Utilizing natural gemstones like turquoise, moonstone and onyx, silversmith Leah Cunningham designs unique, wear-everywhere treasures. The nature-inspired pieces offer timeless appeal, giving the stones new life.
Cunningham, originally from Syracuse, New York, always had creative inclinations. She studied film in college, worked in graphic design and then eventually took a jewelry class after a friend encouraged her. “She was in this art studio that would always have open studios where they would switch their spaces around,” Cunningham says. “This woman, Monique, was making jewelry there and she was offering a beginning silversmithing course. I took that every Tuesday for 12 weeks. It was kind of a crash course for jewelry making.”
Upon moving to Tennessee from Boston, Cunningham enrolled in private classes at the Appalachian Center for Craft. “I never wanted to leave,” she says. “It’s one of my favorite places to go.”
The school, located 75 minutes outside of Nashville in Smithville, Tennessee, is renowned for its fine craft workrooms offering classes in clay, fibers, glass, metals and wood. Cunningham also studied wax carving and stone setting at Arrington, Tennessee’s The New Approach Jewelry Making School.
“My whole life I’ve loved riding horses and being outside, so I use a lot of natural patterns and cutouts that are based on nature,” she says. “I love western culture, so turquoise is number one.” Cunningham has also been obsessed with biker-influenced adornments as of late. “I build a lot of men’s rings out of really thick silver,” she says. “I’ll use a 16-gauge silver and make the piece out of that one piece of silver and add a stone on top and then separate the sides. I’m actually making more big, chunky men’s rings than anything right now.”
The bulk of Cunningham’s business is custom jewelry, though she keeps a small amount of inventory on hand for online retail and pop-up sales. For custom pieces, customers meet with her in-person to pick out a stone. Then they reference pictures and examples of existing work to help conceptualize their own. Cunningham likes chatting with clients one-on-one, getting to know their tastes and then working toward a finished product they’ll cherish.
In 2017, Cunningham opened a showroom and co-working space with 1767 Designs and Lockeland Leatherworks where she offers silversmithing classes. Classes make for a fun date idea, and Cunningham keeps the process simple. She covers stone setting, sawing, sanding, polishing and finishing in class. Each lesson lasts two to four hours and the cost is $200 per project. Cunningham recommends taking at least two sessions. In the first lesson, students typically make a ring, and in the second, a pendant. “It’s basically just to teach people how to solder and how to cut so it can set them up to do it themselves if they want to,” she says. “It’s a lot of repetitive practice.”
“I love being able to see music at any time. Music has had such an influence on my life, Cunningham says. “I love it here.”