The self-taught jeweler champions “unrefined elegance” and the allure of the unconventional
Tara Turner’s handcrafted fine jewelry is endowed with a distinctive sense of romance and history—at home adorning the neck of a siren or strewn between a bounty of figs and gourds in a Caravaggio still life. Completely self-taught, she grew up hunting for sea glass, stones, and other pieces of treasure forged by the ocean, developing her now expert eye for the overlooked treasures. Her signature gem—the Mississippi River Pearl—is known for its rarity, wing shape, and irregular feathered texture and encapsulates Turner’s love of “unrefined elegance,” evoking the baroque beauty of untamed nature. Here, she speaks with Document on her upbringing as the daughter of a sculpture and potter, the allure of the unconventional, and finding soul in our most precious objects.
Alice Lefons: What first attracted you to collecting stones?
Tara Turner: I guess I’ve always collected stones of some sort. Growing up by the sea, I’d often forage around for those colorful bits of sea glass. My dad always told me I should look out for pebbles with natural holes as they were lucky ‘witch stones.’ I loved the idea of that, and it encouraged me to hunt for bits of treasure with meaning. He was quite into mythology so my interest in collecting beautiful objects started when I was very young.
Alice: When did you first start making jewelry, and how did it become a profession?
Tara: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t make jewelry. My father was a sculptor and my mother was a talented potter, so it was always very instinctive to create things. I had an obsession with old beads in my early 20s and would spend hours at the bead shop in Portobello. It was run by two wonderfully eccentric women who had the most incredible collection of very old precious stones. I ended up making pieces for all my friends, most of whom worked in fashion, so it was a word of mouth kind of thing at the beginning. Still is really!
Alice: How did you learn the craft?
Tara: I wasn’t classically trained. I’m completely self-taught, I guess. A lot of trial and error in the early days. I love a challenge and don’t like to be defeated by restrictions which back then came from not always having the right equipment or knowledge. I would naively design jewelry with what I had in front of me and just experiment, really. One piece led to another.
“With gems, for example, I tend to gravitate towards stones that other people might ignore. I see beauty in all sorts of oddities as I know once you frame them differently or put them in a different context, they will take on a life of their own.”
Alice: What inspires you?
Tara: People inspire me. The story behind why they want a certain piece of jewelry or simply helping them find that one precious thing that just ‘feels right.’ It always sparks my imagination and creative thinking.
Alice: What’s your first memory related to art or to fashion?
Tara: Art was everywhere at home, so I guess it’s in my blood. My parents were pretty style-conscious and would often customize their clothes. I have very strong memories of my dad carving an incredible pair of platform shoes from the wood he used for sculpting.
Alice: How do you pick ‘found’ items you work on? What inspires you in an object?
Tara: Subconsciously, I’m attracted to finding pieces that have some kind of character and soul, like they’re waiting to be found somehow. With gems, for example, I tend to gravitate towards stones that other people might ignore. I see beauty in all sorts of oddities as I know once you frame them differently or put them in a different context, they will take on a life of their own.
Alice: How would you describe your style?
Tara: Unconventional, I guess. I like to think I design pieces that have an unrefined elegance to them.
Alice: 2020 has challenged us in many ways; how has it shaped you?
Tara: Like a lot of people, it made me reevaluate things. We all take so much for granted and it’s a reminder of how fragile life can be.
Alice: Who’s your icon?
Tara: That’s a very difficult question to answer! I can’t really say I have an icon as such, so many people inspire me so it’s forever evolving.
Alice: What’s your most treasured jewel?
Tara: My Mississippi River Pearls. I unknowingly came across one about 25 years ago at a flea market in New York. I remember taking it home and carefully removing the layers of dirt to reveal this beautiful wing-shaped pearl. I just couldn’t believe how unusual the form was and how it had this amazing luster. I wasn’t really aware of the story behind them, not until a few years later when I met a gem dealer in London. She had bought some very old ones from an estate in the US and told me how rare they were and their history of adorning jewelry worn by kings and queens. I became so obsessed with the thought of losing one, I decided to make molds of my favorite pearls. The results were so good, they picked up all the intricate feathered details so well I decided to cast in silver and make them into earrings and pendants. I have four different styles and I love them all, they just work so well.