Real jewelry can be a sound investment in uncertain times. But for most of us, the new reality calls for faux -- small indulgences that can make an old frock seem new.
Though many of us may just now be discovering (or rediscovering) costume jewelry, Sonia Boyajian has been designing and wearing it since 2001, when she sold her first pieces to Mameg in Los Angeles. (She's now in some of the most trendsetting boutiques in the world, including Susan of Burlingame in Northern California and Ikram in Chicago.)
Boyajian has had a particularly good year. She designed Scarlett Johansson's 3-carat, gum-ball-size diamond engagement ring, was approached by Anthropologie to do a collection for the chain and met her soon-to-be husband on a hiking trail above Los Feliz.
That meeting was serendipitous in more ways than one. To Boyajian's delight, she discovered that her fiancé, songwriter Alexander Rousmaniere, is the grandson of New York art dealer Klaus Perls, who launched sculptor Alexander Calder's career.
"They have Calder work in the house, and to be able to dissect and touch and see how he made things was amazing," she says.
Boyajian is a lifelong fan of the artist, who invented mobiles in 1931 and whose inventive jewelry is on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through March 1. When you look at her kinetic pieces ($300 to $1,800), you see why. They are rooted in fantasy, both delicate and sculptural. She makes ample use of wire -- cutting it into carefully balanced cascading arcs, dangling onyx beads on a necklace, coiling it into a ring, wrapping it around chunky crystals and dramatic feathers to create a headpiece, and bending it into a fish shape suspended from a choker -- always designing three-dimensionally, instead of on a flat surface.
New York-based fashion designer Brian Reyes, who collaborated with Boyajian on jewelry for four of his runway shows, says it's "her ability to transform exotic elements" that makes her unique.
"I want my jewelry to evoke a sense of whimsy and happiness," says Boyajian, who has a bohemian look, wearing her hair long and her jeans fashionably high-waisted. "I want my clients to feel like they are in a storybook, like they are children looking at a mobile above their crib."
You can't help but be enchanted by the designer, 28, who lives in a leafy 1929 dollhouse of a place in Los Feliz. Her jewelry hangs from tree branches in the dining room, along with her bridal gown, which she is hand-embellishing with pearls for her wedding on Friday. The four flower girls will wear Victorian dresses from The Way We Wore, and the whole wedding party plans to head to Death Valley for a communal honeymoon following the ceremony.
In her living room, an antique English apothecary chest is filled with glass jars of colorful crystals and beads from Thailand, Japan and the jewelry district in downtown L.A. Goblets of milky pearls sit on the coffee table, and a cuckoo clock hangs on the wall. Two baby tortoises bask under a heat lamp in a glass aquarium near the fireplace. Their names are Dot and Dotless, and Boyajian has no idea what she'll do with them when they grow to be as big as 180 pounds.
Dropping into her world is strange and wonderful, kind of like visiting your grandmother's house. And it's no wonder why. "Since I was born, my grandma was a crafty Ms. Fix-it," Boyajian says. "She lived across the street from the Pasadena City College flea market, where she would buy broken jewelry and show me how to fix it. That's all I had to play with when I visited her."
Boyajian went to Otis College of Art and Design before moving to Belgium in 2001. "I thought I wanted to be a clothing designer, and I wanted to be part of the Antwerp scene. It was my dream to work for Dries Van Noten."
No sooner had she arrived than she walked into the influential boutique Louis wearing a few pieces of jewelry she had made, which the owner snapped up. Suddenly, clothing design didn't seem so important.
Later that year, she moved back to the U.S. and opened a showroom on La Brea, selling to Mameg and Barneys New York. By 2007, she needed a bigger space and happened upon her spectacular house, hidden behind trees and ivy walls in Los Feliz. "The picture window, the trees, I wanted a place that had the same feeling as my jewelry."
Sonia Eram, who owns Mameg, praises Boyajian's "whimsical and intellectual" work and hangs it alongside clothing by avant-garde designers such as Yohji Yamamoto and Hussein Chalayan. This year, Boyajian was also invited to display her work at the Comme des Garçons guerrilla store in downtown L.A.
While many designers would jump at the chance to talk about making Johansson's engagement ring, all Boyajian will say is that the actress is one of her best friends, and that her work may soon be seen on an even bigger stage. Ikram Goldman, the Chicago retailer, has asked Boyajian to make a few pins for Michelle Obama.
And while her wholesale business has slowed a bit, so far the designer is surviving the economic storm. Business from private clients is growing so much that she's hired Johnston Marklee (the architectural firm that designed the Mameg and Martin Margiela stores in Beverly Hills) to convert her garage into a magical wonderland that will be her workshop and retail store.
She's also branching into silk scarves featuring drawings of her jewelry, artfully laid out.
And with a little help from Johansson and Obama, who knows? Next year we might all be wearing statement scarves.