Modern Heirlooms

Silver Bonsai Header

photography by Rich-Joseph Facun

     Ben Stewart sits at a workbench at the back of the Silver Bonsai Gallery as if in prayer. His head is bowed and he is still except for his fingers, which are working a kind of magic on a garnet and diamond pendant that he must finish today.

     Ben’s wife, Kathryn, tends to the steady trickle of post-Christmas shoppers who browse luminous glass cases of precious metals and gemstones. There are hand-forged silver bracelets and rings of amethyst and blue topaz, and filigree wedding bands and diamond rings set in hand-engraved white gold, each crafted by Ben or Kathryn or both.

     They will trade places every now and then, Ben taking to the sales floor while Kathryn leans into a small oval of silver with a power-assisted graver, chiseling the artful, heirloom-inspired lines for which the couple is known. But this is how you will find them much of the time: Kathryn out front, Ben in the back, just as they are on this sunny day in late December.

Ben and Kathryn Stewart of Silver Bonsai

     “He would be on a mountaintop crafting for the rest of his life,” Kathryn says. “I would be too lonely.”
Ben is left-handed, she is right-handed. He plans. She is spontaneous. She worries and he doesn’t. Their logo is a backward K and forward B.

     “We balance each other in a funny way,” Kathryn says. “Where one leaves off, the other picks up.”
The Stewarts met two decades ago at Savannah College of Art and Design.  She was Kathryn Holton then, an aspiring painter from Manteo, North Carolina, who decided at age 9 she wanted to be an artist. Ben was an amateur illustrator from Indianapolis.

     Both came from artistic families – trace their ancestries to the Civil War and you will find blacksmiths. Ben’s grandmother was a concert pianist and self-taught visual artist. His grandfather was a World War II pilot who penned intricate monograms and satiric cartoons before his plane was lost somewhere over the Pacific. Kathryn’s grandmother was a fine painter, her grandfather a watchmaker. Neither Kathryn nor Ben had considered jewelry design and creation as a career path until their college offered it as a new major during their junior year.

     The fledgling program was still largely undefined, and Ben and Kathryn had the brand-new, state-of-the-art equipment mostly to themselves.

From abstract concept to sketch, through wax mold, to anvils, hammers and gravers – the work at Silver Bonsai is typically neither solely Ben’s nor Kathryn’s.

“There was no one in our way,” Kathryn says, “no pre-conceived ideas of what it should be.” This appealed to their creative sensibilities, until graduation in 1995. “It was kind of like, ‘What do we do?’ ”
The West Coast offered big weekend craft fairs where they could peddle their creations. They packed their bags, settling into an old farmhouse in Oregon where they baked organic bread they distributed to grocery stores. The job ended at 11 each morning; afternoons and Saturdays and Sundays were devoted to their art. They went to shows from California to Washington and did well enough, Kathryn says. After two years, they were ready for a change, ready to be closer to family and to put down roots.

They moved back to the Outer Banks. It was the fall of 1997. A family friend hosted an art show for the couple before Christmas. A local newspaper covered the event. People wanted to know where the Stewarts planned to open their jewelry store. The Stewarts weren’t quite sure how to answer.

“It never occurred to us that we could have a store,” Kathryn says.

They ended up in another old farmhouse, this time on Roanoke Island. It needed work. Kathryn wasn’t so sure at first. But it was situated on a prime spot on U.S. 64. If you have traveled to Manteo from the north you have passed it, a tan two-story house with burgundy shutters just past the Washington Baum Bridge as you head into town.

At the very least, it was a place to live, Kathryn remembers thinking. At best, they would build a business. They moved into the upper level and set up a studio in a backyard shed. The shop would be in the downstairs rooms, where the couple placed a silver and copper bonsai sculpture they had crafted. Exhausted one day from toiling over a thesaurus in search of just the right name for their business, Ben looked over at the little tree.

“Silver Bonsai,” he blurted.

The Silver Bonsai Gallery in Manteo, NC

     They filled the shop with pieces they’d made in the studio shed, with paintings and prints and pottery from other artists. And there was a place for bonsai, a whole garden of the little trees, and for bonsai books and supplies. Ben called himself the resident Bonsai Guy.
They did not have a business plan, Kathryn says.  “We just figured you create it, build it, and they will come.”

     Eventually, Kathryn and Ben moved their studio inside the shop, where you will find one of them working most of the time. They renovated and added on. They built a house and left the upstairs rooms. They had a daughter, Alyse, now 10. She spent her first year on her mother’s back as Kathryn and Ben grew and stretched from silver to gold and platinum. They took intensive courses, sometimes traveling out of state, and expanded their repertoires. Ben studied under master stone setter Blaine Lewis at the New Approach School for Jewelers. Kathryn learned the art of hand-engraving from Jason Marchiafava, a notable third-generation craftsman. She blogged about that first day of class seven years ago when she and the other students made the same seemingly simple cuts over and over. But it was not simple at all, as evidenced by the constant slipping of the gravers. In repetition came mastery.

     “It was then that I knew the graver would become a key component in our work,” Kathryn wrote.
Each piece begins as an abstract concept. From here, Ben the illustrator and Kathryn the painter will grab a pen or pencil and make a sketch. Next, they will create a computerized, multidimensional rendering. Then a computer-aided milling machine turns out a wax mold from which the piece will be cast. The magic happens at the workbench, among the microscopes on acrobat stands, among the anvils and hammers and gravers between their fingertips.

     Called Modern Heirloom, the hand-carved bracelets and pendants and bands of precious metal have the luster of a diamond and the traditional feel of a piece handed down from your great-grandmother. There is Esther’s Garden, a collection inspired by Kathryn’s grandmother, a fine painter who artfully tended her flowers. There are the woven gold necklaces of the Art Nouveau inspired line, the tiny stalks and leaves of Bamboo Garden, and the pelicans, sailboats and starfish of the Outer Banks collection, each hand-carved from gold or silver.

     “A lot of people want to know what’s my work and what’s his work,” Kathryn says. “Typically we both work together on almost everything we do. We work in tandem with each other. It makes the pieces stronger.”

     Kathryn reaches into a case of men’s rings and sets a band on the glass. Sunlight spills through the windows on this clear and cool December afternoon, striking the intricate patterns of the white gold. It nearly dances – a side effect of hand-engraving.

     “You don’t find many interesting men’s rings,” she says. “It’s something we want to expand on.”

     Kathryn wears a trio of bangles on one wrist, a hand-engraved silver bracelet on the other, and on her left hand the diamond engagement ring and wedding band Ben made. Around her neck is a piece she calls Phoenix Rising From the Water. It is engraved in silver and set in 18-karat gold with a diamond accent. It was her first project after Hurricane Irene filled their shop with more than a foot of water in August, and it symbolizes tragedy and rebirth. She wants to expand on this concept with more pieces.

     Jewelry, Kathryn says, chronicles those monumental moments in life – births and deaths, unions and anniversaries, and so much in between.

     In the months before Christmas, as they restored the farmhouse for the second time in 14 years, the Stewarts created for a client a hand-carved jacket for a diamond that had once belonged to the woman’s grandmother. They turned a bejeweled brooch into five pendants for another client, who gave one to each of her daughters and granddaughters for Christmas so that all would have a piece of it.

     Just now, Ben uses a laser to weld filler wire into a bail – the tiny loop from which the garnet pendant will hang. In its last incarnation, the marquise-cut stone was the grand centerpiece of an heirloom ring. Though cherished, the piece was not the owner’s style. She wanted something she could wear every day.

     Ben started with a sketch on the back of scrap paper, which now sits at the workbench and resembles the almost-finished pendant.

     “We’re creating memories, part of history for this family,” Kathryn says. “It goes on. It does outlive us.”