The Pharoah’s Designer: Carolyn Tyler visits Karats Vail
VAIL — Carolyn Tyler is a familiar face at Karats Vail, frequenting the gallery for artist shows once or twice a year for decades. She is known for her one-of-a-kind designs and favors using “phenomenal” gems — those that possess special qualities of light reflection and refraction — ancient coins and South Sea pearls in her creations. Nature, mythology, art, music, and dance inspire the designs. She will be at the Vail gallery through July 6.
Dan Telleen, owner of Karats Vail, interviewed her this week.
DT: Over the years you have found a wide following for your jewelry designs. What is it about your jewelry that attracts such loyalty?
CT: I can explain why I, myself, admire it, and I imagine it is the same for my collectors: There is a certain niche of jewelry aficionados who prize old-world quality detail and hand-craftsmanship—features which my work exemplifies. Those who are fascinated by antiquity and archaeology are attracted to my designs because I draw on themes from ancient Egypt and Byzantium, for example, and the cultures I studied in my university classes in anthropology such as the Etruscans, Celts and Vedic traditions. Living half my life in Southeast Asia, with its Buddhist, Islamic, and Hindu design influences, has infused my style with a hint of exoticism. Some designs are more modern and whimsically playful, and many pieces are fit for royals and resemble pirate booty.
DT: Do you sketch your jewelry ideas first or do you just jump right in?
CT: My design process goes like this: For 28 years, I attended global gem trade fairs yearly and I amassed a huge library of materials — gemstones, pearls, artifacts, ancient coins, etc. There I would buy what turned me on, what was new, and what I was most attracted to, rather than what most designers do, which is shop for the stones to set into the pieces in their pre-designed “seasonal design collection.” I would inspect absolutely everything on offer, and when something “spoke to me,” I would buy it. So, the designs created themselves in my imagination, when a gem or other material sparked the idea, on the spot, at the shows. Then, when I got back to my studio with my raw materials, I would remember all the design ideas I had at the show, just like I was going through a mental Rolodex, and I would then flesh-out the sketches for the craftsmen to follow. What a thrill it was, every time I received a piece hot off the bench, when one of my master craftsmen/women were finished working their magic on it.
DT: Many of your pieces have design elements or names that are reminiscent of mythology or ancient times. Why is that?
CT: I guess my parents got me interested in all of that — they took me to museums, and I remember I was always entranced by the Egyptian and Etruscan jewels — I had a real affinity for it, and felt like I had lived before in ancient times. Also, my father used to recite Islamic poetry from the Rubyat of Omar Khyam, and he’d explain Greek and Roman myths, while pointing out the constellations in the night sky. He was a polymath-— an artist, musician, poet, armchair astronomer, and loved telling me bedtime stories about Aladdin, Sinba, and Alibaba, so I was steeped in the lore of exotic cultures. I got the interest in Celtic and Druidic cultures from my British mother…
DT: As a culture, we primarily use jewelry to adorn ourselves. Other cultures you have studied use jewelry for other purposes. What are those other reasons you have found most interesting?
CT: Well, I think the first uses of jewelry, in so-called “primitive humans” was surely shamanic and talismanic, and this is the utility which fascinated me most. Early hominid burial sites contain shell and stone bead adornments which seem to have been included as a form of transportable wealth which could be carried to the afterlife. Additionally, mummified bodies in Peru have been found with small pouches still containing herbs and inscribed pebbles, much like the rune stones of ancient Celts — probably some lucky talisman which contained spells to ward off misfortune. I myself wear my opal pendant and opal ring every day, and don’t feel right without them.
DT: The environment is so fragile and the mining of gold is such a harsh process. How do you justify using gold in your work?
CT: I have always used recycled, as opposed to newly-mined, gold in my work. I made this a policy from the start and I explain it in my Mission Statement on my website: carolyntylerjewelry.com. I buy 24k gold ingots in one-kilo increments, which are made from refined “used” gold (melted heritage jewelry) which is collected by refiners. Thus, I am not contributing to the mining industry and all the havoc it wreaks with the environment by pumping arsenic and other toxins into the ground to extract the gold.
DT: So many of your pieces look like they were found in an archaeological dig. Have you ever been so directly influenced by a museum piece of jewelry that you feel a direct connection to its ancient creator?
CT: Ha ha!! I must have told you the story of how two different psychics told me that I was the jewelry designer for the Pharoah Ramses ll in a previous life, and designed the famous “twin duck” arm cuffs found on his mummy, and now housed in the Cairo Museum. I believe it, because since I was a kid, I was obsessed with these particular artifacts, and when my opal pendant I got in Greece in 1976 was stolen, and the quest for a replacement led me to Bali and my jewelry career, I ended up replacing the pendant with a ring modeled after the double-headed duck cuff. I have been wearing it daily since 1993.