Jewelry designer Cathy Waterman is living proof that the artistic spirit is a gift bestowed only on special people with enormous hearts and inquiring minds. The cynic in you shuts up and goes to stand in the corner when she speaks—about her inspirations, her family, or her jewelry designs. There’s frequently a note of the mystical in her tone. “I am humbled by the beauty and ferocity of nature. I see patterns of leaves and petals when I close my eyes,” she says, adding, “I’m not sure that is normal.” Normal or not, it’s clearly working.
Her jewelry designs are noted for their fluid, organic shapes, like vines and tendrils weaving around the wearer’s wrist or finger. Delicate flowers bloom in platinum with diamond petals unfurling. Other motifs, like medieval crosses and spider webs make appearances from time to time, but it’s primarily the bloom and vine that characterize her work.
Waterman is one of those rare people who keep the lens of creativity pressed to her eye at all times—walking in the woods or strolling the beach, of course, but also in more prosaic moments, like putting her children to bed when they were little. Her experience raising her children, now grown, blended seamlessly into the creative process. “I believe the beauty in my work is a direct result of trying to create objects equal to these winged creatures of mine,” she told her best friend, photographer Sally Mann, in an interview that appears on the designer’s website.
A childhood in California’s verdant climate perfectly suited the nascent naturalist. “Flowers were my playthings growing up,” she says. “I was playing picnic with honeysuckle and making perfume with our garden roses. Roses permeate my life, and I wish I were better at growing them. My house now is full of flowers, and my kids tease me that there is always a tree growing out of our kitchen table, usually a tall vase of blossoms.”
Waterman got her start as a jewelry designer sketching out designs for herself. “I began drawing jewels that I imagined,” she says. “I think it was because I couldn’t afford or find the perfect jewels for me. My first pieces were either hammered gold with precious stones or tiny cultured pearls with diamonds, rather medieval.”
It’s no surprise that the cerebral jeweler says that most of her designs come from her prolific imagination. When complimented on her ability to render such ephemeral things as flowers in stone and metal, she brushes aside the flattery. “I am a magical thinker, so it’s easy,” she says. “I render them either literally or often abstractly, in gold with lace, or platinum and diamonds with spinel or turquoise beads. They are among my most cherished pieces and are truly loved by clients.” Sometimes a special stone inspires a new design: “When I find an exceptional piece of material, whether wood or stone, often the design process begins there, and sometimes I just play with combinations with other stones.”
The designer makes the rings, necklaces, bracelets, and charms by hand in her Culver City, California, studio. Metalsmiths, carvers, setters, and polishers render her designs for retail outlets like Barneys New York and boutique accessories shops like Etc. in Birmingham and Aspen. Her line is a favorite of red-carpet celebrities. Dianna Agron of “Glee” wore one of Waterman’s necklaces to the Golden Globes.
Waterman and her husband travel frequently, having visited Africa, India, Italy, Spain, France, and England. When they returned from a pre-unrest visit to Egypt, and Waterman was crackling with inspiration. “We visited the Wonders of the Ancient World, and it was a blast. Such bold thinking gets me charged up. And who knows where that will take me? I don’t do much relaxing, but recharging is perhaps a better way to describe my vacations. I have a deep interest in history, so holidays are always destinations where a spirit of place is palpable.”
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that this writer wears a Cathy Waterman band, but only because her beloved was addled by infatuation and uncharacteristically suggestible. Upon hearing this, Waterman responds with a warmth that only increases the writer’s affection for the ring. “That honors me, truly,” she says. “I’m not sure what the reason for the connection is, but whatever love and passion I have for my work—for the act of making—is what connects the person who wears it, hopefully, with the energy that the piece carries. And of course, when a hand makes an object, there is dignity and gravity in the making, so that too contributes to the energy each piece contains.”
By Lydia Somerville