By Phaedra Haywood
The Santa Fe New Mexican
Opals bring good luck and endow their owners with the powers of foresight and prophecy. Or, they are bad luck and can bring about the death of the wearer. Both myths have been associated with the colorful gemstone throughout history.
The fiery stone — whose color plays are created by trapped water and minerals, and range from deep red to blue-green to a pink so angelic that the gem was once called the “Cupid Stone” — and it’s mysterious reputation have so captured the imagination of native Australian and Santa Fe resident Katherine Jetter that she’s made it her mission to restore the stone to what she’s sees as its rightful place, the limelight.
For the record, she said, rumors that the incandescent stone was bad luck were fueled in part by disgruntled diamond traders jealous of the popularity enjoyed by opals in the mid-1800s when they were a favorite of trendsetter Queen Victoria.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, Jetter spent her youth in England, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.
Art was one of her first loves — she won the top International Baccalaureate Art Prize for the Northern Hemisphere while attending boarding school in Kent — and, she said, was offered a full scholarship to attend Central Saint Martins University of the Arts in London.
Her parents wanted to celebrate her achievement by purchasing a piece of jewelry set with opals, the national gemstone of her homeland.
Alas, Jetter said during a recent interview in her sunny suite of offices in downtown Santa Fe, she couldn’t find a darn thing she liked.
All the settings were outdated and frumpy, she said. In the end, her parents bought her a loose opal for which she designed her own ring setting.
That experience planted a seed that would take a few more years to bear fruit.
She didn’t go to Central Saint Martins to study art. Her parents wanted “a more traditional line of work” for her, she said, so she went to the University College London to pursue a degree in clinical psychology.
After college, she worked in private banking for JP Morgan for three years before screwing up the courage to present a business plan she had written outlining an opal-centered jewelry business to her father, a banker who headed JP Morgan in Germany, and his friend, an executive at Cartier.
Her plan and passion won over that tough audience, Jetter said, and she got the go ahead to devote herself full time to opals.
In hindsight, Jetter said, she’s happy about the route she took to get there.
“I’m glad I have that business background,” she said. “Being an artist only gets you so far. You have to have a smart business mind as well.”
After deciding to follow her fascination with opals, Jetter attended the Gemological Institute of America, where she became certified as a gemologist and jewelry designer.
Jetter, 31, worked for several other high-end jewelers before launching her own business, Katherine Jetter Ltd., in 2008 with her signature flower ring, which featured petals hand-carved from opals. Prices range from about $300 for a pair of sterling sliver earrings set with a semi-precious stone such as amethyst to $28,000 for her Queen Ruby II ring, a bloom created with 18-karat yellow gold, and an orange sapphire surrounded by carved opal petals accented with white diamond pavé.
The success of Jetter’s flower ring design — which she patented — piqued the interest of the upscale department store chain Neiman Marcus, which now serves as one of her primary outlets in the United States.
Jetter moved to Santa Fe four years ago with her husband, Dan Burrell, former CEO of Rosemont Realty, who, along with Jetter’s father, has invested in a New Mexico garnet mining venture.
Jetter runs her business from her fancifully decorated office near the Plaza. She also meets with clients by appointment only at her offices. Jetter said about 50 percent of her business is custom work.
Jetter sources her own stones and said that’s helped her forge friendships in Australian opal mines, giving her access to some of the best stones — including a 306 carat lump of brilliance dubbed “The Royal One,” which Jetter acquired in 2013 and which is valued at around $3 million.
She also sketches designs and creates the carvings from which her jewelry molds are made.
She employs five people full time and works with contractors in New York and China who produce her work.
Jetter said the copper, bronze, green and red colors featured in her recently launched Antiquities and Bronze collections are inspired by the “earthy qualities of Santa Fe and the spirit of this place.”
Several pieces in her new collections feature a bell shape she said are patterned after bells once worn by Mexican traders that she saw at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe.
About two years after making Santa Fe their home, Jetter and her husband founded a nonprofit, the New Mexico Leadership Institute, which partners with New Mexico State University and The University of New Mexico to provide educational opportunities for New Mexican scholars who have leadership potential but lack the means to attend college.
She described them as “kids who want to invest in New Mexico and stay in New Mexico.” The institute provides scholarships to about 30 students each year, Jetter said, and includes mentorship programs as well.
Jetter’s husband and his family are also the primary source of funding for the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine, a school that is slated to open early next year in the New Mexico State University Arrowhead Center.
“We believe in New Mexico,” said Jetter, who was pregnant at the time and delivered the couple’s first child, a daughter, on Thanksgiving Day.
“We love our home here, and we want to give back,” she said.