Bringing Nature Closer to You

Presented by Luana Coonen

Luana Coonen

Sustainable Contemporary Jewelry ~

Instead of working with precious rubies and diamonds, Luana chooses to work with found natural materials: moth wings, bits of lichen, leaf skeletons ~ to amplify these simple objects and bring them into a new life. Her work is a conversation, to stop and make us question what is beautiful, important, and what is hidden in our daily lives which we walk by without noticing.  She talked about her journey, starting as a goldsmith, working for over 15 years with found materials from natural to plastics, especially into her discovering a voice to creating natural-themed jewelry pieces.

Luana was fortunate in growing up in Hawai’i in the midst of a tropical rainforest where her mother was a botanist, artist, and teacher.  In 2000, at the tender age of 18, she enrolled in the California College of Arts & Crafts. She signed up for lots of classes and one of them was “jewelry and metal arts”.  When Luana went to the mainland she hit a culture shock of cement. She had never realized the importance of nature being all around her. (70% of Hawai’ian students fail due to the culture shock). She also enrolled in the CCA on the Oakland campus near Rockridge.  She was finally able to find pockets of green ~ but this was not the same and even the weather was so different. The “Intro to Jewelry” class introduced her to the use of hammer, saw and how to bezel-set a stone.  The teacher gave a vague description on how to work with non-metal elements, so discovery was up to her. She was not impressed with the concept of the class on stone setting, but saw ideas in her head the first time in class learning how to insert pressed leaves and ivy into her pieces. She had discovered her passion.

By 2002 she was developing a narrative ~ how to make a piece that is based on an expression.  During her walks, she found an African Tulip Tree and was enthralled. Her mantra became, ”keep your mind clean and let it come from the heart”. These classes opened her brain and heart the way you open the pages of a book…but her first interpretation was to actually create a hinged book that featured a brain and inside was the heart ~ the two pages featuring the positive and negative of that impression. Then the problem was discovered ~ that these pieces could take up to a month to create which was not cost effective.

She discovered why we wear jewelry? Protection, status, beauty. In Hawai’i, when you embark on a journey a special po’o haku lei is created. As part of their background, all children learn basket weaving so she incorporated that part of her heritage and created a fern lei out of metal.  It comprised 150 solders where she perfected using a torch and learned the technical properties of silver. After 3 years, she finally really understood soldering. Again, inspired by Hawai’i she delved into who she is and where she is from. However, this was when silver was cheap ~ not something she could even attempt today with the higher cost of silver. The problem with working in premier metals is that those items are then created one at a time after a great deal of labor.

She started studying the history of natural items. One item that really excited her was beetle wings and their amazing importance in history (scarabs). Trying to get away from the expense and limitations of working in metals, she discovered plastic (remember The Graduate) – polycarbonate to be exact.  None of her teachers knew how to work with it, so she was on her own and made a lot of mistakes.  She then discovered three-dimensional work, by sandwiching items the appeared to be floating “in air” between the layers. Another item discovered was moth wings. You know how a moth is drawn to the light? This actually goes back to daysbefore artificial light when the moth was drawn to the natural light of the moon. Fire and electricity has messed with the poor moth’s brain leading to their demise. Going back once more to nature, she discovered “branching” as it occurs in rivers, veins, lightening, lichen ~ she started seeing this effect everywhere. She fine tuned her designs and it became her senior thesis.

In 2004, she finally got her first job.  She started a small jewelry business, took out a student loan, and no idea of what she was supposed to be doing so lost everything.  Then she started working for other designers, went to work at a nationwide company and HATED it, making someone else’s designs.  But the good part of that job is that she learned about running a business; what a line list is, how to develop a seasonal collection, how to make samples for the sales reps to sell from, and how to individually package her items.  She learned that she wanted to develop her own company and by working there, how to do it.  Working in that company, money was no object as she could make what she wanted, there was no price tag on her ideas, and she was able to broaden her initial themes.  She learned the importance of creating pieces that a customer could actually wear, that were functional, and were light weight. The company let her develop her own styles and showed her how to price her now-refined pieces. She continued to develop her usage of plastics. Polycarbonate (used to make eye glasses) is shatter resistant and this product actually uses the same techniques as working with metal.

By 2008 she quit and started on the development of her own company. Working for others was very stressful. The good point is that within 3-months, her old boss wanted to represent her new items.  This was an instant foot in the door to stores….a really hard thing to gain.  And now, she had a line sheet and knew what she was doing. But success came too quickly and she again had no idea of how to compete in that world.  Her pieces each had a story and the stress was back again with working 60-80 hours a week.  One of her famous customers is Jennifer Anniston. Yes, she was famous but there was no personal connection with what she was creating. To allow for a seasonal product line, she started making pieces that she didn’t like.  Her life was a mess, she wanted to do what she loved but was having to develop seasonal styles and work up color stories ~ no way! She closed her company and fled to Ireland in 2009. Sadly, as soon as Luana was settled in the countryside, she received note that her mother was very sick, she left everything and flew back to Hawai’i ~ never to return. (Her equipment is still over there)

Back in Hawai’i, family became her priority. While working as her mother’s primary care giver she still was receiving orders ~ her pieces were so loved that she could not escape.  She had no workbench, no tools, no metal and she closed her business once more. But in those resulting quiet times, she realized that her drive to be creative was still in there and became depressed without that outlet. She discovered working with canvas, drawing her items, and creating wall pieces.  She used natural dyes and patinas on canvas and went back to work in a friend’s studio. Her heart resurfaced.

By 2012 she had opened a new company but this time she stayed in Hawai’i. Luana converted a shed into her new studio and now created items the way “she” wanted to.  Her creative zone was back and the new pieces started to flow. Again, working natural designs in gold and silver, but now taking it slowly doing commission work only.  She developed the Maui Metal Arts Guild where her peers started networking. There was no “leader”, no one to look up to, no one to push her, but sadly, no one to inspire her….. She traveled back to San Francisco to again launch her business, SLOWLY this time in 2014. But rent is really expensive and there was no studio to work in. She finally found a co-op where she shared a studio with two other jewelers in the James Bong Building on Market Street.  Everything was already in place, she learned new methods from the other artists, she wrote a business plan and actually learned to crunch the numbers to make her company successful. She was able to do what she wanted to do in a rational, thought out way.  She planned a step-by-step timeline for her product, developed a logo and branded her style.  She now has a website with ecommerce: www.LuanaCoonen.com, and was even featured in the SF Chronicle October 2015 and on Rachel Ray. This time her efforts actually felt good !

What is life like now? She is finally able to pat herself on the back.  She always hated making rings, but now does commission work and has developed some beautiful wedding rings and has developed a line for men as well as women. She has kept to nature-inspired and is 100% sustainable by stressing the use of recycled, reclaimed, and fair mined products.  Luana still designs items for herself as she loves working with “her heart and her brain” ~ remember the first piece she created?  Her line list now features earrings, necklaces, and day to day items.

She recently received the Niche Award and has been doing shows at the San Francisco Fort Mason show that was in August 2016 as well as the American Craft Show.  She still goes back to her roots for design inspirations and reworks her old ideas.

by marilyn peters

Leave a comment