Where can you find two women, both archaeologists, who independently decided to create jewelry lines inspired by their excavations?
In Athens, of course, where the Acropolis dominates the cityscape and is a constant reminder of history.
The jewelry created by the women — Stalo Karides who, with her daughter, Maria-Alexia Karides, started Ysso (derived from chrysso, Greek for gold) and Polina Sapouna Ellis, whose one-woman business carries her name — bears no resemblance to souvenir shops’ kitschy baubles, with evil eyes, beads and faux coins. Instead, these women’s intimate knowledge of what once lay under their feet has been a subtler influence, keeping the spirit of antiquity alive in their creations while also appealing to contemporary tastes.
Dr. Sapouna Ellis, 55, who was born in Germany, began working on digs when she was 10, helping her uncle and aunt, the prominent archaeologists Yannis Sakellarakis and Efi Sapouna-Sakellarakis. Their excavation of the Minoan palace of Archanes on Crete had a lasting impact on her. “The Minoan period was one of the most peaceful civilizations,” Dr. Sapouna Ellis said. “People were respected for how spiritual they were, not how much money they had.”
After receiving her doctorate in archaeology from the University of Heidelberg in Germany in 1996, she moved to Athens and worked on several digs, all the while nursing a desire to create because the jewelry she unearthed haunted her. “I’d see corpses wearing gold jewelry, and you’d realize the importance of jewelry to them. It was like a part of the body,” she said. “Gold is precious; it’s durable. Gold is what survives.”
She began designing her own jewelry in 2010, adapting the forms and figures she had seen in the field to minimal, linear designs steeped in symbolism, and established her business the next year. The pieces “tell a story,” she said. “I want to educate.”
Pieces in her Minotavros collection, for example, have stylized representations of the horns on the Minotaur, the legendary creature with the head of a bull, while the parallel lines of the Mycenaean designs reference the folds in gowns seen in ancient statuary. “I try to connect to the past in a modern way,” Dr. Sapouna Ellis said.
Dr. Sapouna Ellis’s designs range from simple pieces, like the silver Aetos Dios ring priced at 150 euros ($165), to fine jewelry, like the handmade 18-karat white gold Syndesis necklace with 22 brilliant-cut diamonds totaling 0.52 carats, priced at €10,400. She said she preferred to work with white gold rather than yellow: “It doesn’t scream.”
Most of her pieces are produced by four artisans at Joolworks, a workshop just blocks from the central Syntagma Square in Athens. During a recent visit, one artisan was using a machine with a rotating wheel of bristles to create a matte surface on a gold bracelet. The finish is a signature feature of Polina Ellis jewelry and indicative of her philosophy: “I leave the inside shiny, but turn the outside matte. You don’t have to show off.”
That aesthetic is shared by Stalo Karides, who doesn’t want the jewelry she creates for Ysso to be perfect either. “When we excavate, we find designs that are not perfect,” she said. “That imperfection moves me.”
She became an archaeologist because, even as a child growing up in Cyprus, “I’ve always liked old things.” She was “fascinated by excavations” with their inherent “mystery of not knowing what you might find underneath.”
She went to France to pursue her studies, earning bachelor’s degrees in both archaeology and history of art and a master’s in history, all from the University of Toulouse-Mirail in the 1970s. She began working on a doctorate in archaeology, but while visiting her family, which had moved to Athens after Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974, she was offered a dream job. She abandoned her studies and began working for the Greek cultural ministry, organizing exhibitions on archaeology and working on digs on the island of Samos, in the eastern Aegean, and in Delphi. But something was missing.
Jewelry had grabbed her imagination and wouldn’t let go. “I admired my mother’s jewelry. She loved gold,” Ms. Karides said. Before the family moved to Athens, “my mother hid her jewelry in the closet, thinking she would come back for it one day” — but she never did.
And then, Ms. Karides said, “I was in Samos working on cleaning underneath a paving stone when I found a small gold coin. Someone had hid it, this treasure, thinking they would come back to get it one day.”
For Ms. Karides, such situations show why jewelry is packed with emotion. So every day, after finishing her job, “I would go to a workshop and learn how to hand craft jewelry.”
Ms. Karides’s daughter, now 34, who goes by the name Alexia, wore her mother’s creations to her own job as a lawyer in London. “I would wear the jewelry, and friends would ask me where I got it,” she said.
She started selling pieces, and then “in 2017, I left the law firm; in 2019, I registered the business, and in 2020, we started trading.” In addition to being Ysso’s chief executive, Alexia Karides also creates her own designs, having spent a childhood going with her mother to workshops, surrounded by jewelry.
The workshop that turns the Karideses’ designs into jewelry is in a quiet and leafy neighborhood on the outskirts of Athens. The atelier works with 50 companies, but, the owner, Christos Rizadis, said, “the work we do for Ysso is completely different. They pay more attention to the way things were crafted in ancient Greece. And the design is different. Their jewelry doesn’t look like anything else I do.”
The imperfections that the mother-and-daughter team love are purposely incorporated into each piece. For example, the Droplets earrings, based on the shape a bead of water makes when hitting a hard surface, have irregular perimeters — and customers can make their own selections: Both earrings can be shiny, both textured or they can be bought individually and worn as a mismatched pair.
A ring of what looks like coiled ribbon might, in other hands, be a perfect circle, but at Ysso it has irregular edges. “It wouldn’t be us if it was perfect,” Alexia Karides said. All the jewelry has a bronze base and is double-plated, first with 24-karat gold and then with 18-karat gold, to produce what she called “a buttery gold hue,” and it sells for 90 to 450 pounds ($115 to $575).
The company has an archive of about 200 designs that could be reissued on demand, and the number keeps growing. “I never stop sketching,” Stalo Karides said. “I carry a notebook with me all the time. My life is creating these things. Let’s say I’m obsessed.”