Robin Callahan learned to make jewelry in high school, but for most of her life those talents lay dormant. Then at the age of 54 she returned to the art form, and soon started earning international recognition for her skillful, innovative designs.
“You’re never too old to reinvent yourself. Many women go from school to career to children. But once the kids grow up, all of a sudden you can make yourself a priority, and follow some of these other passions.”
It was Mother’s Day in 2014, and Callahan’s family signed her up for a class taught by Bainbridge jeweller Jane Martin.
“Everything I’d learned in high school came rushing back,” she says. “I finished the copper earrings in half an hour, while everyone else was still working on the first step. So I asked her to show me how to make a sterling silver ring.”
The Academy Awards of jewelry design
Just three years after starting Robin Callahan Designs, she won Best Jeweller on Bainbridge Island, beating out artists with 30 years’ experience. The past two years she’s also won Best of Kitsap, and this year she won a Spectrum Award — sponsored by the American Gem Trade Association, Spectrum Awards honor innovative design and impeccable craftsmanship in the industry and are considered the Academy Awards of jewelry design. Callahan won for her 14K white gold ‘Bubbliscious’ ring featuring Watermelon Tourmaline.
“I put that on my list of dream accomplishments back in 2018 and entered every year. It’s an award that has great personal meaning to me!” she says. “Competitions are scary — you have to dig so deep to come up with something original, but it’s a good exercise to push your limits.”
Family mining trips and learning to cut gems
Callahan made a conscious decision not to open a retail store because she didn’t want to get distracted by replacing watch batteries and other small tasks. Instead, she’s poured her energy into learning different crafts within the industry so she can offer her clients incredibly custom pieces.
“Gems became a big part of my process. I started working with artists all over the world, because every lapidary artist has their own style. Typically gems are mass produced, but this was a new way to look at jewelry, where even the gemstone was a piece of art.”
She studied with masters in the industry to learn how to cut and facet her own gems, and was soon invited to show her lapidary work in prestigious museums and private collections. She also takes family trips to mines in Oregon, Montana, California and other states to select her own gems.
“You can dig for it yourself, or they can give you a bucket of gravel to sift through by hand. We bring it back to my studio, dump it out on the light table and all the color pops out!”
Commissions and custom creations
Rather than creating a collection of pieces to sell as-is, Callahan works mostly by commission creating custom pieces for clients around the world.
“There’s something really special about the commission process. There’s a friendship formed over the two to three months we work together. I just recently finished making a set of rings for a husband and wife who live in London, England, and they said they want to pick it up in person so we can meet!”
She says the process is a lot more emotional than she expected, and it’s not always about the money.
“I’ve worked with young men who have no clue how much these things cost, but I do what I can to make an engagement ring happen for them because I know how much it means.”
Callahan also designs and creates pieces that she “just need(s) to make.” Some are for magazine features or competitions, and most sell instantly as soon as she makes them available.