If there’s something that is not inspiring or inspired about goldsmith Michael Corneau, it’s not readily apparent. His transformation from architectural and interior designer to acclaimed custom jewelry designer is a perfect illustration. Seventeen years ago he suffered damage to his left eye while landscaping. The damage forced him to abandon the drafting table and his career. Not one to sit on his hands, Corneau began dabbling in jewelry design. It was then that he discovered he not only enjoyed designing jewelry more than buildings—he excelled at it.
Once he realized that his career was taking a permanent turn, he began to study goldsmithing in earnest. First, he studied the art of hand fabrication. Then a series of events allowed him to study with some of the greatest colored stone and colored diamond experts in the world, including Richard Wise, Damien Cody, Dudley Blauwet and Steven Hofer, whose reports on gems have become references for investors worldwide. Corneau says the opportunity to study with the masters was just good luck, but one could argue that his optimism, humility and passion put him at the right place at the right time. Indeed, it seems he could hardly escape his muses if he tried.
Take the day when a jewelry collector asked him to design an art nouveau pendant for her. He’d never designed an art nouveau piece before, but that didn’t stop him from creating a work so beautiful and striking that it’s been willed to Yale University’s permanent collection along with other pieces he’s made.
Corneau has nearly two decades of experience in jewelry design, goldsmithing and evaluating colored stones and colored diamonds. He holds certificates in diamond and colored stones grading from the Gemological Institute of America. Corneau’s jewelry clearly comes from the mind of an architectural designer; each piece is thoughtfully and artfully structured with clean lines that allow the gemstones to express their color and sparkle. His welcoming gallery, which also features the work of a handful of designers from around the country, is full of fascinating art pieces that will have you rethinking the part that jewelry plays in your life.
Still, Corneau isn’t just a world-class jewelry designer; he’s also a very nice guy. If there’s one thing that he loves as much as designing jewelry, it’s meeting people and building relationships. Walk into his unusual gallery on Hasell Street and you won’t find any counters separating you from the designer. Nor will you find a stodgy gemologist in a suit. What you will find is a friendly fellow in khakis and a button-down shirt, who is eager to get to know you. If he gets to design a piece of jewelry for you—well, that’s just icing on the cake.
Corneau is originally from the Northeast, but his heart is all Charleston. “There was something about Charleston that just made me feel at home,” he says. “I knew I belonged here.” He adds: “I was attracted by not only the natural Lowcountry beauty but also by the city’s cultural scene. People in Charleston want unique art, wearable or otherwise, and they appreciate the highest quality.” He opened his gallery, he says, to appeal to those customers.
To educate gemstone aficionados in what to look for in stones and how to purchase them, Corneau Goldsmithing hosts Gemstone Roundtables.
These small, casual gatherings feature guest designers or gem experts who can tell you what color red a ruby should be and which mine produces the best emeralds. During Spoleto, the gallery will host designers Micky Roof and Liz Rishavy for trunk shows and informal discussions about their art and inspiration.
Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.