Whimsy, Well Worn


When Maria de la Luz got a call to create commemorative rings for cast and crew before television's long-running "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" ended, the Pasadena-based jewelry designer didn't know a wormhole from warp speed. "I'm not a television person," she admits.

With just three weeks to complete the project, including individually inscribing 300 rings, de la Luz proceeded as usual, synthesizing spoken and unspoken impressions into a three-dimensional representation.

"It was more a communication of ideas rather than my own experience in terms of watching a movie or being familiar with a series," says de la Luz, who merged spaceship, space station and wormhole into a finished piece that had the producers phoning her with gratitude.

And she delivered the rings three days early. "I simply took what they gave me and the sense that they were very proud of this particular work. It was almost a child to them, and that's how I wanted to treat it, as if a parent was handing me a child to take care of, or transform in a way.

"I think I work more with my feelings than my brain when it comes to these types of things," says de la Luz, who began designing jewelry more than 20 years ago as a hobby, carving wax molds with cooking utensils in her kitchen. She was so elated by the results that she sold her restaurant and liquidated other assets to attend the Gemological Institute of America (she graduated in Jewelry Arts Manufacturing), which, at the time, was in Santa Monica. She went on to study ancient jewelry techniques at the Arts Institute in New York.

Born in Durango, Mexico, with a childhood strongly influenced by a great-uncle who was a former governor of Durango and a general in the Mexican Revolution, de la Luz has had strong convictions since moving to Los Angeles in her teens.

"I don't design for people to adorn themselves and be in style with a certain trend," says de la Luz, who specializes in creating themed custom pieces for individuals and organizations. Her latest undertaking is a new line inspired by her passion for opera. Shortly after learning that Placido Domingo, her "all-time favorite" had become artistic director for the Los Angeles Opera, de la Luz had a middle-of-the-night inspiration that propelled her from bed.

"I started seeing these little characters from the opera dancing and playing the flute," she says. Papagano, the whimsical flute player from "The Magic Flute," was designed first. "It just hit me, this could be an incredible project; it would be like bringing these characters to life and for people who actually identify with them to wear them."

Creating a Cast of Opera Characters

Other characters, mostly designed as decorative pins, include an 18 karat white gold Madame Butterfly with a body of fluorescent opal, inlaid lapis lazuli and sapphire-encrusted wings of pink and purple.

"Right now I'm working on about 10 different characters--one will be from 'La Traviata."' A work in progress, Mimi from "La Boheme," lies carved in wax.

"I'm using the different elements that come into combination to create an opera. In this case ['La Boheme'], it was Paris at the time the Eiffel Tower was being built," de la Luz explains, "and this is a woman who belonged to a group of Bohemians ... and at the same time she sold flowers."

De la Luz reflects, "I feel we all identify with a lot of these stories, we have similar lives. We have tragedies; we have happy moments; we have all the ingredients. There is a lot of symbolism behind all of these characters."

De la Luz says she can personalize the opera pieces through stone selection. "The operas have been a great source of inspiration to me in many ways," she says.

So much so, she plans to donate to the L.A. Opera a portion of the proceeds from each piece sold. Depending on design and type of stones, pieces will sell for $1,000 to $5,000.

Among her other works, she has a line inspired by Ferrari's Daytona model of the 1970s that's been featured at high-end automotive shows. Her latest piece is a stylized 18 karat gold car-shaped ring with natural yellow diamonds for headlights and even a tiny windshield. (Price tag is around $1,500.)

De la Luz collaborates on the Ferrari and a new Chrysler Viper-inspired line--his and hers sparkling serpent-themed jewelry--with Richard Peitruska, a former instructor who is internationally known for automotive designs.

"I've never been into cars myself; they're just a form of transportation, but I do have a feel for lines and design," de la Luz says. "He [Peitruska] suggested we should do a line of automotive jewelry. I thought it would be very interesting to interpret those lines and to understand what they mean."

A current project for the Hebrew Congregation of Baja California in Tijuana could hardly be more different. De la Luz is designing a 7-inch-square Torah shield, reminiscent of the breastplates worn by high priests in biblical times, made of gold donated by women of the synagogue. Made in traditional fashion, it involves hammered metal and an arrangement of stones.

"People will relate to pieces that have a certain symbol or a meaning for a long period of time, rather than just a trend," says de la Luz of her work. "I think of it as going beyond just superficial."

Consequently, she avoids mention of celebrity clients. "I don't use their names because a piece will be only as popular as the celebrity is--that's not what I'm after. There's a whole synthesis that you do to give a piece life," and that may take days, weeks or months to complete. "It's almost as if it's growing as you are creating it and you need to give it that space. If you imagine the piece completed, it doesn't always happen like that."

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