Sebastopol jeweler Luana Coonen is known for her nature-inspired jewelry, created with traditional goldsmithing techniques, natural materials and acrylics. Born and raised in Hawaii, her relationship with nature extends from unique materials like butterfly wings to her sustainability practices. We asked her about inspiration, her relationship to place, and how she integrates nature into her daily life.
Your jewelry is very much inspired by the natural world, did your work start out that way?
Yes, that’s a great thing about my style, it’s stayed steady since the start. I think you could easily recognize a piece of mine from 15 years ago. I think having parents which were horticulturist & farmers – who grew bromeliad, hapu’u ferns, unusual tropical fruits, and hundreds of orchids didn’t hurt.
You moved from Hawaii to the Bay Area, how did your relationship to nature change (if at all) when you moved?
I was born and raised in the tropics of Hawaii, in a fairly isolated area, and upon moving to the Bay Area to study jewelry I had some pretty intense culture shock. I think observing every blade of grass and fallen leaf I stumbled upon was the only thing which kept me grounded and tied to my roots. I then began obsessing over how humans try to ‘control’ nature in an urban environment, that was a completely foreign concept to me.
You also overtly incorporate the natural world into your work, like with your moth and leaf encasement earrings, tell us about that process.
While taking my first jewelry class, the final project was to use a ‘non-metal’ component (meaning a stone) but I found an ivy leaf on a walk I wanted to work with instead, it spoke to me more than the stones we could purchase from who-knows-where. After much trial & error, the piece was complete and I thought, “hhm… think I’ve stumbled on something, sign me up for life.” Since then I have pursued how to make these pieces lighter and more wearable, as I am still enchanted by nature’s little wonders just as much as the first day.
You just took a month off to hike the John Muir Trail, tell us about it and what are some important lessons or points of inspiration you came back to work with?
The largest lesson I brought back relates to my career, or any aspect of one’s life or relationship really. It’s that: there is no good, there is no bad. No fast, no slow, no stronger or weaker, no better or worse, there are only comparisons. And if you remove the comparisons, you can really just sit back and enjoy things.
When you are working on a daily basis, how do you keep your connection with nature? Do you have routines that you follow?
My concept of spending time in nature is a bit more ‘quality over quantity’. Whether on a month long hike, or a 5 minute walk, it’s if you get that ‘ah-ha’ moment or not. That time where everything gets quiet, you zoom in on one tiny detail (say, the end of a fern unfurling) just study it…. watching natures growth patterns and the mysterious ways it works.
I’m lucky enough to live walking distance from work and near some great walking trails here in Sebastopol. On my commute I’m often pretty distracted by the spring flowers or fresh acorns on the ground, good luck getting me to focus on much else.
You are a “green jeweler” — what are some of the environmental concerns in the jewelry industry and what should concerned consumers look for when trying to buy jewelry that doesn’t harm the environment?
The most important question for consumers right now is “where did _______ come from?” (this fabric? this stone? this paper?) And the follow up question “where was it _________” (cut? processed? milled?) My current favorite is: where did this stone come from and where was it cut? (I’ve always got an answer for you!) Also, a super easy way to navigate this is by shopping jewelers listed on the Ethical Metalsmiths website.
In a global economy, every material we work with can take a long road to get to us. I’m very careful to choose ones which do not harm the environment or local residents along the way. (My favorite choices are: responsibly mined domestic gemstones, recycled gold, and antique diamonds repolished in the USA.)
My current topic of research and interest is colored gemstones and how to carefully source them. Gemstones come from all over the world, and are mined in a multitude of ways, from found along a river side to digging crater-sized holes in the ground. There are currently incentives and programs being put into place to recognize and support the communities who are doing it carefully and mindfully. To get an idea, you can read about Fairmined Gold, a program which did not exist a matter of years ago: Alliance for Responsible Mining.