Suzannah Murray didn't set out to be a jewelry designer. She dabbled in art as a child but hadn't considered it a possible vocation until she spent a semester abroad in Niger. After being turned down for positions with nonprofit agencies there, she found a different way to get her independent study credits: by apprenticing with a traditional Tuareg silversmith.
"They're this nomadic ethnic group in northern Africa who've been silversmithing for hundreds of years," Murray says. "We'd get silver from the marketplace and melt it down in this ceramic cup in burning embers, using bellows. It was 120 degrees out, and we'd be standing in front of a fire. It's the hottest I've ever been in my life."
Murray worked with a silversmith named Mohammed on various projects, the most significant of which was the Cross of Agadez, a hand-stamped cross unique to each maker that is said to dispel evil to the four corners of the world. In many ways, the extreme circumstances and the talismanic nature of the jewelry would come to form a conceptual underpinning for Lark and Lotus (www.larkandlotusjewelry.com), the jewelry company the Baltimore native created when she moved to New Orleans in 2006.
"I definitely get inspired by cultural things that have some kind of symbolic meaning," says Murray, who has a degree in anthropology. "I want my jewelry to have an amulet feeling — something that protects you."
Her first collection, delicate pieces rife with butterfly and lark wings with art nouveau and Victorian influences, was inspired by her grandmother's old jewelry. The second collection was inspired by New Orleans. From cicada wings to gris gris bags, from Spanish moss to bones, Murray soaked up the city's motifs and translated them to gold and silver.
"I wanted things that symbolized specific parts of New Orleans culture without being very literal," Murray says. "I wanted more of the feel of New Orleans — that magic and the heat and the aesthetic of the trees and nature that is here."
Murray wasn't influenced only in the artistic sense; New Orleans would also provide opportunities for her to learn the nuts and bolts of running a small jewelry business. She landed a job working as a studio manager for Dominique Giordano Jewelry Design soon after she and her husband moved from San Francisco to New Orleans.
"I felt New Orleans was serendipitous," Murray says. "It all fell into place very easily. I love that New Orleans is so small-business oriented and supportive of its craftspeople."
Murray sells her jewelry at Gogo Borgerding, Nadine Blake and Bon Castor. Her ultimate goal is to open her own shop. For now, she's working on a new collection that hails back to her metalsmithing roots — one that represents the culture of Niger.
"My jewelry is very ethereal, but at the same time, it is lasting and means something to the wearer," Murray says. "The lark and lotus are delicate but strong creatures — I like that this beautiful flower comes up through mud and muck. That's what I want my jewelry to be: cultural symbolism, strength and delicate beauty at the same time."