Award-Winning Designer Aims for the ‘Edge of the Industry’
October 3, 2014
As a child, Stewart tagged along with his mother to the jewellery design classes she taught in the parks and recreation department in the family’s home town of Tucson, Arizona. As a young teen, tagging along with Mum meant working shows with her – and he did so “begrudgingly”.
“I’ll admit that I was much more interested in being an irresponsible teenager or perhaps entering the minor leagues for baseball at the time,” he laughs.
But at 16, Stewart, who had been practicing bench skills in spite of his all-star dreams, sold one of his own designs.
“I was in awe that someone would pay money for something I created with my mind and hands,” Stewart says. “I became addicted.”
His professional dreams suddenly made an about-face. Supported by his parents – his jeweller mother and architect father – the high school senior decided he needed to round out his industry skills beyond bench work and retail, and study gemmology.
Stewart began GIA’s distance education courses while working on jewellery retail counters in Tucson, then moved to the Institute’s Carlsbad campus to “submerge” himself in the world of like-minded professionals and the jewellery industry culture.
He earned his Graduate Gemmologist diploma in 2003, and by that time had also earned a position as a sales representative with Neissing, a German designer. After that came a bench position at Phoenix’s Molina Fine Jewelry, though Stewart plugged away at custom designs in his own time.
He launched his own line – the Erik Stewart Jewelry Art for the Body Collection – at retail shows in 2005.
Stewart says his “often architectural” style, though it has evolved with time, remains “deeply rooted” in his early professional experiences. “I’m attracted to the minimalist, contemporary and conceptual approach of German designers such as Neissing ‒ and in awe of the attention to the detail and precision of Molina’s Fine Jewelry,” he says.
The Tucson-based designer, who entered the wholesale market in 2012, also uses the skills he honed at GIA every day.
“I work from a conceptual design basis, so finding the gemstones comes second, but the criteria is always colour and wearability,” Stewart says. He can narrow down those diamond and gemstone choices remotely, based on their specs alone, and selects the best stones for his designs because he understands a gem’s colours, hardness, wearability and ideal applications. He can also “enhance precision and create clean lines” because of his CAD training.
“GIA gave me the knowledge needed to trust myself – I don’t guess, I know,” he says.
Stewart, whose design awards include GIA’s George A. Schuetz Design Contest, the Johnson Matthey New York Sustainable Design Award and the Platinum Innovation Awards, encourages GIA students to “build a network of support” during their time on campus, and to utilise all of the resources available to them.
“I took full advantage of the design contests, Careers Fair and especially the library – I made many appointments to read rare books in the back room,” he says. “And the connections I built in my nine months at GIA, from peers to professionals, continue to carry me forward in ways I never imagined.”
Stewart, who lives in Arizona with his wife, Sara, and the couple’s newborn son, Hudson, says he continues to focus on knowing what makes him different as a designer ‒ and staying true to that.
“That perspective may be different from others because it doesn’t always pay off, at least not right away,” he says. “But it does keep me on the edge of the industry, where I strive to be.”
Jaime Kautsky, a contributing writer, is a GIA Diamonds Graduate and GIA Accredited Jewelry Professional and was an associate editor of The Loupe magazine for several years.