Romancing the Stones 

Donna Armstrong creates jewelry from gems

Donna Armstrong is a gemologist who works fluidly in both the design and manufacture of jewelry. Earlier this year, she created a martini pick that won the design competition sponsored in part by Absolut Vodka at the 2008 Annual Martini Mix-off in Boise. Armstrong's martini pick balances delicately yet sturdily on the edge of a martini glass. "I had just returned to my studio when I got an e-mail from the Idaho Metal Arts Guild about the competition," she recalls. "The deadline was that day, so I sat down that afternoon and tried to think of what kind of cool design I could come up with. It won!"

Armstrong's love affair with gemstones began with an amethyst. It was a gift from a Brazilian exchange student who had stayed with her family. "My husband Dave and I visited Brazil about a year after our student left," Armstrong recalled. "We took a trip to Ouro Preto, a small, cobblestoned village in central Brazil which is famous for its mines of colored stones. That just triggered the whole thing. I fell in love with the gemstones that come out of Brazil­—wonderful amethysts, citrines and imperial topaz. It was an amazing experience that captivated my imagination and inspired me to study gemstones and create jewelry."

In 1994, Armstrong enrolled in the Gemological Institute of America. The GIA is regarded as the world's foremost authority on gemstones and created the 4Cs grading of diamond value: color, clarity, cut and carat weight. Armstrong obtained diplomas in color stones, diamonds and gemology. Mesmerized by gems, she decided that she also wanted to design and manufacture jewelry. "After graduating from the GIA, I decided I should do something with these gorgeous stones I love," she said, "so I studied jewelry manufacturing and design at the Revere Academy in San Francisco." She sharpened her skills with further study under the distinguished Farrin O'Conner Design Studio in Pasadena, Calif.

Armstrong, whose studio is located in McCall, Idaho, says she is inspired by the gems themselves. "I look into the depth of the stone and visualize," she said. "I decide what setting the stone needs, whether simple or complex. But always, the stone itself says, 'this is what needs to be done.'" Armstrong doesn't know if she has a favorite gem because "so many stones are absolutely fascinating to work with," but allows that she is especially enamored of cherry-colored imperial topaz and ametrine, a combination of amethyst and citrine, all of which are found in Brazil.

"Brazil has stonecutters who are amazing, and the cuts combined with the colors of these stones make them unbelievable," she says. "However, the most fun pieces are the stones that have inclusions, or imperfections. Too many inclusions jeopardize the structure and quality of the stone, but an inclusion can also make the stone much more interesting. It can be a highlight which allows the stone to speak for itself." She says Thailand's rubies are "outstanding," but Brazil remains her favorite country for gems. "Once David and I went to a little market in the middle of Ouro Preto and met a man who was a graduate of the local mining school. When I told him I was a graduate of GIA, all the doors in town opened up and soon we were in the back room of every gem dealer in town."

Reticulation and fusion are two manufacturing techniques that Armstrong uses most often. "I really like working with these processes because they're very unpredictable, so they always provide an interesting result," she says. Fusion is the process by which two metals are heated to the melting point, allowing the molecules to intermingle. When the metals cool, they are structurally one piece of metal. Reticulation is a process of texturing gold or silver with a torch. A sheet of gold or silver alloy is annealed multiple times to oxidize the copper at the surface. The alloy is then "pickled" to remove the oxide, which leaves a layer of pure metal. The copper has been removed from the surface and the original alloy, which melts at a lower temperature than copper, becomes molten under the torch and "drops" into the copper, creating attractive ridges and ripples on the surface structure of the metal. The process requires a careful hand: if the manufacturer holds the torch on the metal a second too long, the metal becomes ruined. The skills of a jewelry manufacturer are quite different from those of a designer. To be proficient in both disciplines requires both left- and right-brain dexterity. "A lot of designers design but don't manufacture because they don't have the technical side," says Armstrong. "I do both, but after the design, you have to know your math to get the sizing right and know when metals and solder are going to melt. I move from design to metalwork: sanding, filing and polishing, and then I get ready to set the stone. Stone setting is the most stressful for me because it takes more force than you'd think. There's so much tension between stone and metal involved, and I worry that I'm going to break the stone. But when I finish, I have a wonderful sense of accomplishment."

From January through March, Armstrong will be one of 100 artists featured in the nationally acclaimed "Celebration of Fine Art" show in Scottsdale, Ariz. As a working artist, she will design and manufacture jewelry on-site as visitors pass through her outdoor studio. In Idaho, her work is on display at Art Source Gallery in Boise and at McCall Jewelry Company in McCall. As for Armstrong's martini picks, grab your glass and place your order online through RedEnvelope.com.

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