Tea With Claudia: Sandra Jordan
Designer Claudia Juestel sits down for a wide-ranging chat with the fascinating Sandra Jordan, the designer of coats and wraps, silver accessories, furniture, fabrics, and expert on wine and fine living.
Designer Claudia Juestel sits down for a wide-ranging chat with the fascinating Sandra Jordan, the designer of coats and wraps, silver accessories, furniture, fabrics, and expert on wine and fine living.
Sandra Jordan and Claudia Juestel (Photo: Michael Bello)
I was very much looking forward to interviewing the talented and prolific Sandra Jordan who is not only the designer of coats and wraps, silver accessories, furniture and fabrics, but also is an expert on wine, an author of a book on decanting, as well as a generous philanthropist. Sandra is also the ambassador for VIDA (Volunteers for Inter-American Development Assistance) and an avid supporter of, among others, the Strybing Arboretum and the Santa Rosa Symphony. In an effort to simplify life, today the hardworking designer’s main focus of the Sandra Jordan Collection is silver, and an ever-growing range of fine alpaca and toile fabrics.
Designers from Michael Smith to Mary Douglas Drysdale, Suzanne Tucker and Michael Hampton are devoted fans, and her textiles grace not only the homes of celebrities like Kanye West but also the White House bedroom of President and Mrs. Obama. Sandra’s many talents are complimented by her infinite warmth and charm. It was an absolute joy to talk to her about her childhood in Peru, her cosmopolitan background and the process of creating her designs.
Living room at the Jordan residence: antique Persian rug, lounge chairs covered in Fortuny fabrics, draperies in French Vanilla alpaca and off-white alpaca sheers, walls covered in “Straw” alpaca, all from the Sandra Jordan Collection (Photo: Michael Bello)
Sandra’s guest bedroom: alpaca drapery and sheers, mustard and “Harvest Plaid” alpaca bedspreads and coverlets, olive alpaca shams and headboards, all from the Sandra Jordan Collection (Photo: Michael Bello)
We conducted the interview in the beautiful living room of her Healdsburg home, and feasted on Canelés and fresh berries accompanied by Verbena tea from Sandra’s garden. Everything was beautifully presented on a variety of magnificent sterling silver pieces from Buccelati and Sandra’s own collection paired with oversized Meissen “Brown Dragon” tea cups. It all made the stories flow easily.
Claudia Juestel: In order to understand the origin of your creativity and determination we should start with your upbringing. You were born and raised in Peru, but you were educated in British Schools and also travelled extensively as a child. Please tell me more about that and the influence that has had on you.
Sandra Jordan: I grew up in Peru, but I also lived in Chile, India, Thailand and the Philippines when I was a child. As an adult I lived in Germany. The greatest joy of living oversees was that I was able to be with different cultures and learn many different things. For example, when I was living in Manila, there was a market called Divisoria where they sold all the excess fabric from all the designers in the U.S. So I would go with my mother and three sisters, and individually we would buy various fabrics and take them home.
My mother would keep them in this big trunk, and we girls put our names on the fabrics we were reserving for whatever need would be coming up. When we wanted a new outfit our live-in seamstress would make it up. When we lived in India, I started incorporating and understanding the various silks and cashmeres. When we lived in Peru it was very important not to share your discoveries of workrooms or talented silver smiths.
Sandra at the Presidential Palace in Lima, Peru
Antique chairs upholstered in “Chartreuse” “Italian Clay” “Forget Me Not” and “Mulberry” prima alpaca
CJ: Why was it to important not to share your secrets?
SJ: Because we wanted to keep them fully occupied and not be in the know. So anyhow, the most wonderful thing about travelling for me is that I have been able to extrapolate and pick the favorite things from each area and hopefully bring them back to my home here in Sonoma County.
The showroom barn
Back deck of the entertainment barn, complete with pizza oven
CJ: You told me before that you picked grapes when you lived in Germany.
SJ: I was a grape picker. I worked at the grape harvest of 1972 with my daughter Tatiana’s dad, and that was a lot of fun. I learned a lot about punctuality in Germany, which was quite something. I decided to take French classes in Germany, and my teacher was very confused that I had a Spanish accent in my French, which was taught in German. At any rate, I really enjoyed living in Germany, and I loved all the different wine areas. I loved picking grapes quickly, and I found that my grape picking partners wanted to practice their English, and I wanted to practice my German. They get paid by the hour in Germany, so the idea was to pick slowly, unlike the U.S. where you pick very quickly because you are paid by the container.
Alpaca colors inspired by the hues of the vineyard
CJ: That sort of makes more sense for the winery. Having had the opportunity to live in many countries, you must have wonderful memories. What are some of the favorite places you would like to revisit?
SJ: There are so many. I certainly want spend more time getting to know different areas of Peru. There are many I have not been to. I want go down the Amazon, after having seen the movie “Fitzcarraldo”. I would like to go to Lake Titicaca. And of course, I want go back to Venice and spend more time seeing India. But there are so many places I have not been to yet or would like to return to. I have plans to Istanbul go with my daughter. She was there two years ago, and now she wants to show me her Istanbul.
Interior of the showroom barn
Peruvian antiques and accessories in the showroom barn
CJ: That would be wonderful! You studied International Affairs, Business Administration and Education. How did you utilize what you had learned, and what eventually exposed your creative side.
SJ: The creative side I already had within me. I just didn’t know about it because I just lived with it. None of the countries I lived in had stores as we know them today. There were only craftsmen that you would go to, whether it was building furniture with a carpenter who came to the house, or if you wanted a new piece of jewelry. If you had a piece you didn’t want any more, you would take that to a jeweler and had the gold melted down, and then you would redesign something else and had it made. That was the same thing with fabric. You would bring all the raw materials and pick out the threads. If it was shoes, you would go and buy some hides, have them dyed, use your imagination and lots of magazines, and start to work on it.
The challenge at times was trying to translate your vision to somebody back than, or even today. For example when I started working on my silver line, my master silver smith lived in a desert in Peru. He could not understand the tendrils of a grape vine. So eventually I brought up him up here, and I showed him how beautifully plants and tendrils and vines move to help him capture that essence. So the translation has been the one thing that I needed to teach and try to get right. But it has been absolutely wonderful learning about this stuff.
“Healdsburg” wine coaster
CJ: I can imagine. That is something you always have been doing naturally by necessity.
SJ: I had been doing it naturally and, going back to your question, then my choice of education has complimented by what I inherently knew how to do. Because I had left Peru, and like an expat, I yearned for it even though I loved where I was living. I’ve always wanted to get back to my country of birth. So I set up on my knowledge of creatively doing things and also having worked in branding, marketing, and luxury goods, I wanted to do some luxury products from Peru that were not ethnic and would give back to the country. So for that reason, I then chose my business skills, my international affairs, my educational skills to teach my workmen how to do it. They all came together, and that’s why we are where we are.
Living room at the Richmond NSO Showhouse designed by Mary Douglas Drysdale (Photo: Ron Blunt)
Mary Douglas Drysdale’s kitchen with plaid alpaca
CJ: What brought you to California and then to Healdsburg specifically?
SJ: Two men. My first husband was very interested in the wine business.
CJ: He was the one with whom you went grape picking?
SJ: That’s right, he was the one I lived with in Germany; and we traveled to Portugal. We learned all about wine together; so that brought us to California. And then later on, many, many years later, after we divorced, I met my second husband who lived in Healdsburg. So two men basically brought me to the wine country at different times.
CJ: And as a result of that you spent fifteen years as the Creative Director of Jordan Winery. What sort of creative input have you had at the winery?
SJ: As the Creative Director, who was not the original person, I wanted to keep the consistency of the brand steady. So I created a style manual and the consistent look and feel of the hospitality area, and I redesigned the hospitality suites. I also created a more intimate feeling in the dining room. The building was built in the early ‘70s, and the outside of the building was getting patina, but not the inside. So we softened that a bit. I also worked on the website, the retail area, the landscaping, the olive production, all of those areas.
“Healdsburg” caviar cup at a dinner at Jordan Winery
CJ: So you weren’t a branding expert, you weren’t a landscaper. How did you just manage doing all that, and running all that?
SJ: I think I always learn on the job. I just have to figure out how to do it, and I get it done. I think it’s really from that early training.
CJ: What you learned at an early age came natural, and so you probably have applied the same process to everything else later.
SJ: Obviously my first pair of shoes was probably awful, and so was my first jewelry design that I made. And the wood for the furniture was not very good. Although it looked pretty in the beginning the wood did not hold up. So I think I just learned on the job. The other thing that I have done is when I was interviewing embroiderers. I would just send them the same design, and then watch. So I started learning about the tension, that if someone embroiders too tightly the tension would not look right. So it just worked out.
Detail of prima alpaca throw
Guest bedroom at the 2010 DC Design House designed by Michael Hampton: bedspread in “Silver Oak Stripe” and pillows in “Mushroom” alpaca, hide rug by Kyle Bunting (Photo: courtesy of Michael Hampton)
CJ: Sort of like the good old-fashioned apprenticeship sort of way of learning. How did you transition from a vintner into a designer of luxury home goods?
SJ: I transitioned from the Creative Director of Jordan Winery to a designer of luxury products when some of the products that I had designed for the winery were being requested by some of the guests that came. For example, one of the first pieces that I made was a silver wine funnel. I had made it in Peru for the winery and thought that I could make some more. The trick to transitioning was to change it from being a beautiful object in the winery to having it be a product that could be resold. That has been the greatest challenge for me. You can always create beautiful pieces for yourself, but when you start making them for wholesale to retail every little penny counts, and you have to be very careful. In my opinion, it is very easy to design a pitcher like this one, but to make it be at the right price is a very different thing.
“Healdsburg” magnum decanting funnel
“Healdsburg” and “Petaluma” bottle stoppers
CJ: And how do you economize? Do you change a design detail, the weight of it? This one is sterling silver.
SJ: This one is sterling. I economized by changing the whole product line to plate. That was a huge learning curve. It may look the same, but it is a different business model. So that was a huge, huge thing.
“Petaluma Neoclassical” Wine Cradle
“Healdsburg” Celebration Cup
CJ: Was that a good decision?
SJ: It was a very good decision. Silver had tripled since I started the business, sadly so. I love sterling, but the reality of today’s marketplace it is not as realistic. It was really tough because I started the business in 2001, on September 11th practically. So I had received my first wholesale order from Bergdorf Goodman who had bought the whole line. And then they canceled the whole order.
CJ: What a devastating start!
SJ: There have been many upsets, whether it has been a monsoon in Indonesia, where some of our product was being made, or an earthquake in Arequipa, which is where the alpaca is done. And then there was a revolution somewhere else. All these things happened since I started the business, but the economic downturn really was the biggest test of all. Those are things that are out of my control, and I have begun to learn that there are other factors that come into play in whether you are successful in business or not.
Shades of neutral alpaca
Prima alpaca with embroidery by Villa Savoia
Detail of embroidery on prima alpaca by Villa Savoia
CJ: That is very true, and these hurdles been a hard lessons to learn for many entrepreneurs, no matter how responsibly they may have approached their respective businesses. Good news is that people are starting to shop again
SJ: The good news is people are shopping again, and our Prima Alpaca Textiles for the home have hit a home run. So I’m really, really excited!
Sandra with alpaca in Peru
Walls and drapery in prima alpaca
CJ: Your alpaca fabrics are gorgeous, and I love your color palette. You also added some Toile de Jouy fabrics as well.
SJ: The composition of our luxury goods includes the silver, the Prima Alpaca, and the cotton fabrics. All three of them were chosen because Peru has a wealth of those. Number one, we have the biggest silver deposits of the world. Also 90% of all alpacas are in Peru, and we make some of the most beautiful cotton in the world.
Prima alpaca blanket in “Olive” in a bedroom at the 2009 San Francisco Decorator Showcase designed by Wendy Posard
“Century Toile” in aubergine
CJ: What amazing riches! You told me some stories about the cotton before that go back to your childhood.
SJ: My father was a cotton grower in Northern Peru. I was a naughty girl in those days and didn’t pay much attention, and I’m so sorry I can’t ask him a lot of questions about cotton now. But it is a wonderful, long and strong staple cotton with great luster. But because many of the political issues in Peru, like terrorism, economic downturns, etc. the infrastructure has not been built for the factories. We also don’t hear about Peruvian cotton as often because Americans now have queen and king size beds. Their looms aren’t as wide. However, I can tell you that England uses an awful lot of the Peruvian cotton. If you look at those beautiful men’s shirts with that divine craftsmanship, that’s Peruvian cotton. It is a beautiful cotton with a great feel, and I am very much hoping to add a lot more printed cotton fabrics to the line.
Guestroom with “Century Toile” in aubergine at Le Mars Hotel designed by Helga Horner
Toile fabric at the Le Mars Hotel
CJ: Very interesting to know the connection between Saville Row and Peru. Why did you choose alpaca and toile specifically?
SJ: I chose Toile because I had always loved all French decorative arts; and the fact that Peru has very good cotton felt like a good marriage. The alpaca is something I have always been very interested in. I have historically done a lot of research on it and found that Alpaca at the time of the Incas was incredibly soft. It wasn’t when I started. So with the research I found out how you could get some of that softness. The mill that we use has Baby Alpaca, which is the first sharing of the animal. And even with that we hand-sort it. I think alpaca is a wonderful fiber. It is very light, a lot lighter than wool. Prima Alpaca is not scratchy unlike wool can be. It has a beautiful drape, and it takes color divinely. It is great for the home!
Raw spun alpaca wool
Living room at the Richmond NSO Showhouse designed by Mary Douglas Drysdale: cream alpaca fabric, embroidery by Villa Savoia (Photo: Ron Blunt)
Guestroom at the 2010 Elle Décor Showhouse designed by Suzanne Tucker: alpaca blankets in “Shoal”
CJ: I agree, I love the drape of wool for curtains, but alpaca beats it by far and in feel. You and I also share an addiction for alpaca coats. Your collections have done a lot for Peru. I understand that you built two factories there, which provide training and jobs for many in your homeland. How did you actually end up building the factories?
SJ: I didn’t set out to do that originally. However, when I started developing this product line, I realized that I would have to employ my own workmen. If not, if they were just casual workmen then the products would be knocked off.
CJ: Yeah, you spoke of secrecy at a young age earlier.
SJ: Oh that’s right, exactly. Thank you, Claudia, for pointing that out. It has made full circle again. So once again, sometimes I would take my designs to Peru. They would create a great prototype, send me the sample, and then my customers would say that it is already on the street being copied. I was hoping to always employ people, but I now realized I needed to employ them right away to protect the designs and create jobs for them. It was a two-fold thing.
You can imagine the poverty levels in Peru. There were little shacks where these people worked. So then I bought a piece of property and started building one floor at a time. We kept adding, and then we bought a lot of second hand silversmithing machinery. And then we needed another place. And we needed to store the horn, and then we needed to store the silver, and so on.
Silversmithing tools at factory in Peru
Silversmith applying grape leaf to ice bucket
Silver grape leaves and drawing for ice bucket
CJ: So there is a silver factory. What is the second one?
SJ: A horn and box factory. We taught some of our workmen to make the boxes. We wanted beautiful hand-made boxes with the paper that is sent from England. We have a group of employees who do those boxes, and some of them do the horn. The horn was a very dusty process to learn to do. But that is in a separate floor.
Display of Sandra Jordan’s collection of silver and horn at Ferrari-Carano’s Seasons of the Vineyard tasting bar & boutique in Healdsburg
Horn honey wand
CJ: How did the horn come about?
SJ: The horn came about because of the price of silver. Silver prices were escalating very quickly. I wanted some silver products at the lower end of the spectrum. So we hired a slew of taxi drivers in Lima to go to the slaughterhouses to pick up the horn, and to learn to prepare it, clean it. Again that was another on-the-job-learning experience. Through time we have learned to do it very well.
CJ: How do they differ from other less expensive horn product that is out there?
SJ: The main thing is that they are embellished with silver. In other words, this pitcher can be done with a handle of silver. Or this cake server has a handle made of silver. So it’s a very different way to present it.
“Russian River” scalloped pitcher with horn handle
“Alexander Valley” candle snuffer with horn handle
“Petaluma” cheese knife
CJ: High and low design?
SJ: Yes. But I think, for example, a silver pitcher would look very gracious in the city, but when you embellish it with a handle of horn it looks more country-ish. So it played off well, and a financial necessity ended up creating a new look.
CJ: Indeed. The juxtaposition of the two materials is just beautiful. And horn is so wonderful, I love its variations.
SJ: You don’t know what color horn is going to be until you polish it. And each piece is different – unlike silver, even though I can very subtly tell who’s hammered it because I know the hand of the worker.
CJ: You can?
SJ: Yes, I can call, ‘Who hammered this one?’ It is really a lot of work, and you have to have a very even pulse. So when I see something over-hammered I’d say, ‘Your wife didn’t do this’, because my head silversmith’s wife is the one who does all the hammering.
CJ: So no hot-blooded Peruvians are doing silversmithing?
SJ: No, no, no! Hammering is not done with anger, it is done with love.
Silver-smith working on ice bucket
Various hammers for silver work
CJ: Speaking of love, you have also written a wonderful book called ‘The Art of Decanting’, which takes us from its history to its perfect implementation. The book starts with a quote by the legendary wine maker André Tchelistcheff, “The first taste of wine is like the first kiss.” I really love that quote. How did the book come about? I know your passion for wine started early.
SJ: Early, very early on. The book probably came about for a couple of reasons. One of the reasons was that I like to collect wine antiques. So I had a big collection of wine funnels, tasting cups, etc. But we were also looking at Jordan for a way to have our the sommeliers and loyal Jordan customers have an extra way to talk about wine, and I thought telling stories about wine would be good. So I started writing the book and proceeded like the school teacher that I am, writing everything orderly and whatever. And then read it when it was finished, and it sounded dreadfully boring. So I think it was put away for a year or two.
And then I picked it up again, and that’s how I got to really get to the professorial note out of that. And I began to call on my friends from the wine industry to give me their quotes. And I started looking for quotes. And there were wonderful quotes from Ray Duncan, Fred and Peggy Furth, the Jacksons from Kendall Jackson Winery, and historical quotes. So that really enriched it. I had a special, special, great joy to have Bob Mondavi write the introduction. And we went and photographed some of his Greek and Roman Wine antiques. The joy of it came through after I put it away for a year.
A hill at Jordan Vineyards
Decanting with Wine Master items from the Sandra Jordan Collection
CJ: Just a fresh eye! It’s a wonderful book. You’re obviously very passionate about everything you do. Could you see yourself living anywhere else or doing anything else?
SJ: Actually, I could live anywhere. I think one of the things I enjoy about myself is that if I’m in Paris I really don’t want to leave. I was in South Africa, in Cape Town for the first time last year and I thought, ‘Oh, I could live here’. I’m very happy wherever it is that I am. When I’m sitting here in my house, I’m very, very happy. When this afternoon I drive to Napa to have lunch with Margrit Mondavi and Maria, I’ll probably say “Oh, I should live in Napa.” So I just love what I do, I like what I’m doing right now and however should I have to move, I’m sure I’d like whatever it is that I get it into.
CJ: It is perhaps because you see the best in everything.
SJ: I enjoy it.
CJ: You are also known as one of the Wine Country’s most gracious and glamorous hostesses. How do you like to entertain, and what is Wine Country Living all about?
SJ: I think Wine Country Living is really about paying attention to the seasons and trying to bring the inside out, and being very relaxed. The way I decide on the table or the menu is a function of how much time I have, and how much help I have, and what is readily available in my garden. For example right now, I haven’t had time to make a centerpiece, so I cut some quince, and they are just sitting on a bowl. The way I like to interplay outdoor materials, ceramics with silver, horn, wood with crystal, just all of the different properties.
Table set for an event in the entertainment barn
Tablescape in Sandra’s breakfast room
CJ: Do you prefer small, intimate dinners or larger, fun parties? You have this wonderful entertainment barn where you can seat quite a lot of people.
SJ: Mostly I like it small. I love being able to have good conversations. And then I think that is doable at a small dinner party of no more than six or eight.
CJ: So the ideal number for dinner party is six or eight?
SJ: That’s right. However, there is a lot of room for having music and dancing up in the upper barn, using the pizza oven, and really just enjoying a group. So I like both of them. I do a lot of musical events too in the show room, which has really good acoustics. We do a lot of programs with the Santa Rosa Symphony, where I serve on the board. So that is always fun!
CJ: I can imagine. What are your most favorite things to do for leisure?
SJ: I love to read Latin-American literature; that was my specialty when I was a teacher. I love walking with friends, gardening, and traveling.
CJ: You told me before, which I thought was wonderful, that you love storytelling.
SJ: I do love story telling. Story telling is something that I do, as you’ve noticed with my daughter’s reaction. I think it makes moments come alive, memories come alive, little lessons are taught better in storytelling. I think if you’re talking about recipes, you’re better off talking about how your mother taught you to make this than just reading it out of a book. Story telling is really very, very dear and important.
Sandra on a mission with VIDA in Peru
CJ: What would you consider your secret to life?
SJ: Well, here is my real secret. I’m 62 years old, and I see that I don’t have as much energy as I used to. That’s really, really bugging me.
CJ: You must have had a lot of energy doing all you do.
SJ: I think its genetics. My grandmother had quite a lot of energy. But it’s really, really scary that I have to take a little bit of a rest, and not do it all myself. The secret that I just learned is that I’m beginning to know what it is that I don’t want to do. And that’s really true.
Embroidered throw in “Cobalt Black” and chair in “French Vanilla” prima alpaca
Chairs covered in “Fog”, “Honeydew” and “Shoal” prima alpaca at Shears & Window
CJ: I agree, that so important and I can totally relate to that. Delegating is important.
SJ: You know it has been wonderful. I have a good team in place in my business. As I am trying to learn how to ship with FedEx and do all of that, my team has said, ‘You don’t need to do that. We can do that. That’s why we’re here’.
CJ: You also told me before that you have trusted some people with some creative decisions, like the new plaid. So you’re actually handing over some creative control gently.
SJ: Very much so. I came in from a trip to Richmond and I said, ‘I think we need a plaid in lighter colors, paler colors, more neutral colors’. And I looked at Francesca in the office, who has a degree in textiles, and I said, ‘You can do this’. So I’m beginning to learn from what I did in teaching, that my job as an employer is to encourage those great people that I have in place to use all their skills and not strain me up. These are secrets I am discovering about myself.
Prima alpaca fabric swatches at the office
Detail of “Harvest Plaid” and embroidered alpaca fabrics
CJ: You are picking the best people for your business and giving them the tools they need. It is obviously reflected in the quality of your product, also when it comes to the manufacturing process. You know which one should hammer the silver, and which one should stay away from it. You certainly cannot hammer your own silver, and make your own horn and weave your own fabrics. So you hire the best and give them the tools to be the best.
SJ: Yes. It’s really fun to be asked these questions.
CJ: I’m glad you’re enjoying them.
SJ: Because I’m learning more about what is happening. Does that happen to you too?
CJ: Different people have different perspectives. That is why I love think tanks because you start coming up with richer ideas in creative collaborations, and at times learn something about yourself.
SJ: Yes. What I also learned about myself was that I was always able to sort of work solo. During all of my primary and secondary education I moved sometimes twice a year. And now I am beginning to discover the joy of having soundboards. Because I think the way I look at myself in the mirror reflects back is one message, but what I get through conversation is a completely new way to learn about myself. So that has been really wonderful to share and think out loud.
CJ: I agree. Everything becomes richer, because otherwise you’re just your own critic. And sometimes you go in one specific direction, although there are two more viable options. But when you brainstorm with another person it can open your mind so much. I think collaborations are wonderful.
SJ: Yes, that’s something relatively new to me.
Living room designed by Jackie Applebaum (Photo: courtesy of Sandra Jordan)
CJ: Learning new things is what keeps it exciting! Thank you so much Sandra, this has been exciting.
SJ: My pleasure. Shall we go into the garden?
CJ: Let’s tour your pride and joy. Thank you.
All photos courtesy of Sandra Jordan unless otherwise noted.