intricate final shape.
On closer inspection, the earring’s face has an astonishing flatness. The details are too perfect, too fine. And the price is just $450 – not cheap, but not telling of the dozens of hours, and huge potential for failure, that hand-fabrication requires. The process begins with Gittoes’ hands – “I sketched it [until I] found the design that I was after” – before she translates her drawing onto a computer. “From there Robert takes it into [CAD programs] Rhino or Solidworks, draws it up ... and we send it off. It gets 3D-printed, rapid prototyped, and then it gets cast. And then we can make it up. It’s quite an extensive process. It’s not a cheap process, by any means. I think that’s what gives our jewellery its fine nature, and it means that we can achieve all those really intricate, sometimes complicated components.”
Blurring modern commercial manufacturing techniques with traditional hand-making – all the components surrounding the face, from the hoop that sits above it to the drop pendant that hangs from its chin, are hand-fabricated – is also a subversion of jewellery’s rules. This doesn’t bother Gittoes. “I never aspired to be a traditional fine jewellery brand.”
Although Sarah & Sebastian’s staple pieces haven’t increased in price, the label has been adventuring into finer, more expensive territory, working with gemstones and larger quantities of gold. This, too, is a subversion. Typically a jeweller starts at the highest end, hand-making and delivering custom orders. Then, as their reputation builds, they introduce more commercial, mass-market collections. Gittoes’ progression has been closer to one of a fashion brand, beginning by mining a niche, then becoming more ambitious, and more able to push out both vision and cost, as the business develops.
The label’s latest venture is their most bespoke to date. It’s a collaboration with a piercer named J. Colby Smith, who has flown from New York to Australia to “install” a number of fine jewellery pieces – 18-carat gold, white diamonds – into the ears of Sarah & Sebastian customers. These are not “take out, put in” earrings that sit on the lobe. “A lot of times people wear this stuff for nine, 10 years, easily,” says Colby Smith of his work. For him, no part of the ear is off limits, from the helix to the rook and tragus. Colby Smith specialises in “compositions”, combining a number of piercings to create a coherent whole. The resulting effect is more feminine than edgy. “I’m actually pretty conservative.”
One of the pieces Sarah & Sebastian have made for Colby Smith is designed to be installed in the conch of the ear. “From my perspective conch piercings are ... super cool because it’s unexpected,” he says. “Somebody sees it, it catches them off guard a little bit. And then when you install a really nice piece of jewellery it really sells it – you have no idea that something like that can look so pretty.”
Gittoes is wary of undergoing the procedure herself. “I only have one piercing,” she confesses. However, she appreciates the way Colby Smith’s elegant approach to asymmetry resonates with her own.
“When we first made our line earrings [stud earrings comprising a single band of metal that sits flat to the lobe] everyone would always say to me, ‘One of your earrings looks broken’, because it’s shorter than the other one,” she says. “You can just wear one earring, and then you don’t have to commit to buying a pair. If you do buy a pair, there’s something a bit playful about it. You might not notice straight away that they’re not exactly the same.”
Gittoes and Grynkofki’s design approach is propelled by modern customers’ preparedness to pay for quality to the extent that jewellery can be worn day and night, but keeping it accessible. Carats and karats aren’t nearly as important as design vision and daintiness. Sarah & Sebastian’s customers don’t see jewellery as a way of storing value, with the assumption of passing down or auctioning off pieces. They see jewellery above all else as a form of self-expression, the same way they see clothing. And there’s nothing traditional about that.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 17, 2016 as "Fine lines". Subscribe here.