It was a whimsical beginning to what is now, 25 years later, one of the finest contemporary jewelry companies in America. From her kitchen table to the red carpet at the Academy Awards, Erica Courtney has gone on an amazing journey of discovery and creativity.
She is self-taught. “I began working in sterling silver,” she says. “I had no idea how to work with the metal; I didn’t know anything about technique, but I’ve always been good at crafts, and I’ve always been a problem solver. When I confront an obstacle, I figure a way around it. It was the same when I began working with gold: as I learned more about stones, I wanted to work with finer materials. When I began working in gold, I treated it as if it were silver.”
Courtney is still designing some casual, silver jewelry, but now she is best known for her intricate, statement jewels: fantastic colored stones in ornate, vintage-looking settings of scrolls, quatrefoils and festoons, wrought in gold or platinum. It is a flagrantly romantic aesthetic, daringly at odds with most prevailing trends in contemporary jewelry. Rejecting the geometric and minimalist, the jeweler pursues a design vision she describes as “modern baroque.”
“It’s not Edwardian; it’s not Art Deco,” Courtney clarifies. “It’s very contemporary. It’s opulent but delicate.”
Green tourmaline, amethysts, blue topaz, golden beryl, black diamonds and baroque pearls in dramatic shades of silver grey, pink, chocolate brown and black are just some of the stones Courtney enjoys working with, but her current passion is the rare, deep indigo African zoisite, tanzanite. The scarce stone is mined in only one place in the world: Tanzania, in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. Currently, the designer is working closely with the Tanzanite Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting the exotic gem, and Kids of Kilimanjaro, a charity that builds schools and provides clean water wells and school lunches for 15,000 children in Tanzania. The profits from the tanzanite mines build the economy and fuel progress in Tanzania. “It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life,” she recalls. “I am going back.”
Courtney has recently returned from a trip to Africa to visit the tanzanite mines, a rare privilege for someone outside of the mining industry. “Going to Africa, you come back a changed person,” she says emphatically. “It was an incredible experience to see how the stones travel from their source to the cutter and polishing to me. It’s unlike any other stone: it’s an amazing color—as you look at it in the light, you can see different colors in its depths: red, violet, brown.”
She sees herself as an artist, using gems and precious metals as her palette. “I love the one-of-a-kind aspect of what I do,” she says. “I work with so many collector’s stones, nothing can ever be replicated.”