Case in point: L.A-based design duo Amy Walker and Maxandra Short, who formed their jewelry line Kora in 2008 after Walker spent time working for a nonprofit group in Rwanda.
"We draw from traditional ceremonial designs we come across when travelling," Short says. "Antiques and ancient design have so much integrity. We wanted to modernize those concepts with these materials and really create something that's outside of the trend machine."
The result is a collection comprising a mainly neutral natural palette, where brass wire wraps horn bangles (these are priced at about $135 for a set of three) or cow bone is carved into the shape of a padlock that dangles from a silver link chain link bracelet ($90). Kora (the word for "work" in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda's native language) also has an extensive selection of statement cuffs that are made from horn or brass and can be stacked and mixed with smaller bangles. Horn cuffs are $175; hammered brass cuffs are $75.
The aesthetic of their line has resonated with the fashion set and is carried at selective stores such as Henri Bendel in New York and Roseark, Ten Over Six and Lost and Found in L.A. But the central focus of the brand is Walker and Short's "trade not aid" ethos of building sustainable business for the East African craftspeople and material sellers by creating jobs and a market for what had been waste.
Vintage buttons might be a less exotic material than cow bones, but designers are proving these found objects, too, can be used to create jewelry without the result being kitschy or looking like someone got carried away with a hot glue gun.
L.A-based designer Jeet Sohal and Sydney, Australia-based Mark Sorrenti both incorporate old buttons into their lines in sophisticated and understated ways.
Sohal started collecting steel-cut buttons from the Victorian through Art Deco periods 10 years ago, while she was a design student in Paris. Last holiday season, she became inspired to start creating pieces with them to add to her minimalist, handcrafted line of jewelry called Bare.
Sohal keeps the buttons intact and attaches them to handmade brass rings or fastens them to steel posts as earrings. The appeal here is that they don't look like chintzy old buttons, but rather a sunburst of delicate metal and stones, curved up to add a little more dimension than a flat disc.
Sohal also uses Victorian shoe buckles and combines them with leather to form feminine cuffs that don't look overtly antiquated or ornate. Instead they are versatile and mix in with other jewelry.
"I wanted to make them wearable in a contemporary fashion, without changing the actual piece," says Sohal about the vintage collection, which ranges from $219 to $575 for the rings and $288 to $690 for cuffs. The pieces are sold exclusively at the Des Kohan boutique in Los Angeles.
Mark Sorrenti's use of old buttons for his Marco Sydney label is decidedly more whimsical, but definitely far from hokey- or juvenile-looking. The bold rings he creates make statements with just small pops of color that liven up an outfit without overwhelming the wearer's hand with a whole color wheel of old buttons.
His circular, solid color button rings have a very Mod feel. A horn toggle button ring most likely came from a cozy Fair Isle ski sweater, but when fastened to a ring looks edgy and interesting.
The Chanel buttons speak for themselves and are a no-brainer for anyone who loves the French label or wants to add some easy sophistication to a look.
Prices range from $75 to $220, depending on the kind of button being used. Sorrenti's jewelry is available at http://www.marcosydney.com.au.
Sorrenti added the button rings to the Marco Sydney line two years ago after a laser-cutting process he initially wanted to use with acrylic material proved too pricey. He began noticing different shapes of buttons that had an aesthetic similar to the laser-cut pieces he was envisioning, and he started layering buttons together to create new shapes and dimensions.
"Once I started buying and collecting buttons," Sorrenti says, "I quickly noticed that there are already a lot of beautiful existing shapes out there."