A decade ago on the other side of the world in New York, I admired a striking, gilded cuff hugging the wrist of an especially fashionable friend. She also happens to be among the most generous people I know – something I learned as she slid the leaf-shaped gem onto my left forearm, gently forcing the tip towards the stem.
From that Manhattan moment onward, the 24ct-gold-plated, nature-does-it-better design ($380 gold, $300 silver, first picture) has spruced up my travel wardrobe from Argentine estancia weekends to après-ski evenings in Zermatt. Along the way, I am embarrassed to admit, I never gave much thought to my beloved bangle’s origins.
Fast-forward to last summer, when an unexpected Himalayan reunion with this ever-fabulously-turned-out friend revealed that the design mind and talented hands behind my go-to gold accessory was none other than her mother, Colombian jeweller Clara Saldarriaga. High on the Tibetan Plateau, I began flicking through Saldarriaga’s enthralling Instagram album of original pieces and the nature that inspires them – a statement-making Spiral bracelet in silver ($180), a playful pheasant ring in etched gold, which wraps around the finger ($450), an equally charming serpent version ($650), gold mosquito studs ($1800) and an intricately stylised pair of frogs ($550).
Curiosity about the exotic ornamentation on these gilt amphibians prompted the journalist in me to start asking questions – first of the daughter, then the mother, whom I reached at her studio in Medellín. The trained sculptor revealed that she was inspired by pre-Hispanic pieces she had studied in Bogota’s El Museo del Oro, learning ancient jewellery-making techniques and observing Colombia’s uniquely green landscape.
My own armband, in fact, began life as a mango leaf, one of her country’s 55,000 species of flora and fauna. Saldarriaga finds these and other plants in the forest near her home, dips them carefully in an electrolytic “copper soup” and then plates them in pure silver or 24ct gold.
“Starting with one-of-a-kind real leaves, seeds or driftwood means that as you wear the pieces and develop a relationship with them, new colours and patinas start to emerge, making the piece uniquely yours,” explains Saldarriaga. I can confirm that to be true of mine ($340): 10 years on looks, it distinct from the larger, darker version now sported by Saldarriaga’s daughter.
When I note that her pieces effectively extend the life cycle of a plant – including Medellín’s wild orchids ($340 gold, second picture; $280 silver), a piece I recently added to my collection – Saldarriaga says that longevity is literally the root of her brand.
Saldarriaga also tells me that Cameron Diaz, Donna Karan and Lauren Bush are fans of her nature-inspired gems and that she sources her gold from Colombia’s Choco region, where an innovative pilot programme mines in a way that protects the area’s complex ecosystem. But it is her talk of upcoming pieces – which incorporate raw Colombian emeralds and filigree from the silversmiths of Mompox, a colonial port city along Colombia’s Magdalena River – that really captures the imagination.