Consider green for a moment. The mysterious light in The Great Gatsby
. The traffic signal that gives us permission to go. The shade of Jim Henson's most-beloved Muppet.
The mixture of blue and yellow, green is the sign of spring, the hue of renewal, the aura of hope and the symbol of environmental responsibility. Green also encapsulates the collective conscience of the artists behind kara | daniel Jewelry.
"Environmentally responsible and ethical practices weren't something we decided as artists we would do one day," says Kara Aubin. "These ideals are a natural extension of who we are."
Before setting up their studio in Kalamazoo, Aubin, along with fellow artist, business partner and now husband, Daniel Juzwiak, called an organic farm in Minnesota their home. On the farm, they cultivated their green thumbs, as well as their relationship, by growing their own food and living in a straw bale studio they built.
Launching kara | daniel as an LLC in 2005, the couple has continued to infuse their artistry and their workplace with ethical values. Much of their work, particularly their ring collection, has at its foundation stainless steel, a 100-percent recyclable material. Aubin and Juzwiak also use stainless cutoffs that would otherwise qualify as industrial scrap, and when silver and gold are featured in their designs, they're either obtained from vendors that manufacture metal from recycled content or "up-cycled" from a client's existing jewelry and placed into a new piece.
"This is something that's growing in every industry, in every art media, but I'm not aware of other jewelers in Southwest Michigan working with this focus," Aubin says. "We've also been fortunate to connect with The Ethical Metalsmiths Guild
, a national group developed to help consumers find studio jewelers who are committed to social and environmental responsibility."
Combined with stainless steel, Aubin and Juzwiak often use raw diamonds for not only their natural beauty, but also because they are sourced from a Kimberly Process-certified vendor
. The Kimberly Process is an initiative to curb the flow of conflict diamonds (rough diamonds exploited by rebel movements to fund wars against legitimate governments).
When the couple crafts pieces with faceted diamonds, the stones are either non-conflict Canadian diamonds or vintage stones moved into a new creation. They also offer a variety of fair trade gems that are tracked to certify that each stone has been handled according to strict protocols.
Even the kara | daniel studio has been constructed with efficiency and sustainability at heart. Aubin and Juzwiak use non-toxic studio chemicals, reused and recycled shipping materials, 100-percent recycled content packaging, eco-friendly office supplies and solar-powered web hosting. The result is a creative space that would make plenty of artists envious--of both its green and aesthetic appeal.
"This space makes the long hours worth it," Aubin says with a smile. And the long hours make it worth it for clients looking for stand-out pieces, too. Aubin characterizes kara | daniel Jewelry as both contemporary and rustic.
"Contemporary jewelry can sometimes feel kind of cold," she says. "Our work is contemporary, but it also has an organic side. It's functional and wearable."
Without doing the jewelry an injustice by trying to describe it with words, suffice it to say that kara | daniel stuns with everything from tension-set rings that brilliantly showcase stones to cascading necklaces that boast earthy yet luminescent gems. To see how the jewelry sings, be sure to visit their website
and Facebook page
, or check some of the pieces out in person at Earthly Delights in downtown Kalamazoo or M Spa in Portage. Shopping from the couch
is also an option.
"We primarily work with stainless steel in our custom ring designs," adds Juzwiak, who favors traditional blacksmithing methods to painstakingly forge the steel. "Working with stainless affords us some design opportunities, like tension setting, that aren't achievable with other precious metals."
A tension-set ring is one in which the gemstone is held in place by pressure instead of prongs, a bezel or other mounting. "There's something about how a tension-set ring captures a stone that feels magical," Aubin says.
"The stone or diamond is no longer hidden by the mount, and clients are really surprised at the effect. We tell them it's our enlarging and brightening solution," Juzwiak says.
Beyond tension-set rings, Aubin and Juzwiak also perform some magic with their custom and recycled work, a niche that has significantly grown over the past two years. Frequently requested for engagements, weddings or commitments, custom jewelry work is about 60 percent of kara | daniel's business now.
"It's an honor to create something that symbolizes someone's life commitment to another person," Juzwiak says. "Meeting with the couple, helping to formalize their vision of that symbolism. The whole process is very special."
Aubin and Juzwiak designed their own wedding rings, and once people saw them, the work naturally blossomed from there. Recycling or renewing vintage jewelry has also become another rewarding aspect of their business. Aubin's mother has the honor of having one of the first kara | daniel renewed pieces, a simple yellow-gold solitaire transformed into a hand-forged stainless ring adorned with the original diamond, as well as green and mandarin-orange sapphires.
"It's gratifying to give clients the chance to wear a piece they feel connected to again," Aubin says. "You might have a sentimental attachment to the brooch in the drawer because it belonged to 'Aunt Mildred,' but wouldn't you feel that much more connected to her if you were wearing the gemstone or metal that made that brooch?"
While most of their business comes from the Midwest, kara | daniel has shipped rings as far as Australia. Handmade stainless steel chains and tension-set raw diamonds remain popular sellers. "As partners, we bring different things to the table. It's a negotiation, but the push-pull of our partnership makes for happiness -- and really strong work," Aubin says.
Aubin, who teaches yoga and has studied dance, breathes movement and elegance into their designs, while Juzwiak's mathematical sensibility ensures structure, power and durability. Juzwiak pursued architecture, but after taking an elective in art, found his true calling and completed training in Metal Work-Jewelry Design at University of Michigan.
With Aubin and Juziwak's complimentary skills, contrasting sensibilities and concern for the planet, it may not be easy being green, but the outcome of their collaboration is beautiful.
Amie Heasley is a freelance writer who resides in Portage.
Photos by Erik Holladay.