"Weekends in the Indian countryside," sighs Pippa Small when asked what inspires her these days. "I go out to the villages and ride a horse past sixteenth-century forts in the Shekhawati region, the place with the famous mural-painted havelis. I'm very taken with India's textiles, clothing, and color combinations, like a yellow kurta paired with a lime green turban."
Small, who has a master's degree in medical anthropology, began traveling in earnest—Morocco, Turkey, Laos, Guatemala—with her peripatetic mother when she was just a child. As an adult, she lived among indigenous societies and started making jewelry, at first incidentally, then professionally, always respectful of the cultures and places from which her raw materials derived. "Jewelry plays a role in connoting status and hierarchy, but in some places a diamond might not be considered as interesting as a striking blue stone," she says. To create her organic designs, Small studies tribal and ancient pieces, and takes special care not to alter the natural state of the gems. "Inanimate objects have an energy and an aura, and each stone possesses its own qualities. If it's cut too much, it loses its soul."
In the near future, Small plans to visit Botswana. "I hope to live in a community where people adorn themselves with ostrich skin and eggshells. I'd like to learn new designs using their materials and techniques, as well as work on related ideas, like creating suede cuffs inlaid with aquamarines." For Small, a bracelet isn't just an accessory. "I have this piece made with a 200-year-old whole shell from northern India that symbolizes protection," she says, adding that its meaning isn't only metaphorical: "It's so heavy, I knock people over with it all the time."
Though Christopher Walling is known for his distinctive cross-shaped pearls, it's a sure bet his society clientele doesn't realize how far he's gone in exploring these precious concretions. "Last spring I spent ten days off the north coast of Australia on a ship that was pulling up pearls," he says. "We were literally bringing up fifty-five hundred a day." Most jewelers don't bother to dirty themselves with pearl hunting, "but designers who never see stones at their point of origin are at a disadvantage." A recent trip to Tahiti turned up a huge aubergine-colored pearl so lovely he can't bear to set it, while another sojourn led him to create a pair of earrings from black jade, diamonds, and curved cabochon rubies the size of a baby's fist. "Their paisley shape was influenced by my time in India," he says.
Walling, who was born in Paris and raised in New England, spent two years in West Africa as a child, where his father worked for a World Health Organization program. "I loved the textiles—the way the women wrapped cloth around themselves. It profoundly influenced my sense of color." Other fabrics had a strong effect as well: "I remember watching my mother dance the night away in a beaded evening gown at the French Embassy in Liberia."