Meet Jewelry Designer Barbara Clayton

A former business executive switches gears to a glittery future.
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Photograph by Doug Young

After 28 years in the corporate world managing Fortune 500 companies, Barbara Clayton made a life-altering career change, spurred in part by the attacks on 9/11. “Our office was located on the 102nd floor of the South Tower,” she recalls, “and although I wasn’t there that day, I lost a lot of friends. I decided that I had to move on and pursue what I always loved.”

A longtime collector of vintage jewelry— everything from Native American pieces to silver from Taxco, Mexico, and Georg Jensen— she originally intended to sell her vast holdings under the moniker Silver Per Se. But “then I realized that there was more to it than just selling jewelry,” she says. “I wanted to learn how to make it.”

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Barbara Clayton’s line of jewelry, Silver Per Se, includes sterling-silver “paper clip” necklaces set with moonstone pendants. Photograph by Doug Young.

A jeweler friend of Clayton’s suggested that she attend the Jewelry Arts Institute in New York City. “Students sat four to a workstation bench, all of us knowing nothing,” she recounts. “I remember being intimidated by the acetylene torch, but I eventually learned how to set stones and work in silver and gold.”

Today, out of her studio in East Marion, Long Island, Clayton fabricates rings, earrings, pendants, chains, and hammered sterling-silver cuffs set with magnificent gemstones ranging from “opaque and dreamy cabochons to iridescent, sparkling moonstones,” some sourced on trips to Brazil. She is also partial to fossilized agates for their “natural, organic feel.”

To make her jewelry, Clayton starts out by forging heavy-gauge sheets of alloyed sterling silver, a process known as annealing. The metal is heated until it is softened and pliable, after which it can be shaped with a variety of tools. For her rings, for example, the sheet is first flattened through a metal-rolling mill, and then a bezel is soldered onto it and trimmed off. To connect the shank (also called the band) to the bezel, she uses a clamping tool to hold it in place while she solders the pieces together. “Using heat is a tricky thing,” Clayton muses. “Metals like gold and silver melt so easily that if you don’t control the heat correctly, you can quickly ruin an almost finished piece.”


A finished cuff set with a fossilized agate. Photograph by Doug Young.

After positioning the ring into a cushioned table vise, she uses a leather mallet and a bezel rocker to push the bezel around the gemstone, then gently smooths the edge of the bezel with a “swifty” wheel on a rotary hand tool. Finally, the piece is polished in a tumbler filled with water, metal shot, and a drop of dish soap.

“There’s a panache about handmade pieces, and a special type of person who is drawn to and understands their magic,” Clayton muses. “Making jewelry meets my creative needs and urges, and if I can get other people to love it as much as I do, I’m thrilled. I guess that’s my endgame.”

The print version of this article appears with the headline: Silver Lining.