When Emily Benoist Ruffin designs a piece of jewelry, it is a mix of science, art, and inspiration. Leaps of imagination are paired with exacting craftmanship to create one-of-a- kind, handmade designs at her studio and gallery on Bent Street.
A lifetime of studying art and the sciences come together as Ruffin makes custom pieces. She relies on classical proportions that fit the human body and incorporates modern forms (simple geometry such as the circle, the square and triangle) with influences from antiquity in new and beautiful ways.
Ruffin builds each ring to fit the proportion of a particular person’s hand and also to enhance and compliment that person’s own sense of self. “When I begin, I have a scale image of a person’s hand, and I have the stones that we’ve picked. I figure out how to build an object that will wear well, be comfortable and is proportionately flattering to their body type and suits their self-image,” says Ruffin.
In her experience, the major importance of her work is most often helping people commemorate the most intimate and sentimental experiences of their lives from birth to marriage and even death. “Part of what I do is to try to understand the individual in order to create something to help commemorate these events,” she says. “I might remake something sentimental to remember a loss that someone will wear inside their clothing next to the heart.”
Ruffin began creating jewelry when she was 14 years old. Her first full-time professional job was repairing and making reproduction antiques working near the French Quarter when she was 25. “I grew up in the deep south in a little town in Mississippi and in New Orleans. Those old families would have antique and Victorian jewelry and I repaired many things. I had a ring to repair for one of my mother’s childhood friends that had a ridge band typical of the middle Victorian period. I had to technically repeat the design to rebuild her ring. I loved the look and from that experience I later created my Stripe Ring ®. When you devote your life to studying design, art history, and architecture, it is as if there is a catalog of images in your head to draw on that influence and stimulate ideas,” she explains.
She hand-fabricates most of her custom work, from precious metal mill stock wire and sheet with tools that haven’t changed much since the 1500s. In her workshop, she has a collection of antique tools from late 1800s, including delicate saws that she bought and refinished to use in her work. “In these tools, I feel the energy of the jewelers who used these tools in the past to create beautiful pieces,” she says.
She is the winner of numerous awards that have earned her an international reputation, including the prestigious Saul Bell International Award and the American Gem Trade Association’s “Spectrum” Award, both won in extremely competitive design competitions.
A lifetime of experience
Ruffin didn’t set out to be a jeweler. “I studied premed,” she says. “My whole family including my greatgrandfather, grandfather and my father, along with a bunch of younger cousins are all doctors. My family is also peppered with engineers who made original creations in their workshops.”
During her third year in college, while taking only the math and science she needed for pre-med, she realized that something was really missing from her life. “I didn’t feel like myself. I wasn’t being creative. I need to dream up something and make it with my hands. I absolutely needed that experience to live,” she says.
She finished her studies with a degree in sculpture from Rhodes College in Memphis. Across the street was an art academy.
She began to use its studios, reigniting her creative passion for jewelry.
After her only brother died, Ruffin knew she needed to take a break and explore more widely. She bought a roundtrip ticket to Europe on Icelandic Air that was good for a year.
Beginning in Luxembourg, she traveled around Europe and Northern Africa with a backpack. “The solitude gave me the opportunity to read, keep a journal and get to know myself better and what I really cared about without the pressures of family or society,” she remembers. “I visited museums and jewelry schools. I drew. The experience was like four years of college in one year.”
While there, she attended classes at Hochschule Pforzheim, a well-known technical/engineering university.
There she met jeweler and teacher Hermann Schafran. He recognized Ruffin’s talents as beyond that of his senior students and invited her to work in his shop. There they collaborated, and he trained her in the German tradition. “It was like meeting a brother for the first time,” Ruffin says. “I came back enthused. I couldn’t wait to put my toe in the water and see what the rest of my life was going to be,” she says. “I was excited to see how creative I could be.”
Coming to Taos
Ruffin found Taos in 1980. “I came to visit this town for one weekend and loved it. I thought it was beautiful, dramatically beautiful. It reminded me more of Northern Africa than any place I’d ever been,” she says. The local families reminded her of home and the Cajun people in her mother’s family.
Although she never dreamed she would own her own business, she bought a log cabin on the south side of town and opened the Coyote Restaurant with two other people and started a jewelry workshop next door. By 1983, she moved her workshop to its current location on Bent Street. She eventually expanded and renovated it to create her beautiful showroom.
At the showroom, pieces of Ruffin’s work are on display, along with other American and European artists who are doing fine handwork in the noble metals.
Design that communicates emotion
For Ruffin, creating pieces that speak to her clients is satisfying life work. She shows a gorgeous yellow diamond that is to be part of a ring. “An old client came to me and said, ‘I’ve wanted this ring for 30 years.’ “
The client had inherited a large yellow diamond and at first wanted to trade it for a smaller one. Ruffin saw that if the diamond were recut in a radiant fashion it would make it more brilliant, increasing the color and the value.
“That’s one of the places where the science background is useful. I’m at home behind the microscope and find I intuitively understand crystal structure.,” Ruffin says. “I can choose an appropriate cut to be done by a professional stone artisan.”
She explains that each time she builds something, she is creating a little piece of architecture or sculpture. “It is slow work, not mass produced. I need to learn about each person and how to fulfill an emotional need.” She appreciates her very patient clients who respect the process and the results.
“I struggled with not being a doctor for a long time, feeling like I wasn’t helping people. But I do the best job for each person as I can. People who are willing to wait then have something special that feels like a part of them. That’s when I know I’ve been successful, when the client sees the finished piece for the first time and is almost entranced by it,” says Ruffin. “They express the same emotions I felt and put into the piece when I was making it. In this way, the process becomes a form of true nonverbal communication.”
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