ST. THOMAS — The Caribbean isn’t a wellspring of precious gems, unless you count the islands themselves. So what makes it such a popular destination for jewelry? Two words: duty free.
Over 100 jewelers, most selling imported wares, greet bargain shoppers from the alleyways of Charlotte Amalie, the former Dutch trading port on St. Thomas, for example.
Meanwhile local artisans are reinventing Caribbean jewelry and discovering their creations is part of the fun on the islands.
On St. Thomas Irmela Neumann has a penchant for pearls, including rare Queen Conch pearls sourced from the Caribbean and Bahamas. A goldsmith by training, she has been incorporating the pearls — and diamonds, rubies, and other stones — into one-of-a-kind pieces since she migrated to the island from Germany in the 1960s.
With a loyal following that has spread by word of mouth, Neumann works from an office in the Professional Building facing Fort Christian. Look for her daughter Tiare to debut soon as the Pearl Lady in a shop downstairs.
In the Eastern Caribbean, Curaçao, another centuries-old Dutch trading port, surprised Jewelry Loupe blogger Cathleen McCarthy with a thriving local scene.
“To me, the thing that was interesting about Curaçao was the expat jewelers who are bringing European training and skills and making art inspired by the island’s underwater scenery,” McCarthy said.
One such jeweler is Evelien Sipkes, who moved from the Netherlands 15 years ago to the Curaçao countryside. A master of porcelain, Sipkes’s necklaces and bracelets spring from the delicate structures of corals, shells, and bones.
McCarthy found other talented artisans in Willemstad’s Gallery Alma Blou owned by Lusette Verboom, who carries Sipkes’s work. Housed in a restored 18th-century plantation, the gallery is a thing of beauty too.
Alexis Lipsitz Flippin, who writes for Frommer’s travel guides, recently trolled the shopping districts in St. Martin, another tax-free Dutch port.
On Front Street, Flippin recommends the museum shop at the St. Maarten National Heritage Museum, where you’ll find Zdenka Kiric pieces, among others. While Kiric’s wearable and functional designs can be found throughout the Caribbean — her silverware inlaid with brightly colored stones is especially well known — it’s all made on St. Martin, her home.
Flippin found more local jewelers in the brightly painted Creole house gallery of Escale des Iles on the Marigot waterfront in French St. Martin. The displays change continually, and include ceramics, painting, and traditional dolls.
For do-it-yourself shoppers, sourcing semiprecious larimar, which is mined only in the Dominican Republic, is an option. The trip from southwesterly Barahouco jolts up a nine-mile mountain road to Las Chupaderos, where the blue stone is found.
Among those who buy larimar at the source is former Berkshires innkeeper Michael Rothstein, who now lives in the Dominican Republic. “Larimar is unique because each stone has a different look and feel,” Rothstein says. “It can be light like summer clouds, a dark, intense blue, or shades of green, with patterns that evoke the natural world.”
For shoppers who prefer buying a finished piece, Rothstein offers three recommendations.
L’ile au Tresor in the Zona Colonial turns out original pieces by a European craftsman using beautiful stones with artistic silver mounts that have a handmade look.
In the same historic shopping district, La Leyenda del Cigarro is all about premium tobacco at the front of the store, but has a handsome selection of larimar pieces curated by owner Julio Vilchez Rosso in back.
A 10-minute cab ride from Zona Colonial (about $7), Dominique Calderón interprets larimar in sleek, modern designs. Her shop is in the Hotel Santo Domingo at the corner of Avenue Independencia and Abraham Lincoln.
“I wasn’t born here, but my heart was,” says Finola Prescott, who has lived on St. Lucia since she was 5. Over a career that began at 14 making and selling beaded jewelry, Prescott has embraced ceramic and metal work, and now fashions one-of-a-kind wearable pieces using local clays.
In her dual career as director of business development and marketing for the island’s Cultural Development Foundation, Prescott not only helps foster the work of other artists, she also incorporates their objects into her jewelry designs. The Inner Gallery and shop at Cap Maison carry her work.
On Trinidad and Tobago Koko Karibi Designs founder Jacqueline Charles works gold, silver, and stones into pieces that are less like jewelry than wearable artifacts. One of her influences is the sculptor Alexander Calder. “His use of basic cold connections inspires me to find unique ways to connect stones to wire,” Charles says.
Along with her fine arts education, Charles learned traditional jewelry-making skills in Trinidad’s Metal Industries Co., a training center that has spawned a new generation of entrepreneurs. Now she teaches others and promotes some of her students’ jewelry in her lines.
It’s a surprise to find one-of-a-kind work such as Ichia Tiyi’s on Barbados, where jewelers often follow each other’s cues. Inspired by a year studying metalworking in Ghana, Tiyi eschews gemstones, focusing on base metals of copper and brass. She doesn’t design on paper first — her pieces emerge free form directly from the metal — and her inspiration comes from people rather than nature; watching them and imagining adornments they would wear especially well.
Avoiding Bridgetown’s high rents, Tiyi works from a shop in the quiet seaside burg of Speightstown where she was born. “It’s tough, but I have a mantra: A wall is a door,” she says.
The door is opening as more visitors come to Speightstown looking for the real Barbados.