At Suzanne Johnson’s studio in Grand Blanc, a rainbow of sparkling stones glitter like a treasure trove. Deep rubies, sparkling sapphires and multi-colored tourmaline shine from their settings. Suzanne’s approach to creating jewelry is as rare as the stones on display, and has made her famous in Genesee County.
Today, Suzanne is known for designing utterly unique jewelry, custom-created for each client. “My clients are my sole inspiration,” she said. “Although every piece is my own original creation, I design for each individual’s personality and frame size, and for durability factors.” Suzanne says that her inspiration comes from observing her clients. “Many times we are talking about unrelated subjects and designs just begin popping into my head like magic.” For a day or two after a conversation with a client, Suzanne sketches different possibilities for the desired piece of jewelry, including necklaces, earrings and rings. Suzanne’s designs are not only influenced by her client’s personalities and desires, but often by their chosen stones. “Many of the pieces I design use stones already in their possession,” she reported. “Often they hold sentimental value, and I give them new life and purpose by incorporating them into a piece that my client will not only treasure, but also wear.”
Nothing escapes Suzanne’s eye for detail; each design is one of a kind, created for one person whose character shows in every facet and setting. “It is so fulfilling,” she smiled, “to give something that they love, that speaks to them and about them, and yet is not something they would have necessarily thought of themselves.” Her jewelry is remarkably well-made and sturdy, but not utilitarian. Each piece has presence and a distinctive look, “not because my jewelry is similar,” Suzanne explained, “but because it so accurately fits the person who is wearing it. That’s what I want; I want my clients walking around wearing themselves, not me!”
Suzanne began taking jewelry-making classes in high school, and by the age of 25 she was travelling the world for her jewelry business in Imlay City, Gem and Diamond Specialist. “I travel to Brazil, Thailand, Japan, China and Sri Lanka,” explained Suzanne, “because different locations are known for particular stone quality. For example, the world’s finest sapphires come from Sri Lanka.” Having an eye for the best, Suzanne personally selects all of the stones she sells. “I cut gemstones myself for a while,” she remembered, “and while that experience has certainly helped me when buying stones, it was not enough of a creative outlet for me to do long term.”
The only child in an artistic family, Suzanne grew up quiet and observant. “My father was a nature photographer and my mother was a painter,” she said. “My mother gave me her old brushes to paint with and my father taught me photography using his old camera. Regarding art, composition or lighting, they spoke to me like an adult, even though I was a child.” Suzanne says that her parents’ educational endeavors, as well as her own disposition, made art an obvious outlet. “Although I had natural artistic ability, I was also curious and focused.” So curious was Suzanne that she began to explore on her own. “I recall that when I was 11 or 12, I asked for an unusual Christmas present: the translated notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci,” she remembered. “I read the books beginning to end, over and over again. Da Vinci was a brilliant artist and observer, and as strange as it may sound, he was my role model.”
As an artist, Suzanne says that jewelry design has allowed her to experience life as a thousand different people. She is not just a designer of jewelry, however. Suzanne is also a notable sculptor whose commissioned pieces include the violinist on display in front of the J. Dallas Dort Music Center in Downtown Flint. “When I create jewelry, I design individually. When I create sculpture, I think of the universal,” she said. “But I have always thought of my jewelry designs as miniature sculptures, so large-scale sculpture was a logical extension of my career. My jewelry clients comment about how comfortable my pieces are to wear, which I attribute to the flow of the lines and the balance of composition, all things I learned while studying anatomy for sculpture.”
Leonardo Da Vinci was the first Renaissance man, a term that has come to refer to a master of many different disciplines. Perhaps Suzanne Johnson – gemologist, jewelry designer and creator, sculptor and anatomy student – is more like her role model than she thought.