Raoul Sosa carved surfboards out of Popsicle sticks when he was 12. It was hardly a formal education for a budding jewelry designer, but it did keep him busy.
Since then, Sosa, 39, has caused a stir in the jewelry world with his collection of distinctive rings, earrings, bracelets and pendants that combine unusual colors--like purple and green--and stones--both flat and faceted.
In Sosa's Santa Fe, N.M., studio are trays of stones that he describes as "palettes of colors. When working on a piece, I pick through the stones to find just the right shade. I spend a long time trying to find the right color. It has to be perfect."
To create a $1,500 pair of earrings or an elaborate $50,000 pendant or bracelet, Sosa combines gems like green-fire opals, black jade, turquoise, Tanzania tanzanite, Russian charoite and South African sugilite, a gemstone discovered in the last decade. "It's a purple stone found in manganese mines," says Sosa. "It was really time for a color like this to appear."
"Colorful accents are big right now, and Raoul's work uses today's fashion colors. It's really the leading edge of jewelry fashion," says Ron Cohan, the owner of Zia Jewelry in San Juan Capistrano. "He uses faceted gemstones together with opaque flat stones to make wearable works of art."
Finding the right stones for Sosa's work could be the premise for a TV mystery series.
The search means that Sosa and his wife, Evenstar, 31, must cajole gem dealers into selling them the finest gems, like the elusive Edward's Black Jade. "It's from a mine in Wyoming that's been closed for some 40 years," says Evenstar. "There's only so much of it around, but it's worth its high price."
High-quality opals are also in great demand, and last summer Sosa flew to Los Angeles to meet with Australian opal dealers just as they arrived in the United States. "We wanted to see their selection before they went on the road," he says, "and we were able to get some very nice stones."
According to Sosa, the secret of his jewelry's allure lies in its Southwestern design, the craftsmanship and the selection of gemstones. "It's easy to get the gemstones we use in average quality, but to get superior quality, we usually have to work harder and pay more," he says.
"There are a lot of Southwestern craftsmen who are interested in cutting corners and using an entire stone to save money as opposed to using only the best parts," Sosa says. "That may work in some areas, but our customers are sophisticated, and they know what's good."
Before finding his talent with jewelry, the artist took an unlikely job as an apprentice for a taxidermist. "It was there that I began working with ivory, carving it into animals or cuff links," he says.
Sosa founded his own design studio in 1975, and when ivory became a restricted import, he began working with metals and stones.
Although his jewelry has a Southwestern flavor, Sosa and his wife are new transplants to the area, having moved to Santa Fe from Sausalito, Calif., in 1988. "I've always felt a bond or attraction to the Southwest," says Sosa. "I was raised in the San Francisco area and felt ready to leave. We had moved to Sausalito because of its arts scene, but we found that it had become too commercial and 'yuppified.' Santa Fe has interesting people, and there's an enthusiasm for art here.
"It's more than one would find in New York, which is very arts-conscious. We see our work as art; however, people there and in some of the larger metropolitan areas want to weigh the jewels individually and value the work on that. But we believe it's worth more than the sum of its parts."
To inspire the designs, the Sosas explore archeological sites in New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico. "We take pictures of an area and look at the ruins and terrain and try to pull all of these elements together," says Sosa.
They work with a small colony of Bay Area expatriates who have also found their renewal in Santa Fe. Goldsmith James Willis works on much of Sosa's jewelry, as does waxsmith John Rippe. "We've been able to delegate some of our work so that Raoul can focus on color, design and the actual inlaying of stones," says Evenstar.
The Sosas will be at Zia Jewelry, 31761 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, on March 31 and April 1, and according to Cohan, it promises to be an eventful show. "People who know jewelry say they've never seen anything like it," he says.