THEY BEND wire, pound silver, shape gold and set diamonds. Some dig for treasure in hardware bins and junk shops.
Others fashion eccentric pieces for clients who demand anonymity. All work in isolation, developing styles free of one another's influence.
In converted garages, downtown lofts and back bedrooms, Southern California's one-of-a-kind jewelry designers are creating striking and singular pieces that are more like artwork than decoration: spear-like brooches that appear to have washed up on shore, hand-woven silver bracelets festooned with marbles, textured-gold hairpins resembling bridge abutments.
Southern California's growing passion for wearable art is reflected in thriving galleries, enthusiastic collectors and the crowds that attend exhibits of new work. Local jewelers' designs appear regularly on the ears, arms and bodices of actresses such as Mary Steenburgen, Carol Kane and Susan Sarandon, according to gallery owners.
"They know that I have things that are special," says Jo Wilder, owner of Wilder Place on Melrose Avenue, a gallery featuring unique and unusual jewelry. "They come here looking for visual candy."
Gallery owners agree that because the best one-of-a-kind jewelry stands as miniature sculpture, buying it is an attractive and affordable way to collect modern art.
Until recently, Southern California jewelers worked in the shadow of New York and Northwest artists, but that is changing. Consumers with an eagerness to embrace new ideas and money to spend have created a thriving demand for unique jewelry.
"L.A. has found its style, and it's eclectic--anything goes," says Carol Sauvion, owner of Freehand, an innovative West 3rd Street gallery specializing in one-of-a-kind arts and crafts.
Selected after interviews with dozens of jewelers, gallery owners and collectors, the six jewelers featured here reflect the amazing diversity of local talent. Their work ranges from sophisticated, sculptural brooches by Valerie Mitchell and Debra Stoner to Yves Kamioner's classic gold-and-diamond pieces.
Between the avant-garde and the classical lie the whimsical marble-and-glass beaded bracelets and earrings of Diane Komater; the delicate, symbolic work of Melissa Tucker, and the Southwest-flavored creations of Ted Cavagnaro.
Diane Komater, a pixie-like former painter, shuns both gold and gems. Instead, she painstakingly wraps black or silver wire around beads and marbles to create bracelets that are a cross between opulent religious objects and '40s kitsch. The heavy bracelets bulge with deep-hued beads, some featuring faces or abstract swirls.
"I probably have the largest marble collection in the world," says Komater with a laugh. The 33-year-old artist works in a tidy garage behind a neighbor's apartment building east of the Fairfax area. Komater moved from Berkeley to Los Angeles about three years ago. She says she is not influenced by any other jewelers and is even reluctant to hire anyone to help her, fearing their ideas would spoil her work.
Beyond making the bracelets, earrings and brooches that are now selling well enough to pay the bills, Komater dreams of being a fine artist and "creating big, wire sculptures."
Lois Lambert, director of Santa Monica's Gallery of Functional Art, which sells Komater's work, says Komater's jewelry appeals to all kinds of collectors--"from the young and hip to the conservative."
Komater's bracelets sell for $200; earrings, about $65, at the Gallery of Functional Art, 2429 Main St., Santa Monica.
Yves Kamioner has perfected a design signature that he calls "the crack." He creates fissures in gold and paves the openings with tiny diamonds nestled beneath the surface.
The Belgian-born third-generation jeweler recalls peeking out from behind the curtains in his family's jewelry shop as a little boy, watching as his father bowed to kiss the hands of royal clients.
Kamioner, 33, rarely kisses his clients' hands, but he willingly agrees to create anything they wish in precious metals and stones.
"When my client leaves the studio, I know exactly what she has in mind," says Kamioner, whose pristine white studio features an illuminated showcase filled with his newest work.
Although he has designed 400 pieces for Tiffany and is currently working on a line of jewelry for the new Giorgio boutique in Beverly Hills, Kamioner still relishes the challenge of one-of-a-kind commissions.
In recent years, he has crafted a $34,000 miniature treasure chest filled with precious gems; a $12,000 brooch depicting the Los Angeles skyline in gold and diamonds, and a $100,000 gold cane encrusted with diamonds.
Kamioner's clients, who buy his work through the Freehand gallery, 8413 West 3rd St., include the rich and famous, who order elaborate and expensive custom pieces, and a local judge who recently commissioned a set of elegant, intricately designed wedding bands.