Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652,) today considered one of the most accomplished painters of her generation, was, against all odds, the first female painter to be admitted to the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. If Sandi Miller Burrows had been alive, she might have become the first female guild member and artisanal jewelry maker to the highest nobles and the church. She might then have secured her dream commission of a crown. Much of her work is influenced by the era. Perhaps in another life…
Born into a cultured, “style conscious” Pittsburgh family, Sandi was exposed to travel and the arts from a very young age. Her mother was elegant, adept with décor, and founder of the first contemporary art gallery in the city. Mrs. Miller was allergic to costume jewelry (as is Sandi) which, whether made in brass or white metal, is first plated with nickel and then, yellow or white gold. The nickel migrates through the surface sometimes causing skin to react. Apparently she was so sensitive, garters left welts. “So my father made her gold ones in his laboratory.” (Dr. Miller was a prosthodontist, a specialist in full mouth rehabilitation in porcelain and gold.) Sandi showed me the gold garters. Now, that’s a gift!
As a college sophomore, Sandi was one of 5 girls and 83 boys in the Industrial Design Department of the Rhode Island School of Design. Assignments she recalls included keeping a raw egg intact inside a cage constructed of toothpicks dropped from about fifty feet up and building an eight foot suspension bridge out of corrugated cardboard. She enthusiastically met the challenges but felt handicapped. “These guys had built The Visible Engine growing up. I had no mechanical background at all.” Junior year, she changed her major to Sculpture, learning her way around the foundry, working in iron and steel. She was also making sculpture in fiberglass, “which is nasty to work with and harmful to the body.”
Her boyfriend at the time was doing graduate work in light metals. Sandi found herself gravitating to his workshop. “I decided sculpture would be a lonely life. Jewelry is more practical, enabling personal contact and incorporates the finest materials coming out of the earth.” She signed up for the program with John Prip, a 12th generation Danish master metalsmith. Jewelry it would be. Upon graduating, she went to work as a bench jeweler for Ron McNeish, a goldsmith in Pittsburgh. “My father said, ‘don’t work in silver, work in gold. Remember the woman who threw the $50,000 birthday party for her dog in the depression? That’s who you want for a client.’” She wanted to establish her own studio, but needed funding. “I didn’t ask, he didn’t offer,” she said, referring to her father. Sandi applied for and received a grant from The National Endowment for the Arts. She set up her studio, designing and making one-of-a-kind creations for private clientele. Her father gave her a big sheet of 18 karat gold to get started.
Four years later, she took a position designing at a jewelry store in Washington DC in order to be near her now divorced mother. Sandi always had her own clients. “I like the personal one-on-one. People bring you their stones, sentimental jewelry or ideas…the pieces have meaning for them.” Vendors in Washington convinced the young designer she should be in New York City. As she packed to move, however, her father offered a vacation in Africa. Before the trip, several original pieces were loaned to a high fashion magazine. When Sandi returned, the publication declared them stolen. She hired a law firm. Michael Burrows became her counsel. Sandi and Michael began to talk. Eventually she went to pick up the check. Four years later, in 1982, they married. Eventually her son, Matthew, also an artist, was born.
Sandi secured a two bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (now used as her studio) and a job designing fine jewelry at Cindy Royce. “It was a bunch of guys moving uptown to fancy new offices who wanted a fancy new designer. I could do what I wanted at their shop,” but “diamonds and gold had gone crazy, and they wanted me to design teeny-tiny pieces, so I decided to investigate costume jewelry. If you drop a rhinestone, you don’t even bother.” A brief sojourn at Joseph Mazur working on “high fashion costume jewelry, very real looking …crystal, glass, white metal” followed. They closed.
“I had never done the big corporate thing and I thought it would be useful.” Six months into a job at Monet, the company secured the license to Yves St. Laurent costume jewelry. Sandi was put in charge under Muriel Meyers, VP of Design. She created 1200 designs a year. Think about that. “I’d go back and forth to Paris every two months, sometimes with Muriel, sometimes alone. We were on the Concord and staying at the Hotel Bristol. It was the best, a perfect fit. I would’ve paid them for the experience.” (Michael Burrows traveled for work as well so the couple would meet abroad.) A US factory in Providence, Rhode Island completed the loop.
Fashion was colorful, excessive. Jewelry made a statement. It was big and/or worn in multiples. Sandi has the prototypes. They range from enormous, sleek, metal cuffs to translucent, colored flowers with teardrop petals; from geometric, deco-toned, plastic brooches to elaborate necklaces with large clear glass stones created long before they became ubiquitous in the last year or so. The range is wide, the work striking. “I’ve become collectable in my own time,” she says with a grin.
After two and a half intense years of designing YSL jewelry, Sandi requested two more weeks off and an assistant. Denied, she quit. Freelance jewelry design for Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, and Swarovski and handbag design for Valentino alumnus, Patrick O’Dea, provided a bridge to setting up her own studio again. “I went back to precious jewelry, advertised in Avenue Magazine, and got commissions.”
In 2000, she was joined by Peggy Pickman Reiner, whom she’d known from Monet. Their greatest success was a diamond monogram series which Sandi continues. Inspired by Catherine the Great, who had elaborate, diamond monograms made for her ladies in waiting to wear on duty, a diamond initials pendant was fashioned for Peggy. The Creative Director of Harry Winston saw the piece around her neck, a deal was negotiated, and a great many pieces were sold. When Winston was purchased by a Canadian diamond mining corporation, the contract had run out.
I paged through a phonebook-sized record of monogram jewelry. Every piece is meticulously rendered in ink and paint. (When Sandi does this for jewelry with gem settings, the scale is engineered so that actual gems can be laid on top of the art to get a feeling for the finished piece.) There are pendants of white diamonds, black and white diamonds, sapphires and diamonds…one with rubies…in several sizes and each a different font and/or configuration. The cost of a custom diamond monogram pendant is $5000 and up depending on size and materials. “It has to be a beautiful piece and only secondarily a monogram.” And so they are. Even the chains are distinctive …like seeing a painting whose frame has been executed by the artist himself, they live well together. I’m shown a pair of black diamond monogram cufflinks the artist made for her husband. Other adaptations are possible.
When the Headley-Whitney Museum for Decorative Arts in Kentucky sponsored a competition to utilize a 216 ct. Yemen yellow sapphire someone had donated, Sandi won the grand prize with a bibelot box of 18k white and yellow gold, transparent blue enamel, and white diamonds. It’s now in the permanent collection at the museum.
One client brought some original brass “doodles” by Alexander Calder he wanted made into brooches. Respecting the integrity of the art, Sandi devised a snap-in setting that didn’t harm the originals. Another arrived with two actual bones from a lion’s neck. The beast had been shot by her Green Beret husband on safari. Sandi had them cleaned at Maxilla and Mandible and because they fit so perfectly over the wrist, duplicated the bones in solid gold, constructing a hinged bracelet with an invisible locking system. “A real conversation piece.” I’ll say.
Sandi’s spacious, sunny studio houses thirty-eight year’s worth of archival paintings, research, inspiration (pyramids and bats proliferate,) jewelry, and tools. She has a shark’s tooth waiting to be turned into a belt buckle and is working on some marvelous precious stone headpieces. Brooches, necklaces, pendants, studs, rings… adornment of all kinds and objects of virtue are on her horizon. Her client list is impressive and closely guarded. “Sometimes people ask if I’ll copy a piece of Buccellati and I‘ll ask, why? Why would you want me to do that?!” Needless to say, the request is politely refused.
Original creations, unless specified otherwise, are aesthetically substantial. Particular influences include the European Middle Ages and Renaissance, and the Russia of Catherine the Great. Rings, for example, have wide bands to hold stones in elegant settings so they balance and sit well on the finger. A ring she designed with an 8.36 carat natural fancy blue pear shaped diamond set in platinum, surrounded by 7.50 carats of natural vivid yellow diamonds, would have been priced at $3,200,000. The purchase was unconsummated so the stone was sold separately by the dealer. Sandi had an exact replica cut in an 8.50 carat aquamarine. Today, the platinum ring, still set with the vivid yellows, sells for $85,000. It’s gorgeous.
Spirituality is a large part of Sandi’s approach to her art. “I have such great respect for nature and am humbled daily by the magnificence and integrity of the materials with which I work. When one thinks of the time, heat, pressure and energy it takes to create a pink diamond, one can only ponder that some of that energy radiates continually from the stone. Mankind has acknowledged the powers of gems…for balance, protection, and healing. These thoughts are always in my mind as I work.”
The awareness is a grace innate to Sandi Burrows, not a pitch. “I smoke, drink a lot of coffee and stay up late, but I get massages and do Pilates twice a week.” This is a smart, funny, curiously avant- garde and prodigiously talented artisan.
Sandi Miller Burrows Designs
1. Platinum, 18k yellow gold earrings with diamonds and pink tourmaline.
2. “Alexandra” Ring in Platinum and 18k Yellow gold set with large cabochon, chrome tourmaline, pink tourmalines, and diamonds.
3. Wedding Band in Platinum and 18k Yellow gold set with 10.50 carats of diamond baguettes and round diamonds.
4. Wedding Band in Platinum and 18k yellow gold set with 8 oval diamonds and round diamonds.
Photos in text in order shown:
Black Enamel 18k Maltese Cross set with Diamonds and Aquamarine on black silk cord
Wide 18k Yellow Gold Architectural Bangle Bracelet
Diamond Monogram Pendants
Headley White Bibelot
18k gold collar with diamond wraps