When Rachel Christ is in need of inspiration, she looks to South East Asia.
The Cayman-based jewellery designer finds a wealth of creativity in the sights and sounds of the exotic region, in the happy chaos of Thailand, the beauty of Laos, and the serenity of Bali. It is the energy that inspires Rachel, the feeling that anything is possible.
“I love South East Asia,” says Rachel, the creative force behind Xie Xie Designs. “From the minute I land in Bangkok, I can feel the energy. You never know what you’re going to come across.
And Bali is such an amazing place for a creative person. I feel like a sponge when I go there because there is so much to draw in.”
Rachel’s love of South East Asia is evident in the intricacy and beauty of her jewellery, which features .925 silver paired with vibrant gems. Yet, it was while exploring another exotic region, Central and South America, that Rachel decided to pursue jewellery making.
“[In Central and South America] people are always selling jewellery by the side of the road,” says Rachel, who was drawn to the intimacy of the roadside industry.
“I loved that the person who made the ring was also standing on the sidewalk selling the ring.”
Rachel began importing jewellery to Cayman but she soon decided that it would more creatively satisfying to learn how to make the pieces herself. So, she went back to basics, and to South-East Asia, enrolling in a silversmith course at Nova Gallery in Chiang Mai, Thailand. A passion was born.
“The school was very basic, very rudimentary,” Rachel explains of the apprenticeship, which began in 2004.
“We learnt to do everything with our hands. Our teacher was fantastic. I didn’t even realise until much later that you could use tools to do most of the work.”
This hands-on approach gave Rachel an innate understanding of the jewellery-making process. Her tutor, Nagoon, taught her the intricacies of crafting a piece of jewellery, from hammering sheets of silver to insetting gems into the metal. It is certainly an enchanting image, a dream that many have but only a few actually pursue.
But Rachel quickly dismisses any perception of glamour.
“People think jewellery making is so much easier than it really is,” she says with a laugh.
“They don’t realise that when you get a sheet of silver, it is so far from a piece of jewellery. Making jewellery is a chemical process. The chemical reactions have to take place in the right order [to create a piece of jewellery].”
It can also be hazardous as Rachel painfully discovered after suffering countless calluses and burns, and accidentally filing off her nails. Yet, it seems the pleasures of the job far outweigh any drawbacks.
Rachel designs every piece and spends up to five weeks each year in South East Asia, where she sources gems, meets with craftsmen, and soaks up the culture of the region.
She feels more alive in South East Asia, and indeed, her conversation is punctuated by fascinating stories of gem dealers in Laos and riding elephants in Jaipur. It is clear Rachel’s passion for jewellery is more personal than business.
“I think the stories behind the pieces are what make my jewellery so popular,” explains Rachel, whose line is sold exclusively at the Silver Rain retail store at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman.
“When I was a waitress, I used to go away to South East Asia for months, and when I came back, my customers wanted to know where I had been. They wanted to hear my stories.”
Rachel initially created her pieces in her cozy South Sound studio. However, the increasing popularity of Xie Xie Designs made it difficult to keep pace with the demand.
In 2009, she began working with Komang Susila, a silversmith in Celuk, Bali. Rachel designs the pieces and sends them to Bali to be crafted, a process that enables her to focus on creating the designs and ensuring each collection is unique and vibrant.
“I draw up all my designs and send them to Bali, and Komang starts to work on them. When I am in Bali, I visit him every second day to make sure the designs are coming along and see if any new inspiration strikes.
“Going to South East Asia to meet with my guy in Bali and find stones is half the fun,” says Rachel, who sources most of her gems from Bangkok. “[My dealers] know what I like and if I want something special, they will go out and get it for me.”
Rachel handpicks each stone before deciding on the concept on the collection. Her pieces are studded with vivid gems from around the world, including amethyst, crystal, pearls, blue topaz, and, her favourite, Afghan turquoise.
Describing her jewellery as elegant, bold, and bohemian, Rachel admits that her signature style sets her pieces apart from other lines. She loves the creativity and flexibility of crafting jewellery.
And, despite the growing demand for Xie Xie Designs, Rachel has no plans to expand. Instead, she aims to maintain the intimate, bespoke nature of her jewellery, and continue designing pieces that speak to her customers.
“I don’t want to become one of those mass produced lines. That’s not why I started doing this. My jewellery is personal.”