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Jewelry designer makes a ‘splash’ with molten gold

Gail Kowalski’s 41-year career as a successful jewelry designer on the Outer Banks is a bit of an unlikely story.

A native of Pittsburgh, she grew up vacationing here, then headed off to art school at Sienna Heights College in Michigan on a scholarship.

Before graduating, she earned a spot at R&R Junction, where a collection of artisans worked in tiny studios out of a beach cottage in Nags Head.

From there, her jewelry designs began winning awards and her customer base grew. She soon opened her own design studio on Gallery Row and the business flourished. She was one of the few in her graduating class living her dream as an artist, and making a living doing it. How?

Kowalski credits her parents.

“They never told me I couldn’t.”

Kowalski applies some of that same philosophy to her designs – intricate, sea- and nature-inspired compositions using unusual stones and gems, and some even more unusual techniques.

One of Kowalski’s trademarks uses what she calls the “splash technique,” essentially melting down precious metals, plunking the molten liquid in ice water and divining designs from the results.

It starts with a device that looks something like a coffee pot, but inside is a graphite crucible. Inside go pieces of gold to melt.

“Looking at the gold, it is so gorgeous,” Kowalski said. “It’s like looking at the sun.”

From there, the molten gold goes into a water bath, and sometimes an ice water bath with different shapes of ice.

Then in goes the liquid gold.

“Of course, it freezes and shatters as it hits,” Kowalski said, “and you get these super-cool shapes.”

From there, Kowalski picks shapes she likes. Sometimes she torch-sculpts them to manipulate the shape, or sometimes she sculpts pieces together. From there, she chooses the stones. Many splash designs end up as pendants. But not always. Some stand on their own.

While the splash technique has made a splash, Kowalski techniques and designs tend to be timeless no matter the element she’s working with.

Three years after she opened her current studio on Gallery Row in 1982, she won the

DeBeers Diamonds Today award for excellence and originality in diamond jewelry design. Two years later, the World Gold Council selected several of her designs for an international fashion show held in Basel, Switzerland. In 1990 she received special honor as a finalist in the Diamonds International competition.

She’s also a favorite among some Hollywood types. Since 2004, her designs have been featured in jewelry suites hosted by Platinum Guild International or by celebrity fashion stylists in conjunction with the Emmys, Golden Globes and/or Academy Awards celebrations.
It’s not unusual for a customer to request a custom-made design worth thousands. But it’s equally common someone to come to Kowalski with a more humble idea.

Just recently, an area waterman came in with a tiny scallop pearl and asked Kowalski to create a design for his little sister.