Tuesday, February 24, 2009

In Design With Amber Marie Bently

I met San Francisco's Amber Marie Bently at the Gorgeous & Green event last December and was struck not only by the dazzling extravagance of her totally green jewelry line, but also her artsy, bohemian manner which set her apart from the majority of the revelers. I wanted to learn more, so in late January we finally had a chance to get together in her offices on Stockton Street, just 2 blocks up from the new Gucci store. I wasn’t expecting the dazzling array of jewels she had laid out for me – each piece totally unique and absolutely one of a kind. Amber was on her way to a fashion show at EpiCenter Med Spa so we had just about 30 minutes to chat about her work and the world of sustainable jewelry design. I learned more than I ever knew about pearls, mining and diamonds. We covered everything from how strip mining destroys our marine life to designing custom wedding rings for her friends made with green diamonds. She was just as disarming and easygoing as when we met, and eager to share some of her secrets with our readers.

DP: For a piece like the Lotus Cloisoné Necklace, how do you translate the intricacy of the design?
AMB: I start by drawing the shape out on paper and then use a special metal – in this case it was gold. You stick folded pieces of metal on double sided tape to get on the domed surface. I use lotus root as glue, hold down the metal, and bake it in a kiln for a minute. Then I fill it full of glass (brown for this one) and keep reheating it until it gets to the level of the silver, then I start scrubbing it off to make it shiny and one texture. The chain is handmade of sterling silver with what I call my “secret clasp.”

DP: What makes your pearl necklaces eco-friendly?
AMB: For the oysters I get my pearls from, they use a special kind of krill to clean the lines instead of chemicals. Certain type of krill clean the lines beautifully so they use no chemicals that are later added to the water. It’s a really unique process. Another piece I have is made from the keshi – the coolest thing about the keshi is that it’s the purest form of nacre and is basically the cup that the pearl is made on. The pearl will be sitting on this cup and as soon as the pearl is harvested the oyster will eschew it out of its mouth and lie on the ground for harvesting. The sheen is completely the natural color from the pearls. It’s what I call the perfect opera color. My favorite is this teardrop pearl – it reminds me of a pearl that Elizabeth Taylor received from a King who had it from his parent’s generations who are kings and queens - it had always traveled down through royalty and landed on Elizabeth Taylor’s neck, and it’s almost identical to this one.

DP: If someone asked you to commission another piece identical to one you had made already, would you make another one?
AMB: No, I’d only sell this one. That’s the fun for me, because I keep creating new things all of the time. It’s really nice when my friends buy my jewelry because then I get to see it again!

DP: What do you like most about making jewelry?
AMB: Moving metal and working with the healing power of stones

DP: Tell me more about the healing power of stones.
AMB: That’s kind of how I started. It was very neat. People would come in and they’d be attracted to one necklace – the Chrysopras. This one has drawn so much attention, and every woman who was drawn to it feels the energy of the stone. I’ll read to them about the healing and magic properties of the stone.

DP: What makes all of these pieces “green?”
AMB: The gold is all recycled. Everything that I use is 100% recycled. All of the stones usually come with their own paperwork that the stone cutter keeps for his record. It goes all the way down to the miner. The miner has to sign off that he was well-treated and paid a reasonable wage and then it goes up to his manager to sign off that he was also paid a reasonable wage and hasn’t been paid to make the workers work harder or harm them in any way. It then goes all the way up to the owner of the mine and to the stone cutter himself. The stone cutting is about as green as it gets. It’s amazing that most jewelry is not green.

DP: What should people know about the less expensive costume jewelry they might buy in a store like Macy’s, for example?
AMB: What’s happening in the mining industry right now is what’s causing fish to have so much mercury in them. They’re strip mining the mines to get as much product out of them as possible and then they wash it all out in these rivers which hit the ocean. And if you’ve ever seen it, it’s like a catastrophe. It’s like a scar on the Earth and you can see the drainage of all that soil which has a lot of natural elements and minerals plus chemicals from the mines. And you can see the coral die, right in front of your eyes. It’s really unethical. Everyone in the gem business is really trying hard to get everything ecologically sourced to make sure we’re not hurting the planet anymore. The mines my pieces come from are reforested. It’s really hard to find good stones that are really green.

DP: It’s similar to the fashion industry, in the sense that, how do you get the large fashion companies to start using environmentally safe materials, which also usually cost more money.
AMB: I’ve tried to teach at my school (Revere Academy), and I give a lecture to brand new students on green jewelry. The prices are a lot higher, and it’s kind of like buying organic food.

DP: But maybe you buy less and only buy one piece that’s really significant to you.
AMB: Exactly. So that’s one of the things that people will be drawn to, is the the stone they need that heals them the most.

DP: Tell me about “green” diamonds.
AMB: It’s fun to get green diamonds. The greenest diamonds you will ever find are called river diamonds. They come from all over. As soon as DeBeers gave up their cartel status they released a lot of the diamond mines because of the treatment that was given to the miners. All of the countries in Africa formed this alliance and you would have to show all this documentation in order to be a part of it. Randomly people would go check to make sure thing were done properly. Only one country didn’t join and they’re still producing blood diamonds. I’m in the process right now of making three wedding rings and I’m saying to the brides “Okay, you’re going to be paying a little bit more than you would if you went to DeBeers but mine are all green and they all come from green sources.” And so the three husbands and brides have agreed that they’re willing to pay an extra price just to have that and they’re all friends so that‘s nice.

DP: I know your husband Chris got you into making jewelry and I’m always curious as to how people get into doing things they love and how quickly they knew it was something they wanted to do. Tell me about that experience.
AMB: Well, we were in a bead store and I’ve never made any jewelry before but I’ve always been a very creative person. And Chris was making something for Burning Man and I said sure I’d love to make some jewelry, and he went over the cheaper beads and I went over to the emeralds and the rubies and said, “Oh,I think I should make myself something.” So I was like “ I’ll take that and I’ll take that, etc.” And I made these beautiful necklaces and people would be like “Wow, what a beautiful necklace, I can’t believe you made that.” And suddenly I had about 100 pieces and Chris said, “ I think you need to start selling them,” and so we had a day spa (which we still do but it’s under construction) so I started selling them at Kamalaspa and we’d sell 2-3 a day. And so it just kept me really busy, and suddenly I started saying no more beading or wiring and I went to Revere Academy and I got my bachelor’s degree in fine jewelry. This year Revere is having its 30th Anniversary and they’re bringing in David Yurman to teach so I’m very excited about that. I’m still going to school there and it’s fun because I’m a graduate so I have been able to come back and give lectures on green jewelry and different things I’ve found success in.

DP: I know you’re involved with your company, Bently Holdings. How intense is your involvement?
AMB: Bently Holdings is a Green practicing Real Estate company and I am President so I deal with the large negotiations with my husband the CEO, and we work really well together. We haven't had to use a broker on most of our rent negotiations, which is a great feeling of a job well done. We are in the process of turning all our buildings LEED EB after the Bently Reserve is complete with its certification which should be very soon.

DP: Besides Global Green USA, what philanthropic organizations are you involved with?
AMB: PRBO Science, Dress For Success, Sunset Youth organization, PAWS, TNDC, Nature Conservatory, and I am sure I am missing some.

DP: What plans do you have for Kamalaspa? Do you think you'll expand into other locations?
AMB: My next goal for Kamalaspa is to reopen when the economy is back on its feet so every one can enjoy the beauty of Ayurveda.

DP: How do you stay balanced while being involved fully in so many projects?
AMB: Luckily we have a great staff who works really hard and therefore make our lives easier.

DP: What do you think makes San Francisco unique from other major destination cities like New York, London and Paris?
AMB: We have a great array of food, amazing people, great architecture, and a lot of people who care about the environment. I have lived in the Bay Area for ten years and downtown for 3 years. I love this city!

DP: How does the fashion and design scene in San Francisco compare to other major cities – or does it compare at all?
AMB: I think we are way more edgy than most cities. We are not confined by old world rules so we make our own and we look good doing it.

DP: How do you think groups like the Innovative Fashion Council can encourage designers and manufacturers to focus on sustainable design practices, especially when it involves spending more and charging more?
AMB: Well during this economic crash you can only hope people will do the right thing, but they may put off the more costly items that are necessary to making a greener future.

DP: Do you think the eco-industry will lose momentum and credibility in today's economy – especially when most people have less money to spend on things like organic fashion or food?
AMB: Yes I do, but again I rely on the people just doing the right thing for the right reasons. If clothing is needed, say, for a cocktail party chances are most greenies are going to buy green. I know this because we make Bio diesel and it is more expensive than regular diesel but people are still buying it. So I trust people to do the right thing.

DP: Finally – is there another creative endeavor or project that you've always thought about doing, but haven't tried yet?
AMB: Yes. Opening a night club or a really cool wine bar.