WHILE GOLDSMITH DARA WAXMAN WAS WORKING as a set dresser on A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, she happened upon a piece of rusted metal along the old railroad tracks near the basement where they were filming. Today, 13 years later, after rummaging about for a moment in a corner of her Hollywood workshop, Waxman fishes out the relic: "See, it's a corkscrew attached to this . . . ring." She slips the twisted piece of metal onto her finger, and suddenly it isn't just a bit of industrial detritus. You begin to see the form, the potential.
It wasn't until eight years later, in 1997, when Waxman left Los Angeles to see the world, that things fell into place. She began work as an apprentice to master goldsmith Gudula Roch in Düsseldorf. For nine months she learned the methods of creating jewelry in the tradition of a guild artisan -- smelting, casting, filing, soldering, polishing, forming. "I was traveling a lot, and I was looking for a craft that could be done anywhere in the world. Illustrations by Shino Arihara
"The one thing you can always find is someone with a welding torch. Making jewelry sounds so formal, but you could actually find it in even the most basic of societies. In India you'd see a guy sitting on the side of the road smelting and hammering something.Maybe it was only a brass pot, but it's the same technique."
The idea of discovery is central to Waxman's craft. "The hunting, the finding -- these are what I fell in love with," she says. Take, for instance, a silver ring she's working on now. Waxman will embed a citrine onto the "interior" side so that when the wearer opens her hand --voilà! --the tiny sparkling gem is revealed, nestling against the palm. "It's like a little secret treat," she says, smiling. She holds up a key chain commissioned by a friend, a finger-sized silver screw capped with a solitary amethyst. The screw once held together the vertebrae in her friend's spine. "Maybe it's macabre, but it's what he wanted, and it's beautiful." With her pixie-cut crop of dark hair and delicate features, Waxman is a fairy creature with an edge.
Her pieces are meant to evolve. Lariats of green peridots or champagne aquamarines double as chokers and bracelets. Parabolic silver rings, like interlocking sine waves, twist on the finger in multiple combinations. Blood-red clusters of briolette rubies tumble from the ear to graze the collarbone like necklaces. There is no "correct" way of wearing a piece, only flexibility, individuality.
"Nonlinearity" was key to her training at the atelier in Düsseldorf, but in a sense it's what Waxman has been doing her whole life, with her apprenticeship simply giving technique to a deeper, innate style. Every corner of her small but tasteful living room holds some treasure, arranged just so: a groom's wedding anklet from Indonesia, a gold-leaf triptych of Catholic saints, a giant orange flame-shaped glass vase. "I am a slave to my aesthetic," she jokes, flinging up her arms. Which gets at the other half of her philosophy: Take what you need from diverse sources and make it your own. Waxman drives around Los Angeles, snapping pictures of decorative concrete blocks. A walk to the grocery turns into a found-object treasure hunt. (Seed pods! Twigs! Leaves!) "It's the difference between learning in a class and learning on the street," she says. "At one point while traveling I told another jeweler that I was considering going to the Gemological Institute. He laughed and showed me this bag of sapphires. He said, 'What are you going there for? They're not trading stones there like they do here in Bangkok!'"
These days the intense ropes of colored stones in her inaugural line of reworked vintage pieces have given way to sculpted, geometric metal forms. Eighteen-karat gold disks are stacked atop rings like miniature ziggurat temples. Rings are carved out of joined silver ovals. Squeezing into her snug workspace, Waxman turns to her crucible and soldering iron. Resting on the workbench is the ring she feels closest to right now -- a thick, cross-hatched gold band inlaid with four tiny rubies, reminiscent perhaps of the church chalices her master's master once made. For now, Waxman's atelier doubles as her apartment; her work studio is no bigger than a closet. But there is a grandeur to her work that surpasses the modest surroundings. "It's incredible that something I made could be around for 5,000 years," she sighs. "After a day of working, I'll come out of here and think, I can't believe I'm covered in gold dust."