While many jewelry designers and makers produce work that is artistically derivative, mass marketed and coveted for material rather than artistic value, Swiss-based, Holland-born Sheila Westera is an unparalleled jewelry artist who creates refined jewelry-making techniques and designs that are immediately recognizable as hers, and hers alone. Having pioneered proprietary; patented techniques for weaving, wrapping and sculpting sterling silver, 18-karat gold or 14-karat gold-filled wire around every imaginable gemstone and hard stone, Westera is making unique contributions to the narrative of jewelry history.
“In a jewel,” Westera explains, “I like to see the personality and the hand of the artist; their mind or values. I never really understood how a ring could be seen as beautiful when it only features an amazing brilliant cut diamond,” she says. “I see this more as a status symbol, a jewel that is purely driven by materialism.” Having worked for upmarket and heritage jewelers in Amsterdam, Holland, for years before launching her collections, Westera is a gemological and jewelry professional with an innovative vision and rare technical finesse. Rather than showcasing mega-beautiful, high cost gemstones, Westera’s oeuvre embodies compelling gems of earth and sea, (as well as irresistible found objects), that are literally enrobed in elegantly woven, draped and precisely shaped wire.
Specializing in jewels that look more like precious artifacts made by mysterious beings from distant lands than branded luxury jewelry products, Westera retails on her website, her Instagram gallery and storefront on www.1stdibs.com. Along with her three collections that are titled Conversation Pieces, Arty Scenes and Purely Wired, Westera also enjoys fulfilling custom design commissions. “I give clients the option to choose from my collection of gemstones, semi-precious stones or pearls,” she explains, “and they select either 14-karat yellow gold-filled wire, 14-karat rose gold filled wire, 18-karat gold wire or sterling silver wire.”
As a longtime gemstone collector, Westera explains, “Currently I use every stone or pearl that speaks to me, cut, uncut, semi-precious or precious, for the Conversation Pieces collection, which consists mainly of cocktail rings, and necklaces. This is my most glamorous collection, where each stone has to be as natural as possible, as well as sustainable, antique, or vintage. About 90 to 95 % of my stones are completely natural, and the rest were bought or sourced years ago, when I was in search of a certain shape or color.”
Westera’s Conversation Pieces collection abounds with dramatically sculptural shapes which resemble miniature and extremely elegant bird’s nests that contain compelling gems. Weaving wire around various gemstones or pearls so that her gems of earth and sea appear nestled within finely woven miniature baskets, Westera’s rings and pendants look like organic materials that have been skillfully shaped into refined artworks. Because of her technical finesse, there is nothing “craftsy” about the forms and concepts animating Westera’s designs. Indeed, many of her pieces in sterling and gold wire embody the fluid forms and fine textures of textiles woven of pure gold or sterling thread.
In her wearable artwork collection, Arty Scenes, Westera explains, “I use any kind of material that I find interesting. It can be a special gemstone, found materials, porcelain shards, wood, metal, fake gemstones, or textiles with which I’m able to express myself. I like to emphasize the beauty of our planet Earth.” In the realm of Arty Scenes, Westera can express what she refers to as her “activist side.” Three of Westera’s most compelling (and patented) design techniques and styles include Possessions, Conscious and Embrace, in which she ‘sets’ her hand-selected stones by skillfully securing them with wire. Together, these form the base of her Conversation Pieces collection.
“When I finally started working with more precious metals,” Westera recalls, “it allowed me to capture the stones that I had collected during my journeys across the world or at jewelry fairs. I invented the Possessions technique to capture the stones that I wanted to wear close to me and for my friends who wanted to wear precious stones close to them. I have been striving to develop unique techniques over the years. I’m currently challenging myself in different designs, and creating my purest forms within Conversation Pieces. I also like to combine different stones within the same jewels and develop different types of settings. I do keep coming up with new techniques and forms, and these are patented.”
According to Westera, “Purely Wired started as my creative outlet, as a useful activity in times when I had a creative block. I was stuck on something in my other collections, so I started creating earrings to get into the mood of things. These are easy, unique and light weight, good for wearing on my travels,” she explains. “I also gave away many to friends and family, who received them enthusiastically. So that’s how I started the Purely Wired collection, and I came up with the concept for Purely Wired rings last year.” After years of practicing, Westera says, “I can now create a pair of one-of-a-kind earrings in under one and a half hours, if they embody a simple style.” While it’s a challenge to form them identically and mirror their shapes, Westera admits that their imperfections are part of their charm. “I want every piece to be totally unique and I shape them according to my daily moods. Some days they are more elaborate, more abstract or even more simplistic than others.” In the final analysis, what matters most to her is that, “They need to have a special character, and to be balanced.”
When creating a ring for the Purely Wired collection with a stone, she explains, “It should be light in weight as a contrast to my weightier Conversation Pieces rings. I want Purely Wired rings to be created in under three hours and to be affordable one-of-a-kind pieces.” Regarding her production schedule, Westera notes that, “Only when I’m lucky, can I create a ring in one day. To be able to do that, I have to be in the right mindset. Each time that I create a one-of-a-kind ring, it is quite a process, which I love, and I do get better at it.” For example, she notes, “Each stone almost requires a slightly different style within the Possessions technique. Sometimes I like it to be more intricate and fine, and other times it is more open and has a raw appeal.” When she starts making a ring, Westera either finishes it that day, or puts it aside to continue work on it over a period of time. “I’m spending roughly between 6 to 12 working hours on a piece,” she says.
Despite her claim, “I never wanted to be a jewelry designer, it just happened,” Westera has developed into a profoundly prolific designer/jeweler. “I only wanted to create jewels that I would like to wear myself, even if it was only in a dream-like setting,” she recalls. The fact is, Westera spent much of her early life working around upmarket gemstones and jewelry designs. “While still at school, I helped out serving coffee on Saturdays in the high end jewelry company where my stepmother was a manager for many years,” Westera says. “I later worked for that company full time.”
Whilst studying art history and architecture at university in Amsterdam, Westera took a sales job in a prestigious diamond and fine jewelry company there. Discovering that selling wasn’t for her, she transferred to the after-sales department of that same firm. “I dealt with jewelry and watches, which was great for growing my knowledge base,” she relates. “I learned everything about how and where jewels were made, and their many differences in quality. I worked closely with various goldsmiths, stone cutters, stone setters and watchmakers.” At a certain point, Westera wanted to leave and work in the fine arts sector. “As the company didn’t want to let me go, they offered me the positions of designing the decor for their huge window displays, and keeping track of their jewelry stock. I was also doing a general jewelry education course and studying stones. During this period, I was working on and off at a few other high end jewelry companies.”
When she finally started making jewelry, it was more of a cathartic exercise than an applied arts pursuit, for Westera’s first jewels were made of litter that had washed ashore on the beach near her holiday house, or detritus that she had collected elsewhere. “In the beginning, I made almost unwearable jewelry as a way to express my feelings about pollution and my love for the environment. It wasn’t about adornment in the first place.”Pioneering her proprietary metal wire techniques, she remembers, “I really loved that ancient, and almost unskilled finish, a naive way of working. I realized that I liked to create structures,” she continues. “I love building, and I wanted each of my stones, pearls etc. to be held solely by wire. I’ve practiced and perfected my technique over the years,” she says. “I have never used glue to keep my stones in place, as I like things to be as pure as possible in every way.”
While conceptualizing what she calls her “more glamorous pieces,” Westera explains, “I want to prove that a jewel does not need a perfect or a high-end stone, as I want my work to be a symbiosis of a stone and its unique ring design. Each jewel should have its own unique personality. So far,” she explains, “I haven’t had the desire to work with diamonds, but I might in the future, combined with 22-karat gold, as long as the diamonds come from a certified sustainable source.” Sustainable thinking and living is something that has always come naturally to Westera. “I have always enjoyed being in nature, being innocent amongst flowers, the birds and the bees.” The organically woven and bejeweled wilderness of Westera’s designs materially embodies and visually communicates this love of nature, proving once again that jewelry can serve symbolic purposes beyond mere adornment.