Growing up on Cumberland Island, a 17.5-mile-long island that’s a nationally protected shoreline off the coast of Georgia, launched Gogo Ferguson’s career as a jewelry designer. For her, every find in nature is a source of inspiration, whether it’s an armadillo shell, raccoon penis bones, seaweed or sea urchins. And they’re all transformed into functional homewares and jewelry, cast in gold, sterling silver, and vermeil.
“For the most part, you can’t improve on nature’s designs,” she says.
Ferguson, who is also a descendant of the Carnegie family, is renowned for her work. She was honored by the High Museum of Atlanta with a 25-year retrospective of her work; designed jewelry given to dignitaries at the G8 Summit in Sea Island, Georgia and for the Atlanta Olympics; and his work features in two presidential collections, as well as films such as Tomorrowland and Den of Thieves. Additionally, she designed wedding bands for her dear friends, the late John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette, who married on Cumberland Island.
Today, the island remains his primary home, and you can find his pieces all over the world, including the Sarasota Art Museum gift shop. We caught up with Ferguson to learn more about her charming upbringing and unique jewelry.
What was your creative inspiration?
“My grandmother, who was deaf from scarlet fever, lived on Cumberland Island for over 30 years. She knew every square inch of the island. We would walk the tide line in search of new treasures, then adorn ourselves and our homes with our found objects. I was fascinated by the beauty and precision of a [animal] skeleton fit together. She taught us to respect the land and to look at nature in a different way.”
You have turned your love of nature into a career. How did you come up with the concept of your jewelry line?
“Being on Cumberland Island motivates me. I was a young single mother and wanted to know how to live here and be independent. I was determined to make this business work. And it did – it just kept growing. It’s now a multi-million dollar business, I’m represented all over the country, Mexico and Europe.
“The native inhabitants of the island created pottery dolls, shell ladles and shark-tooth ornaments. I can tell where the mounds are, so I know where to look for these treasures.
“I was also inspired by [the native inhabitants’] possibility of drilling a conch bead lengthwise, in the shape of a peg, for a ceremonial earpiece, which an archaeologist told me was created for a high-level tribesman. That’s something I can’t even do with my diamond drill!”
Will you share a memorable moment you experienced in nature?
“A few years ago, Cumberland Island experienced two strong hurricanes in a row. For me, this meant that treasures could be found on the beach. I’m one of those people who can zero in on a shark’s tooth faster than anyone, like a Springer Spaniel. And, on day one, I know where to find multimillion-year-old pieces like camel teeth, a 25-pound woolly mammoth molar, megalodon shark teeth, and Native American arrowheads, along with a flint perfectly serrated.
“I have a passion for collecting these things. But it’s more than that. There is something energetic happening in the moment before I tune into one of these rooms that is indescribable.
If you could choose anyone in the world, who would you design for?
“Any day of the week, I created for Frida Kahlo, even if she didn’t wear a lot of jewelry. What I admire about her artistic eye is the way she focuses on the details of nature, like a calla lily stamen. She saw nature as something beautiful. I relate to it in the sense that I look at the natural elements in the same way. I have an extensive collection of everything from pods to bones that sits on a table in my studio. I may hang around them for years before something speaks to me, then I study it in depth until it inspires me a piece.
What about a fashion house you would like to collaborate with?
“I would love to work with Ralph Lauren. I’ve always loved his simple yet elegant look and style. And he’s also attentive to design, making sure to let natural design lead because he’s beautiful the way he is. and needs no extra ornament that will distract him.”
Finally, what has moved you recently?
“Given all that is happening in the world, I feel the turmoil of it all. However, I know I am blessed to live on this serene and peaceful island.
“When I heard John Lennon’s son, Sean, sing Imagine recently in honor of Ukraine, I was moved. It meant so much then and yet it still has the same meaning today. Incredible.”