Roanoke native Temple St. Clair parlayed a deep Virginia lineage and an abiding love for classical art and architecture into a highly polished 24-year-old jewelry empire producing tourmaline, peridot and sapphire-encrusted cocktail rings and pendants for retail giants including Saks and Neiman’s. With porcelain skin and limpid eyes that recall the moonstones in her gold cuffs, the artistic entrepreneur—whose creations fetch $2,500 to $60,000—discusses her commitment to sustainable sourcing, her gracious approach to business, and why she made a foray into the mass market via a new deal with Target.
How much time do you spend in Virginia now?
These days we go to Virginia a couple of times a year. I spend time in Norfolk where my mother lives now; in Charlottesville at Farmington where I had a speaking engagement last year; and then I still love taking my children to Hot Springs where I spent a lot of time as a child.
Are you really a descendant of Cotton Mather?
Yes, I am, he was an ancestor on my mother’s side, and as I say in my book Alchemy: A Passion for Jewels, his witch-hunting activities in 17th century Massachusetts overshadow any positive contributions he made, but my sons are fascinated by it.
How did your Virginia childhood inspire your work?
A lot of what I do comes from my own personal preferences and perspectives, my upbringing in the South, and particularly in Virginia which imparted a classical, established aesthetic and values. I was influenced by the rituals, the manners, the hunts in Charlottesville, things that connected me to the Old World.
How did you get your start?
I was living in Florence in the 1980s and I met a scout from Barney’s at a dinner party. She suggested I meet with the fashion director at the time. I naively showed them what I was working on and they jumped on it, putting it in a case with my name on it. This was 1986. I was their first fine jewelry line other than the estate pieces they sold. They were selling my rock crystal amulet, which is still in the collection, and classic pearl earrings, and they would call me every time they sold something.
How do you describe the look of your line?
I think I tend to be rather classic with a twist of my own style that makes my work timeless and modern and contemporary.
How has your role changed since the early days of building the company?
My job at this point is to be the designer and the keeper of the brand, which is what we’ve become, a brand. I keep our core values on track. My days vary between marketing obligations, traveling to events in stores, visiting with our goldsmiths, the same artisans in Florence that we’ve worked with for 20 years, and my design time.
Describe your design process.
I design by hand and carry a sketchbook with me at all times. My doodles are then sketched on the computer in CAD, making the transition to 3D. There’s always a lot of back and forth between the design on paper and the real thing; it can be tricky.
Where do you find your inspiration?
My designs come about in one of two ways, either from a story or a myth or from a gemstone that inspires me. Some of the conceptual design work happens on the fly when things spark my interest. “Odyssey,” our current collection, for example, originated from the fact that my son was reading Homer’s Odyssey in school. I love classical myth and so I was thinking about that era in ancient Greece and the eastern and western movements around the world for trade, and the influence that travel had on culture. I then think about color and the gemstones, sapphire, royal blue moonstone, ruby.
Where is your jewelry produced and where do you source your materials?
Our goldsmiths are in Florence and our stone-cutters are in Germany. Our chain is also tooled in Germany. We source our stones in South America, Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
Why do you feel so strongly about environmental sustainability?
You’re either an activist or you’re not. In the case of coral, it’s a living organism that is fundamental to the marine ecosystem. Farming it, which involves dredging the sea floor, destroys this habitat and is not sustainable. I joined the “Too Precious to Wear” campaign to build awareness for coral conservation. Red and pink coral, which are used by the artisans of Italy’s Torre del Greco, are the most endangered, yet they are at the center of this rich romantic tradition in which the artisans now feel threatened. But there are so many other ways to celebrate the beauty of coral without actually using it, and much of that coral is now not even sourced in the Mediterranean anyway, so it’s not even authentic.
What is your clearest memory of your Virginia childhood?
Our home in Roanoke was a great house with gardens, some of them very formal, in a beautiful neighborhood with a backdrop of the Blue Ridge. And then there was my grandmother’s farm out in Ivy in Charlottesville where there were Black Angus cattle and a beautiful pond with Canadian geese. I can still remember Monticello in very crisp detail with all of its gardens. There’s a certain lushness of the greenery that sticks with me and that I find soothing. I think of old trees.
You have spent a lot of time abroad. What role did that experience play in your design?
I was an only child and my parents and I traveled a lot as a family to Europe and elsewhere, including throughout the U.S. and Canada. My father was an executive with Gulf & Western Railroad in Roanoke and so we often tagged along on his trips. This instilled in me a love for art and architecture and travel and languages. Before one trip to Germany and Austria, I took an evening [German language] course at Roanoke Community College to get ready. At 14, I shipped off to Lausanne, Switzerland for boarding school. I studied Italian literature at Smith but spent my junior year in Florence and then returned there for a graduate program and spent many years there afterward.
Do you still consider yourself a Southerner?
I love New York. I live on the Lower East Side with my husband and two friends. But the South is my anchor. I carry with me a certain classicism and traditionalism that I learned from my older southern family.
Tell us about the deal you recently struck with Target.
Target came knocking on our door, as do a lot of companies, but I really like how they work with designers, how they support the arts and design and give back some percentage of sales to causes every week. So through Christmas, Target will be selling what I call my fake stuff, pieces priced at under $100. It’s really fun stuff, brass and colored resin, designs that are reminiscent of my early aesthetic jewelry.
How do you navigate the mass market world of popular price points at Target while still maintaining the prestige of your brand with retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus?
It’s really the nature of the way women buy today. I don’t think we’re compromising in any way – Isaac Mizrahi, John Paul Gaultier, and Karl Lagerfeld have all been there, so I’m in good company. Also, we’re presenting an opportunity to our younger clientele to buy into a world of taste. It’s aspirational and it’s a way in. Some clients are buying for their teen daughters and some are just grabbing a piece for fun and if they lose it, it’s not the end of the world. I, too, will go into H&M and purchase a $15 t-shirt that I’ll wear with Jil Sander trousers and some Prada shoes.
How much of a role does fashion play in your design?
I do love fashion, but I don’t look to it for direction in designing a new collection.
That said, I live in New York, I am on the street every day, and there’s something that happens just through being here. I’m a collector rather than a trend shopper, so I’m constantly thinking of how I might put things together. I’m always designing for myself.