Style Insider: Kathleen Plate

An earth-friendly jeweler expands her empire

Most people see a bottled beverage for what’s inside—flavor, texture, the promise of a buzz. Kathleen Plate has a different take. Beer bottles, she’ll tell you, are made from a soft glass; their shape is often imperfect. Champagne bottles are hard, built to withstand the pressure of carbonation. Coke bottles just have this sparkle—“almost effervescent, like the product.” Plate, who founded Smart Glass Jewelry seventeen years ago, has long incorporated glass in her designs, but the bottles are a more recent obsession.

A whiz with a soldering iron, Plate built her company around a line of stained glass jewelry encased in sterling silver. But in 2006, for a special commission from Coke, she bought her first band saw. She cut the embossed logos out of old bottles, then fashioned them into earrings and pendants. Coke loved it. Plate loved the saw. She kept on cutting through the bottle scraps, aquamarine rings rolling off like cucumber slices. Then, with the bravado of an inventor, she bought a kiln. “It took me three times to find the right temperature,” she recalls of her initial attempts to fire the rings. “The first one didn’t melt, the second one I just disintegrated into nothing, and the third one was the sweet spot.”

The sweet spot indeed. That was two and a half years ago, when the demand for eco-friendly goods was surging. Her new jewelry line, which she would augment with the greens and golds and cobalts of other beverage bottles, particularly struck a chord in L.A., where a laundry list of stars—Katherine Heigl, Sienna Miller, Leighton Meester, Amy Smart—would wear it. Smart Glass was included in the official 2008 Sundance Film Festival gift bag, and the story is that Isabella Rossellini and Sharon Stone had a playful squabble over who got which necklace.

Today, Plate is the owner of two massive Diamond Laser 7000 band saws. She oversees a staff of four in a Candler Park studio she calls “a cross between a quilting bee and a sweatshop.” They continue to make jewelry but have begun tackling large-scale projects: wall installations, chandeliers, a series of glass dresses that went down the runway at L.A. Fashion Week. In June, Plate held her first art show at Atlanta’s Emily Amy Gallery, and it was filled with friends and clients who’d supported her work in all its stages. “There were many, many years where I felt like I was chained to the workbench,” Plate says of the endeavor. “It’s fun for me to be an artist again.”

Photograph by Jamey Guy