From Indian forts to 1960's-era Paris, six globe-trotting jewelry designers tell which places, real and fantastical, spark their imaginations
Sheva Fruitman
| Credit: Sheva Fruitman

"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."

"I suppose I'm what you'd call an urban person," says Londoner Stephen Webster, whose bold, resolutely undainty designs have become the rage among the fearlessly stylish flock. "A city environment in Barcelona or Rome is more inspiring to me than a tropical sunset."

Webster, who designed the rings for Madonna's wedding to Guy Ritchie, thrives on the bustle of metropolitan life: "It's when I'm most creative." Still, you can't find raw gemstones on Jermyn Street, so Webster, like others in his business, has trooped east in search of treasures. "I went to India this year. I buy the stuff just the way it comes out of the ground and bring it to my own cutter," he says. Every other month Webster travels to Idar-Oberstein, Germany, a town specializing in stonecutting. "A few hundred years ago they mined agate there to use as ship ballast," he explains. "The agate mines are gone now, but the stoneworking skills persist. Nearly all the semiprecious stones in the world pass through this little village."

Lately, Webster has fallen in love with another little village: the area around Manhattan's Maiden Lane, where he recently opened a showroom. But even though he finds himself near Wall Street, the straitlaced atmosphere hasn't informed his vision: one of his recent creations, a gold armband, resembles a tattoo. [Editor's note: Webster's Maiden Lane store, in downtown Manhattan, has closed until further notice. The company are still available at the phone number listed below.]

The chic designer of the Dior Joaillerie collection, Victoire de Castellane may not brave the open seas in search of pearls, but that doesn't mean she never ventures out into the field. "I love to go to Capri, for coral. I am so fond of southern Italy—that way of life, the sun and the sea," she says. Many of the other gems she works with have been brought from far-flung ports—sapphires from India, tourmalines from Madagascar—by dealers who know her penchant for pastel stones. "I especially love pink," confesses the exuberant designer. And when she says, "I adore the idea of travel to the past," she isn't talking about hanging out on the Via Veneto or lolling on the Queen Mary. "It's the thought of traveling to places not yet so touched by man—more sauvage, not so many buildings."

One might presume that treks to the unspoiled African savanna inspired her pavé diamond leopard ring. "Oh no," she insists, "it's because of Mitza Bricard." Famous muse to Christian Dior more than a half-century ago, Bricard always wore a leopard-print scarf tied around her wrist (intended to hide a scar). "When Dior saw it, he fell in love with the leopard fabric and put it in his collection. I made the jewelry as an homage to Mitza."

The creations of James Taffin de Givenchy may be exotic—diamond sea anemones, blossoms with 100-carat yellow sapphire centers—but many of them started life in circumstances surprisingly mundane. "I find wonderful stones in New York's 47th Street diamond district," says de Givenchy, who is the nephew of the famous couturier. "Everything comes through there, and I can send something to a lab to be checked, which I can't do on a trip to, say, Burma." Still, he understands the powerful draw of buying a special stone abroad: "It's like bringing part of the trip back with you."

Though New York is de Givenchy's home base, he doesn't confine himself to the East Coast. He recently scored a cache of breathtaking freshwater pearls from the Mississippi River—an increasingly rare find because of pollution—that had turned up at a gem show in Las Vegas. Nevertheless, Asia (a favorite among jewelry designers) beckons: "The colors! I'm taking a trip to India next spring. Even if I don't buy anything, I want to get a feel for where the stones come from. And I would love to go to China." Alas, one glamorous place that enthralls de Givenchy can't be visited at any cost, since it exists solely, if powerfully, in the province of the imagination. "I'm so inspired by 1950's and 60's Paris, this dream of what it must have been like after the war—the explosion of excitement, the fashions, the decadent lifestyle."

Though he's been in the jewelry business a scant three years and looks as though his 30th birthday is far in the distance, Dean Harris actually began thinking about precious stones long ago. On a school trip to Istanbul at age 10, he noticed one of the other kids, whose father was a gem dealer, doing a little shopping for his dad. "He was buying rubies for fifty pence apiece. I was intrigued," he recalls. By the time he was 12, the American-born Harris had traveled in 20 countries—always paying keen attention to the sparkling adornments the adults were wearing. "I recognized the intimacy of jewelry early on," he says.

Part of the charm of Harris's designs—thin, elegant, yellow gold bracelets in a color made just for him ("not too shiny or brassy"), mother-of-pearl cuffs flecked with the tiniest of diamonds, wooden bangles with gold twine and diamond accents—is their interpretations of nature. "I went to St. Bart's this year for the first time and I couldn't get over the color of the water," Harris says enthusiastically, like countless converts to the Caribbean before him. "That's what has inspired me to explore the color of opals."

Pippa Small: Available at Uh Oh, Scottsdale, and Barneys New York. Christopher Walling: Available at Bergdorf Goodman, or call 212/581-7700. Stephen Webster: Available at, or call 44-207/486-6575. Dior Haute Joaillerie: Available at Christian Dior Fine Joaillerie Boutique, New York, or at James Taffin de Givenchy: Call 212/794-0308. Dean Harris: Available at Barneys New York; or Greg Mills, 212/391-0050.