March 2007  
Designer Drugs
by Cameron Walker

Pairing famous molecules with precious metals, a new crop of jewelers dazzle you with science

Look around you. Isn’t it just beautiful? No, no, not the trees and clouds and birds and flowers. Look deeper. Into the astonishing design of the molecules and biochemical systems that breathe life into every living organism. From dopamine to serotonin, glucose to GABA, each molecule has its own unique chemical aesthetic. So it can come as no surprise that a handful of scientifically minded jewelry designers have begun to take their inspiration from these tiny wonders of the biological world.

Take San Francisco-based Jersey McDermott. We can all agree that a steaming mug of coffee looks pretty darned gorgeous first thing in the morning. But McDermott finds the real beauty in the molecules inside the brew. She creates sterling silver and acrylic rings, cufflinks and pendants with molecular leanings through her business, Muscovie Design. “The caffeine molecule is a really beautiful shape,” she says. Dopamine and serotonin also feature in her collection – it’s neurochemistry that gets her nod, because she’s always amazed that “we all just boil down to the microscopic elements inside of us.”

At the recent AAAS conference in San Francisco, jewelry designer Raven Hanna gleefully handed out temporary serotonin tattoos to passersby – the molecular structure only, not an instant dose. But this molecular biophysics Ph.D. was supplying happiness to the scientists and families who browsed through her Made With Molecules designs, which include dangling GABA and glutamate earrings, neurotransmitter charm bracelets and baby onesies printed with a glucose molecule and the word “Sweet.” Everything comes with an explanation of the starring molecule’s role in the body.

Other artists take their inspiration from macrostructures. Corynn Kasap, who has studied both metalsmithing and molecular biology, has created three-dimensional jewelry that reflects “our idealization of what cellular organelles look like,” she says. Her hand-fabricated pieces, from cilia bracelets to pearl-filled thylakoid rings (the folded inner membranes of chloroplasts), draw in more than just the nature-and-science crowd, she says. “There just aren’t enough of them out there.” After being a production jeweler for several years, she’s now doing research full-time in a University of California San Francisco lab, where she is still struck by the beauty that appears under her microscope.

DNA’s elegant double helix can send researchers and artists alike into rhapsodies. And, while a few shoppers recognize other molecular structures on sight, DNA has a higher profile. “After the O.J. Simpson trial, everyone knew what it was,” says Carolyn Forsman, whose double-helix bracelets appear in the Museum of Modern Art store in New York, among other places. She sells more than 10,000 of the bracelets each year.

The simplicity of the double helix was what appealed to her (the same quality that brought her to mathematics as an undergraduate). But base-pairing isn’t the only thing that draws her customers, many of them teens and younger. “It actually just sells because it’s cool,” she says. Everything Forsman makes moves or sways, spins or lights up. “It’s happy stuff,” she says. “I feel like I’m a cheap therapist.”

Cathy Cyphers Soref, the founder of DNA Stuff, wants more of this wide appeal for science-based products to support research. During the past four years, she and her husband put $1 million into DNA Stuff, a store selling jewelry, clothing and more featuring double-helix designs, all as a fundraiser for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. The DNA Stuff store, which Soref calls “a philanthropic gamble,” sells its wares in the lab’s Grace Auditorium. Their clientele – the 10,000 international scientists who visit the lab each year – can pick up a Tiffany-style double-helix necklace or a bobblehead of Nobel laureate James Watson, who is the laboratory’s chancellor.

But Soref wants to spread science – and research funding – farther by getting science (and scientists) into the spotlight. One of her first candidates: an RNA tie, based on ties worn by the 20 members of the RNA Tie club, started in 1954 (members included Watson and co-DNA-discoverer Francis Crick, and each had an amino acid nickname). “I need George Clooney to wear this tie,” Soref says.

Could celebrity be the way to sneak science into popular culture? Maybe. Conducting interviews at the Cannes Film Festival last year, Soref asked people if they knew who Paris Hilton was. Absolutely. Then she asked if they’d heard of Watson. Nope.

When she filled them in, people were embarassed they knew more about a tabloid heiress than about one of DNA’s discoverers. But one of her interviewees offered a possible solution: He slung his arm around Soref and said to the camera, “Dr. Watson, date Paris Hilton.” They would likely get more paparazzi flashbulbs than cytosine and guanine’s flagrant hookups.

Copyright Cameron Walker, 2007.  All rights reserved.