As Nicholas Varney unveils his latest masterpiece, an elaborate stone crab—claw bracelet that was nearly two years in the making, he can hardly contain his enthusiasm. “I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” declares the 33-year-old designer, who works in a small, cluttered office in the Manhattan headquarters of his father, famed interior designer Carleton Varney.
Varney formed the bracelet by dipping a stone crab’s claw in wax to create a mold for a one-of-a-kind 18-karat gold piece, then spent endless hours refining the design and setting 2,000 gems, including rare conch pearls, Burmese spinels, sapphires, and colored diamonds. The bracelet wraps around the wrist in a sinuous design that bends precisely like a crab’s claw.
Varney’s dramatic and imaginative approach to design distinguishes him from his peers, who often concentrate on following fashion themes or acquiring the most extravagant gems available. Varney says he tries to develop a sense of conflict in his jewelry, much like a painter or sculptor might with his work. “There is an intellectual bias against jewelry as art,” says Varney. “People tend to view precious gems and gold as vulgar displays of wealth, rather than giving jewelry the artistic merit it deserves.”
Varney draws a parallel between his jewelry and the paintings of Diego Velázquez (1599—1660) in particular. “He applied his precise technical ability to nontraditional subject matter to create conflict,” he explains, citing the artist’s matter-of-fact portrayal of dwarfs among members of the Spanish court as an example. Varney aspires to similar artistic tension through unconventional pairing of materials, such as rare natural blue sapphires with petrified palm tree, or by juxtaposing an angular design with billowy conch pearls.
His creative inclinations stem from a worldly childhood spent traveling with his father and mother, fabric designer Suzanne Varney, and mingling with artistic family friends and clients. At the age of 23, Varney traveled to Italy, where he toured museums and eventually earned a degree at the Gemological Institute of America in Vicenza. Not long after, he was accepting commissions for jewelry from private clients.
While his collection is available at Bergdorf Goodman and Greenleaf & Crosby in Palm Beach, Fla., he still relishes the chance to meet with patrons and produce custom pieces. Recently, he met with a client who was vacationing on a lake near Aberdeen, Scotland. During the course of the visit, she shared her fond memories of fishing with her father. Using her stories as a point of reference, Varney fashioned a purple sapphire and ruby ring with images of salmon engraved on the band’s interior. “I like to give people the option of doing something in jewelry that they never considered,” he says, “something personal and artistic.”