Promise Rings

Jewelry designer combines a modern stance on diamonds with Victorian sensibilities 

“I hand pick each stone,” says Stephanie Ellis.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

As a child, Stephanie Ellis made jewelry out of anything she could find: A piece of ribbon and a button would become a ring. After her parents recognized her talent and gave her colored wire to work with, “I went to town,” she says, “making different pieces [such as] woven neck collars.” 

Such deep support — later it was an inspiring teacher in a high school with an unusually wide-ranging arts curriculum, including metalwork — helped Ellis turn early flights of fancy into a lucrative, meaningful career. At Iowa State University, she tried everything from advanced woodworking to ceramics, but, not surprisingly, when it came time to choose her concentration, metalsmithing again won out. “I always felt strongly connected to the materials,” she says. 

Ellis’ jewelry is distinguished by sharp angles. (Photo by Folk + Wayfarer)

The serendipity continued outside the classroom. While in college, she worked for a locally owned jewelry store, where the owners recognized her natural ability and let her learn and experiment. “Later I worked as a bench jeweler in Vail, Colorado, for an amazingly talented jewelry artist. It was an incredible opportunity and learning experience,” declares Ellis. 

From there, Ellis pursued her MFA in Metalsmithing from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where the rural campus provided the perfect, distraction-free place for her to create. While there, she attended a lecture by Yale University Art Gallery Director Jock Reynolds. “We had a wonderful conversation, he was intrigued by my work, and decided to have the school requisition a couple of my pieces.”

It was also at Carbondale that Ellis began fusing her love of antique and contemporary designs to create unique hybrid pieces. Years of restoring antique jewelry didn’t hurt, either. “Antique pieces have soul that new ones just don’t,” Ellis says, adding that she was also drawn to geometry and loved sharp angles. 

Ellis arrived in Asheville in 2010 and grew her business into a thriving online entity. One look at her work and it’s obvious that she has one foot firmly planted in the past and the other in an innovative present. Ellis’ Master’s thesis was on Victorian culture and mourning jewelry, which is made with the hair of those who have passed on. It’s a fascinating type of memento mori — material objects that remind us that life is finite. 

Ellis’ engagement rings all have proper Victorian names, including the “Violet” and the “Elsie,” reflecting her belief that jewelry is the premier form of self-expression. “No two pieces are alike, and stones are also important mementos and talismans,” she says. The stone-centric pieces look at once medieval, Deco-inspired, and ultra-contemporary.

Her current work is nothing if not boldly intentional. Ellis balances her creative design efforts, and the considerable labor required to realize them, with sustainability. “I hand pick each stone and purchase only from ethically certified vendors,” she says. She explains that a certification system known as the Kimberley Process ensures that a stone is “conflict free,” or mined responsibly. 

Using mysterious opaque diamonds is one way the artist brings in her Victorian influences.

This is especially important to Ellis because her popular bridal line focuses on rustic rose-cut diamond rings and bands. Unlike classic diamonds, these stones can be mustard, sienna, brown, gray, and other colors. They range widely in opacity, from “perfectly transparent to completely opaque,” and “can even have opalescent qualities,” says the artist.  

“I cater to couples who don’t necessarily want the traditional, 1-carat round brilliant diamond engagement ring and are searching for something different,” she explains. Clients also supply Ellis with heirloom family stones. “I learn their story and incorporate a piece of their family’s history into my work. 

“One of my greatest joys,” she adds, “is developing a relationship with each couple I work with. They often stay in touch with me and even send me wedding pictures. … I have the best job in the world.”

Stephanie Ellis’ work is sold at Woodlands Gallery, 419 North Main St., Hendersonville, 828-230-9080, woodlandsgallerync.com. (Also at Mora, moracollection.com.) For custom designs and more information, see stephanieellisjewelry.com.

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