For locals and tourists alike, sweetgrass baskets are an important part of the Charleston experience. So many of us stop by Charleston’s historic City Market again and again to buy “just one more” of these beautiful, functional baskets and to chat with the artist about how she learned her craft.
Five years ago, Charleston resident Angie Buxton had the idea of incorporating the famous sweetgrass patterns into jewelry designs. “There’s a real threat we’ll lose the art of basket-weaving, so Angie wanted to capture the craft and share it in another way,” explains Janie Manning, who met Buxton through mutual friends and helped her turn an artistic dream into a smallbusiness reality.
The baskets’ woven designs are the oldest African American art form in America. West Africans brought the tradition to our shores during the slave trade in the late 1600s. The patterns themselves date back 3,000 years.
Buxton and Manning are co-owners of Sweet Charleston Designs, a Charleston-based company that, with the help of artists, goldsmiths and casting houses, makes sweetgrass-inspired jewelry from precious metals.
The custom-designed jewelry captures the intricate look and texture of sweetgrass basketry by weaving pewter, gold and silver threads into exquisite patterns that echo the originals. “Our coiled, woven designs and fine craftsmanship offer a fresh approach to a timeless art form,” Manning says.
Sweetgrass-inspired accessories are popular with debutantes, brides, bridesmaids and undergraduate students in the South. They’re also popular with women looking for a memento of their Lowcountry youth or a souvenir of a great Charleston visit.
Don MacNeil, marketing director of Windsor Fine Jewelers in Augusta, Georgia, is not surprised at the success of Sweet Charleston Designs’ sweetgrass collection. According to MacNeil, jewelry is more than just a decorative accessory; it has become a distinctive way to commemorate life events, passions and culture
Augusta resident Betty Moore warmly remembers her time in Charleston. Her husband attended The Citadel in the 1950s and stayed on as an officer for the school’s ROTC program. “I loved the city and getting to know the cadets,” she fondly recalls. “And I really loved the sweetgrass baskets.”
Moore owns a few pieces herself, and each of her five daughters has already picked out the pieces that they want for the future. “I’ve always loved the baskets,” Moore says. “And the jewelry is a lovely way to honor such a beautiful art form.”
Like the deep-rooted craft of sweetgrass basketry, Sweet Charleston Designs’ jewelry takes time to make. The idea for a piece of jewelry usually begins with Manning drawing out the jewelry design. From there, the design is sent to a casting house to produce a mold. “We use the highest-quality materials and the best goldsmiths and silversmiths in the country,” she says. “For our Dewees Inlet and Sea Island lines, we use antique embossing machines in North and South Carolina.” Each piece is custom-embossed one at a time, hand-buffed, polished and assembled, and takes three weeks to create from start to finish.
Over the past five years Sweet Charleston Designs has partnered with weavers of sweetgrass baskets to educate consumers at trunk shows, fairs and festivals. “We benefit each other,” Manning explains. “People are enthralled by the craft and usually leave with a basket, a piece of jewelry and the desire to know more. We’re promoting awareness, and trying to help these families.”
Each collection is named after a Southeastern waterway, rice plantation or an area where sweetgrass grows, according to Manning. “Our collections cover North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida mostly, [what’s known as] the Gullah/Geechee corridor,” she says. “But fans of Sweet Charleston Designs live outside of the South, too, from California to New York.”
Sweet Charleston Designs creates pendants, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, cuff links, tie tacks and golf ball markers in sterling silver, gold plate over brass, polished pewter and 18-karat gold—as many styles and pieces as customers have fond memories.
Erin Holaday Ziegler writes about all things Charleston. Email email@example.com.