Local Savannahian stumbles into jewelry design and emerges as one of the most skilled in the craft, using traditional metalsmithing techniques to handcraft high-end jewelry inspired by nature.
Most artists are aware of their natural talents at a young age. They’ll tell you they were drawn to the paintbrush, camera, word, or dance, and throughout the course of their lives they fostered these skills, eventually emerging as professionals in their respective fields. But not everyone knows what they want to be when they grow up. Some, like Kristen Baird, discover it on the very cusp of taking their first steps into the “real world.”
Baird was midway through her junior year at Savannah College of Art and Design, studying architecture and interior design and looking toward graduation in the not-too-distant future when she took an elective course in jewelry—a decision that would dramatically shift the trajectory of her studies and career.
“The mechanical smell, the industrial look, everything just hit me,” Baird recalls upon walking into the building that houses the jewelry design department. After her first class ended, the Richmond, Virginia, native called her parents and announced she was switching her major to jewelry design. “I hadn’t even made any jewelry yet, but they showed us the tools and I loved it,” Baird says, laughing. “It drew on something in me, and I just flew with it.”
She points out how jewelry making really isn’t that far off from architecture and interior design. “You still have to think about form, fit and structure, but jewelry making is very hands on,” Baird explains. “And I just missed making something with my hands.”
Most people wouldn’t make such a drastic move so close to graduation. Most people wouldn’t take the risk. Moreover, most people wouldn’t be brave enough to embark in a career in such a competitive industry. But Baird isn’t like most people. She’s followed her gut before, like when she was set to study business at an in-state school, but got wind of SCAD and thought, “Why not?” There are a number of possible responses to that question, but Baird’s mind was set.
“It was one of those moments where I had to decide, ‘Am I going to do this and go out of my comfort zone or am I going to stick with what I know?’” she says. Baird decided to give SCAD a try and if after a year she wasn’t happy, she’d return to the initial plan.
Baird finished her degree at SCAD as a valedictorian candidate. She immediately leaned into her business-mindedness and “started dabbling” in the idea of entrepreneurship and launched her own business. One day she walked into Savannah’s Mansion on Forsyth, a luxury property belonging to the Kessler Collection, and introduced herself and her work. “I look at it now and think, oh my gosh, I can’t believe I did that!” she recalls. Her hustle paid off. The partnership with the Grand Bohemian Gallery at the Mansion launched in 2013 and her fine jewelry is currently sold in four other Kessler properties across the southeast, in addition to other retail sites and online.
Not long after beginning her partnership with the Grand Bohemian Gallery, Baird sought more specialty training from the best in the industry—a world-class jeweler in Nashville who formerly trained the stone setters for Tiffany & Co. She spent three months studying with him at his acclaimed school, New Approach School for Jewelers. There she mastered very high-end processes with gold, platinum and diamonds and returned to Savannah in 2015 to dedicate herself full time to her business: Kristen Baird Jewelry.
Working out of her private studio in Savannah’s midtown, Baird specializes in gold, silver and platinum designs featuring ethically sourced diamonds and gemstones. This includes four collections plus a fine collection of specifically gold and platinum designs. Baird describes her brand aesthetic as “organic-nostalgic.” “You can feel the inspiration of the coastline, nature,” she says. “My work isn’t cookie cutter at all. It’s natural but unique.” It’s also stunning. Using traditional metalsmithing skills, Baird handcrafts textured and colorful pieces, juxtaposing forms both geometric and organic, as though the designs might have sprung from the natural world.
Baird has already experienced a great deal of success. She was selected to participate in the SCAD Atelier residency, living 10 weeks in Lacoste, France, mentoring students and creating a fully sponsored collection inspired by the region. Her work has been featured in numerous lifestyle, jewelry and bridal publications. Baird was recently awarded the prestigious Red Backpack Grant from SPANX by Sara Blakely Foundation that exists to support female-owned small businesses. And then there’s Oprah. SCAD’s president, Paula Wallace, commissioned a cuff bracelet from Baird as a thank-you gift for Oprah when she served as the college’s graduation speaker. Baird later caught Oprah on “CBS This Morning” wearing her piece. “It’s one of those crazy life moments that I’ll never forget,” Baird recalls. “And my retailers started calling me saying, ‘We need these cuff bracelets!’”
Baird not only creates unique designs, but she also creates unique experiences through her commissioning process. “Anyone can go to a jewelry store, but some people want more of a connection—they want to be involved in the process,” she says. During the time of COVID, Baird leverages technology to send her clients narrated screen-share videos where she talks about their pieces. Clients can communicate back and forth throughout the design process. “We can use technology to have this collaborative process that makes an experience out of it,” she says.
Since the pandemic, Baird has seen a rise in requests for what she calls “heirloom redesigns.” She points out how people are Marie Kondo-ing their closets and jewelry boxes, but that there’s a lot of guilt surrounding inheritance jewelry that isn’t being worn. “People bring me a piece that was left to them and while they love the person who wore it and the memories surrounding it, it’s just not their style,” says Baird.
“Most people say, ‘I want a ring, but I don’t know how to get there,’” Baird explains. “They say, ‘These are the materials I have, and this is what I like.’” Baird reimagines those materials by going over the stories of the pieces and the family history. Then she hand-draws different designs and sends them to her client. “Together, we distill it down to the final design and I create it for them,” she says. Baird also takes pictures throughout the process so the client ends up with a packet of photos of the entire journey. “It’s a documentation of how we got to the final piece,” she says.
It’s this “Kristen Baird experience” that the artist hopes to grow; it’s also what inspires her. She recalls a client during COVID whom she met in a parking lot to deliver the piece to her—a redesign with gold from her late father’s wedding band and sapphires from her grandmother. The woman broke into tears when she saw the final piece. “Those special moments are when I get to be involved in so much more than just the jewelry,” Baird says. “As a designer, as an artist, as a human—it’s pretty special.”