The Jewel of Santa’s Workshop

Tucked away above the Silverhorn gallery, on Coast Village Road, is a well-kept secret, one of only a handful of European-style jewelry design studios in the entire country. No scary-looking elves here. This design team is a group of six young, hip and highly trained individuals who transform gems into works of art.

One of those designers is the workshop’s manager, Noel Bendle, who has been with Silverhorn for 10 years. Bendle’s career began when he was a teenager and a fine jeweler observed him playing pool in Germany. “He was the father of a friend of mine and when he saw my hand-eye coordination he suggested I come into his studio to work for the summer,” Bendle says. “I never looked back.”

Each of the Silverhorn designers studied his or her craft for five years before qualifying for an apprenticeship. Following an apprenticeship with master craftsmen, designers typically go on to fine European design houses, work with private clients or receive commissions from the likes of Friederich in Frankfurt or Cartier in Paris.

That is when they come to Silverhorn’s attention. The designers are invited to Santa Barbara and the owners of the boutique, Michael and Carole Ridding, help them obtain housing, visas and settle in to the community. Most of the six designers on staff have been with Silverhorn for more than five years. Those who have left have started their own successful design business and still work on Silverhorn commissions – a true example of an extended family business.

I spent some time in the workshop, where I found the designers to be just like any other group of young professionals working in an office. Dressed in the relaxed uniform of the day – jeans, khakis and tee shirts – they joke with one another and exhibit a warm sense of camaraderie.

No computer monitors here or shiny chrome office furniture. Each designer has his or her own old world, wooden workbench, complete with leather apron slung from the bench, not the waist, to catch the precious fragments of gold, platinum or loose stone. Instead of Sharpies and calculators, fine Swiss and German tools line the benches, most carried by the designers since their days at school, like a culinary student’s set of knives.

More than 50% of what is sold at Silverhorn is handcrafted in the workshop. Wilfried Kowollik, a master goldsmith, specializes in designing fine diamond jewelry and has been with the store since 1999. He trained in Germany and set up his own company near Frankfurt before moving to Santa Barbara. His most memorable piece was a 95-carat diamond necklace. “There is a respect for working with your hands still today in Europe that most of us here in America have lost,” says Michael Ridding, who opened Silverhorn in 1976. “The pride in handcrafting a thing of beauty is time-honored in Europe. As a result, this type of training is not available any longer in America.”

Kestin Menke is the newest member of the team and is the workshop’s only woman. Like many of the other designers, Menke was inspired to follow her career path as a young child, watching a family friend make jewelry.

Thomas Heys’s specialty is unique settings. He showed me a piece he had recently finished, a one-inch pear brooch set with 147 diamonds. He placed a sparkling spec in my hand and told me that this incredibly small diamond had 57 cuts. I put it down immediately, afraid I would damage it.

But the workshop, as I soon found out, isn’t just about tools and stones. Meeting directly with clients is also part of the job. Clients can browse through books of sketches and photos to review Silverhorn’s extensive selection of more than 30 years of designs. Once the design is approved a model of the piece is created for the client to try on.

One Silverhorn client recently wanted to commemorate her extensive travels and commissioned a diamond globe pendant, showcasing the 150 countries she had visited. A ruby highlights each particularly special place. The designer created an elaborately set stone stand for the globe so when she is not wearing it, the piece can be admired as a small sculpture.

Walking around the shop, I spotted Sebastian Hergueda working quietly at his workbench, his elaborately tattooed arm exposed. The tattoo designs inspired him recently to create a dragon brooch with green garnets and diamonds; it sold in an instant. Hergueda’s parents are artists back in Switzerland and their work has of course influenced his own, not only to design but to work with customers and fulfill their desires.

“Designing a custom-made piece of jewelry is a collaboration between the designer and the client,” Bendle says. “Not all clients are able to articulate their vision so we help by the powers of observation. We look at their clothing, of course, the jewelry they are wearing and ask questions about their lifestyle.”