Amber Marie Bently at the Opera opening last week. Photo by Drew Altizer.
In the last installment of “15 Minutes With…” SFluxe spoke with Peter Dundas, designer for Emanuel Ungaro (just a few months before he departed from the company.) Today I catch up with jeweler Amber Marie Bently, who is launching her new one-of-a-kind collection at a party this Thursday (September 13th.)
She and husband Christopher Bently, founders of the Kamalaspa on Union Square, are flying the legendary actress Tippi Hedren in for the event, and are donating a portion of the jewelry sales from the evening to Tippi’s Roar Foundation. It’s definitely an event you don’t want to miss.
The prices for her new collection, called Oro (Spanish for “gold”) range from $500 to about $6,500. She makes each piece herself, and uses stones from around the world. You can buy some of her items at Kamalaspa, or at Manika Jewelers on Maiden Lane.
Hearing her passion for one of the bracelets, I wonder if a bidding war could break out for it on Thursday, since it sounds very chic and there’s only one in existence. “It’s called an Infinity Chaos bracelet, and it’s about six different bangles all soldered in one piece. They’re kind of in six separate circles, and they’re all wound around each other, and they’re all one piece. So it’s one big bangle but it looks like six floating on your arm,” she told me. “That’s my very exciting one. I’m very excited about it.”
In our wide-ranging interview we touched upon Ayurveda, the process of making gold jewelry by hand, her passion for Burning Man, and her upcoming trip to India, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Plus, I finally found out why Dede Wilsey always looks so happy.
Read the full interview here
Damion: How are you doing?
Amber Marie Bently: I’m good! I’m making tags to mark all my jewelry with for the show, so I’m pounding away.
D: It really sounds like a one-woman operation.
AMB: It is!
D: I think people would be surprised to know that because you seem so busy. I can’t imagine you, wherever you do your work, working with those little tiny beads.
AMB: I have this little tiny shop in the bottom of my penthouse, in the basement, and I work every Monday on my jewelry. So that’s kind of my day off. And that’s the day that I just spend making jewelry. It’s kind of nice. It’s a nice balance. Tuesday through Friday I work on our companies, and on Monday I get to work on my jewelry and be creative, so it’s a nice balance.
D: I think that’s what’s really interesting about you and your work, is that you really do have that balance. I mean, I know you were at Burning Man. Was it last week?
AMB: Yeah, last week we got back.
D: You had a good time?
AMB: We had an amazing time. We needed two days to recover, to get back to earth. It was a very fun time. It was amazing.
D: So there you are in the sand storms in the middle of Nevada, and then on Friday you’re at the Opera in an Ungaro dress.
AMB: Right! Another person made that comparison. They’re like ‘Your hair was white, with so much dust in it, and then here it is at Samson & Delilah the following week at the opera. How can you do it?’ I don’t know, they’re kind of the same, you know?
AMB: You just dress up and have fun at both.
D: Well, I guess that’s the joy of having a creative life.
D: It takes you through so many different doors.
AMB: And I’m surprised that not more people have found that out.
D: I noticed that your jewelry really fits you’re personality, because on the one hand it’s very organic and in touch with nature, and you’ve got chunks of stones and things, but you’ve also got it where it’s very polished — something that even Dede Wilsey could wear. It’s that interesting juxtaposition which really reflects your lifestyle.
D: You have so many different materials in your jewelry. Do you have a favorite?
AMB: Gold is what I work in mostly, and stones. And I love gold because it’s like plastic ‘you can mold it into anything you want it to do. And sure, it may take time to do, but it’s such a wonderful material to work with because you can make it into anything you want. I realized that when I took a course at the Revere Academy in San Francisco. Alan Revere was my teacher, and he’s this world renowned goldsmith. He’s known by practically every jeweler in San Francisco as this amazing teacher and this amazing goldsmith.
AMB: He used to sell his art work next to his jewelry, and now all he does is teach. His class was so wonderful because it was really working with metal and, you know, the properties of metals and the properties of stones and what their burning temperature is, and how you can work with stones in metal, and it was just a fascinating course for me. So I signed up for his Masters program, which I graduate from in probably June of next year, and it’s basically teaching you the old, ancient European way of goldsmithing, and all the different tricks of the trade.
I took the first major courses at the beginning of this year. It was a two-month course, intensive, from 7:00 in the morning to 6:30 at night. We were there every day, except for weekends. And we just learned an amazing amount of information. I think I attribute a lot of my new skills to his class and his school. He really helped me lead into my new line, which is the Oro line, which means “gold” in Spanish. So I really attribute a lot of my education and what I do to Alan Revere.
D: That’s fascinating. So you actually melt the gold at your home, at your studio?
AMB: Yeah, at my studio. The first thing you do is you anneal it, which means you kind of heat it to its molding temperature, and then you punch it into cold water really fast, and then it makes the metal very soft and very malleable. The more you work it, the harder it gets. And so by the time you’ve made a bracelet or a necklace or a cuff or a ring, it’s in the work-hardened state and you can’t actually bend it again unless you annealed it and made it soft again.
So it’s kind of a step-by-step process to make a piece of — say a ring — it starts out as a big sheet of metal, then you cut down the metal, and then you anneal it so it’s bendable. As soon as it’s bendable you can form it into a ring shape, and then you hammer it so it’s like a perfect circle. And then if you want to you can drill it, add gem stones to it, or do whatever you can to beautify it. And then you polish it up and put it on the market.
D: How long does it take once it’s in that shape where it’s moldable until it hardens? I mean, it seems like you’d have to move fast.
AMB: No, not at all, actually. It stays soft until you have to beat it hard again. Its molecules actually separate until you hammer them close again. And when they’re closely formed together, that’s when they become work hardened. That’s a word we’ll use a lot , work hardened metal, or annealed metal. Annealed means soft, and work hardened means it’s no longer malleable. So that’s the process.
D: It’s interesting because when you see the finished product it looks so perfect, like a machine did it, but it’s interesting to know it’s such a tactile thing, with someone with their hands in it, really molding it. I didn’t even think about that.
AMB: Yeah, I have this one piece that I’m very excited about showing off in my show. It’s called an Infinity Chaos bracelet, and it’s about six different bangles all soldered in one piece. They’re kind of in six separate circles, and they’re all wound around each other, and they’re all one piece. So it’s one big bangle but it looks like six floating on your arm. I did it all by hand. I didn’t use a hammer really at all. I just melted the metal until it became really really soft, and just folded and twisted and folded and twisted until I could keep the two pieces together and solder them and make it a whole solid cohesive piece. That’s my very exciting one. I’m very excited about it.
D: Are you sorry you’re going to have to sell it, or did you make two?
AMB: You know, I can make another one if I want to, but I am making one-of-a-kind pieces. So if I want one then I’ll probably make myself another one.
D: And they really are one-of-a-kind. That’s something else that’s really cool. It’s a phrase that’s thrown around a lot, “one-of-a-kind,” and you think, yeah, okay, whatever, it’s probably not really one-of-a-kind. But yours are really! I mean, it’s the only one. Is that common in the jewelry business?
AMB: You know, Manika Jewelers are on Maiden Lane. They’re starting to carry me as one of their jewelers. And all of their jewelers work in one-of-a-kind pieces. There are two other places, one is called Moondance, and the other one is called Caviar and Kind, in Los Angeles, and they’re also one-of-a-kind jewelers.
So there are certain people who are in the jewelry market who look for only one-of-a-kind pieces. They know of these stores, and they know of their reputations, and they know that they are usually one-of-a-kind pieces. I think if someone really is looking for a unique, individual piece, they can seek it out and they know the jewelers that carry them.
D: You would think that everyone would want one-of-a-kind!
AMB: I think so too! But then you see something like David Yurman’s pieces, and you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m so glad he doesn’t make one-of-a-kind pieces. I would never be able to afford it.’
D: Exactly. I noticed that when you were speaking about the gold you started talking about molecules and stuff. It seems you have to get really technical. Have you learned a lot about the technical properties of materials and things?
AMB: Absolutely. One thing that I didn’t know when I first started jewelry is there are many types of gold out there. A lot of people will try to fool you and sell you what they call real gold, and there are actually two types of gold that look and feel like real gold. One is called ‘gold filled.’ You might hear that term occasionally ’14k gold fill.’ And what I’ve been told is it’s basically 10% gold which, in fact, is actually less than 10%. It’s 14k gold wrapped around a piece of brass.
D: Oh no!
AMB: So you’re getting real 14k gold, but it’s actually formed over brass. So it’s kind of like a very thin, thin layer. I mean, if you scratch it hard enough you’ll see the brass. And then there’s another type of gold that you may have heard of before called gold vermeil. And that is basically silver, sterling silver, with 14k gold dipped over it. Sometimes they use 18k gold. They dip the silver in the gold and it comes out as gold vermeil. And then, of course, there are others, like gold plating, which is the same thing as gold vermeil almost, only it’s on a base metal like copper or tin instead of something like silver.
It goes 14k gold fill, vermeil, and then gold-plated as far as, like, the lesser golds. And then it goes up to real 14k gold, which is actually 50% gold to 58% gold. And then you go to 18k gold, which is 75% gold. And then 22k and 24k, which is 100% pure gold.
So there’s a bunch of different formulas that make up gold, which I’ve learned in class. And it’s a fascinating study in how gold came about and how it became more market friendly for people who wanted to buy gold. They would buy the 14k gold because it’s cheaper, but it’s still worth its weight in gold.
D: And that kind of goes with your interest in Ayurveda. Because I see a rock and I think, ‘It’s just a rock. Whatever.’ But looking at your site, it’s like , oh my god, it’s so complicated. It’s not just a rock. It has other properties to it that’s not just on the surface. But you were interested in Ayurveda before you started doing jewelry weren’t you?
AMB: Right. Absolutely. And then I found that stones have so many healing properties. In Ayurveda they use crystal therapy, which is basically using the stones. On my current website , I haven’t updated it yet , it has all my old pieces, pieces that I’ve already sold. It basically gives the healing and magical uses of that stone in the description underneath the picture of what the necklace or the earrings were.
I believe a lot in the healing power of stones, and Ayurveda definitely uses a lot of stones for healing properties as well. I kind of incorporate that into my selling of my pieces, with a little description, and I find that people really are fascinated to read about a necklace that they were drawn to, and they say, ‘Wow, my goodness, citrine helps cure stomach aches, and I always have stomach aches, and I love this citrine necklace.’
AMB: And it’s just so neat to see people be drawn to the stone that will most likely heal them.
D: Yeah. That must be why Dede Wilsey seems so happy and healthy and energetic.
AMB: I guess so.
D: Have you noticed that in your own life?
AMB: I absolutely do. I wear a lot of rubies because I feel in balancing the chakras you are more creative and you are more open to a creative outlook or creative divinity, I guess, coming through you. And if your chakras are out of balance you usually aren’t a creative person, or you get writers block or, you know, some sort of creative block.
AMB: So if you wear rubies it actually helps clears the chakras and cleanse them, and it pulls the actual imbalance of the chakras into the rubies and out into the energetic world.
D: Oh wow.
AMB: And so it’s interesting. I mean, if you believe in it, I feel that it gives it more power.
D: Well it’s not something you made up. It’s been going on for —
AMB: For 6,000 years!
D: Yeah. How long have you been interested in Ayurveda?
AMB: It’s probably been a five-year interest for me. The first time I ever saw an Ayurveda treatment was about five years ago, when Chris and I first got married. It was at a spa in Indonesia that we went to. So I started reading about Ayurveda — I think it was just after we got back from our honeymoon, and how it’s an Indian based healing practice. And I couldn’t find it anywhere in the United States. Then about probably four-and-a-half years ago there was a spa that opened, I think in Illinois, called The Raj, and they were an all Ayurvedic stay spa retreat. I read a lot about them, and I read their menu, and their menu was 100% Ayurveda.
D: How interesting.
AMB: And then we went to India, and that was where we got our idea to open an Ayurveda day spa, because in San Francisco there weren’t any. We came back and I did a business plan, and I drew all the budgets out, and we figured, you know, this is something we could definitely do. Nine months later we opened this spa, and we hired a doctor. He teaches our staff once a month. But in interviewing doctors they were like, ‘You know what, young western woman, don’t bring this to your community because no one in California is going to understand or care about Ayurveda.’
It was just so funny to hear these Indian doctors who weren’t accepting of the fact that people were interested in this practice that they took for granted. Because I feel in California we’re always looking for the next healing practice that’s going to make us feel at our maximum, and San Francisco is a perfect place to introduce that to people because they’re more open and they’re more willing to accept the new treatments. That is one of the reasons we opened the spa, just because we had seen nobody else with the same ideas.
D: It’s amazing that you were the first and only in San Francisco. Do you still travel a lot, or are you too busy?
AMB: We do, actually. We’re going back to India in January.
D: Oh, wonderful!
AMB: We’re stopping over in Thailand and Cambodia as well as Vietnam, on our trip there. It should be a lot of fun.
D: No kidding. How many times have you been there?
AMB: We’ve been to India three times, and Thailand once. We’ve never been to Cambodia or Vietnam, which is why we’re adding them to our trip this year. And we have some friends who are meeting up in Thailand, and some friends that we’re meeting up in Cambodia and Vietnam. But India is basically our kind of relaxing part of the vacation.
D: Is Thailand known for its jewelry?
AMB: It is! Thais have the most beautiful gold. They do everything in 22 or 24 karats, which is really amazing. In India you’ll find mostly 18k or 14k, and very occasionally you’ll see 22k or 24k. But you see a lot of gold vermeil, just because it’s cheaper and it’s an easier gold to sell to the vast public. So in India you see all these Rajasthani women with beautiful gold jewels, and you wonder, ‘Man, that must have cost the family like their entire fortune because they’re not a very wealthy people.’ But they’re usually gold vermeil, and it looks just as beautiful as 24 karat gold.
But Thailand uses the full 24 karat gold. They have some amazing gold to sell, and amazing stones to sell. So when we’re traveling we always look up bead bazaars and try to buy as much as we can while we travel, because nowhere else in the world can you find, you know, carved jade stones like that, like in Thailand. Or in India, the carved gold balls. So it’s really fn to seek out the markets that sell to the jewelers of those countries.
D: And Chris is interested in beading as well, isn’t he?
AMB: He’s actually the one who started me in jewelry. He took me into a bead store because he wanted to make beaded necklaces for Burning Man. That was about two-and-a-half years ago. I went in there and saw some beautiful — I think they were smoky quartz. And I’m like, ‘Wow, I want to make myself a beautiful necklace.’ So I made a beautiful smoky quartz necklace, with some gold vermeil. And he’s like, ‘Wasn’t that so much fun? Let’s go back and make a couple more.’
We kept going back to the bead store, and I kept making jewelry. And finally I’m like ‘I’ve got to start selling these because I have too much jewelry!’ I just got on a roll and started selling about ten pieces a month. And they were just really high-quality stones, just at the spa. Then I thought, ‘Gosh, I really want to get more education about how to make jewelry because, you know, beading is beautiful and lovely, but I want to be able to set stones, and I want to be able to work in gold and make my chains rather than buy my chains.’
Making my chains has become a real passion of mine because, one, it’s cheaper, and two, I can say I made 100% of this piece of jewelry, rather than saying, ‘Well, I bought the chains, and I bought the stones, and I put them together.’ Now I can say that I actually make 100% of the jewelry that I sell. I keep having people ask me, ‘Do you want an apprentice? Do you want someone who can do the mediocre stuff?’ And no, I want to just — just sell, you know, 20 pieces a month. And if I can make 20 pieces a month, then fabulous!
D: And what is the price range?
AMB: For the opening the lowest piece I have is $500, and the most expensive piece I have, I think, is $6,500. I have a grouping of four 14k gold bangles that are worth about $2,000. I’m trying to sell them as a set, but if someone wants to buy them as just one, then of course we’ll reduce it down by four.
My other jewelry, that I sell at Kamalaspa, is an entry-level line. I don’t use as much rubies or sapphires or any kind of expensive stone in it because when someone gets massages or a haircut, and they see a piece of jewelry, they’re not interested in spending more than, like, $500. So my Kamalaspa jewelry is a lower-priced line than the couture line at Manika.
D: At the launch you’re raising funds for the Roar Foundation, with Tippi Hedren. How did you think of that?
AMB: We had lunch with her one day and she was doing just a normal fund raiser in San Francisco. And she was such a fascinating person. We donated to her original fund raiser, and I thought, ‘Gosh, what a great cause to save animals from these wicked people who raise them for hunting, or raise them because they’ll be a cute pet and then lock them up n a steel cage for the rest of their lives because they realize they’re a wild animal. She really just finds these animals that have been mistreated, and then she puts them on her 74 acre cat farm, basically, and she lets them live out a normal wild life in America.
Everybody thinks that because she’s Melanie Griffith’s mom that she’s this wealthy woman, or because she made a movie in the ’60s that she’s a really wealthy woman, but she’s very simple, and she’s very sweet, and she has a great cause. She said, ‘I need people who will donate to my cause because they want to, because they feel that I’m doing a good thing. I don’t just go out and do big fund raisers because I’m Tippi Hedren. I do it because I care about these animals.’ And I said, ‘Why don’t I donate a percentage of what I sell to your cause, and you come in, we’ll have all the animals look like cats, and we’ll have a nice brochure table where you can talk about Roar to all these people who are interested in looking at something for themselves, and then in the meantime you might get more benefactors just from being able to present at might opening.’ And she thought it was a fabulous idea!
We’re going to fly her down. We tried to get Melanie and Antonio, but they’re obviously busy. So she’s coming down and we’re trying to make it a jungle type of affair. We’re going to have all these models dressed up like lions and tigers, and they’re going to be wearing my pieces. They’re wearing simple sheaths, so it shows off my jewelry, but it also shows off the wild cat aspect. So it will bring up the awareness of her foundation, as well as be able to sell my jewelry at the same time. It’s kind of a win-win for both of us.
D: That’s wonderful. I think it’s going to be a very exciting event.
AMB: I can’t wait.
D: I love Tippi Hedren. She’s been so devoted to her foundation for such a long time, and it’s nice to see someone who really supports the cause they’re supporting instead of just doing it to show up at some event.
AMB: Exactly. Exactly. I thought that was really quite endearing of her.
D: All right. Well, I think you’ve got more tagging to do! I look forward to seeing you on Thursday!