By the time most of us rise to begin our workday, jewelry designer Sarah Mann has finished half of hers. Between 2 and 3 a.m. nearly every day, the silversmith takes to her torch, drills, hammers, and more to conjure pieces of shining metal into intriguing works of art to wear—all before, as she says, “most of Milwaukee is even awake.”
So, when the staff of Artful Home visited the artist at her home and studio in southeast Wisconsin on a recent afternoon, Mann had already logged a full day of work (and even found time to bake a loaf of apple bread). To me, a snooze-button slapper, her fortitude is the stuff of magic. Then again, Mann’s home feels like it’s touched with wizardry: as our crew ventured down her walkway to her front door, we traveled across constellations of glinting, pinky-orange pennies scattered across the pavement.
A new project, perhaps? The unexpected art display was simply a happy accident, Mann explained to our staff, as she walked us through a collection of her work. After all, anyone who’s familiar with the artist knows she doesn’t typically trade in copper, but sterling silver, crafting adornments that invoke what she calls “brevity in design”: jewelry that’s clean in form, enticingly textured, and sometimes wielding kinetic elements.
Influenced by a long family tradition of artistry and craft—as well as a keen interest in her mother’s jewelry collection—Mann began working with the form in high school, enrolling in a metal-casting class at a nearby university. Though she later pursued a degree in photography, Mann would continue to study the medium that first captured her fascination, working under metalsmithing experts like Heikki Seppa and at Fuji Studio in Florence, Italy. A position with Teach for America eventually brought her to New Orleans, where she ended up managing the studio of renowned metalsmith Thomas Mann (no relation). There she worked in other less precious metals like brass and bronze—but her solo pursuits always found her returning to her beloved sterling silver.
“I chose silver specifically because it resonated with me personally. I like the look of it best, and it looks the best on me,” Mann told me. Plus: “Working with silver versus gold allows me to work bigger and bolder.”
Big and bold is exactly where Mann got her start, launching her first collection at 3rd Ward Jewelry and eventually landing in Brooklyn, New York, where for years she crafted “more industrial” pieces within her 2,700-square-foot artists’ loft. But as she’s settled back into her hometown of Milwaukee and discovered an interest in things like native gardening, Mann has found herself crafting pieces that are more organic and delicate—ironic, she says, “because my eyesight has gotten poorer.”
“It just goes to show you that you can’t really control and dictate where you’re going to be headed as an artist,” Mann says.
A departure from her setup in New York City, Mann’s studio lies in the corner of her home’s basement: her “teensy tiny” work area is precisely arranged, and the surfaces strategically topped with brushes, bowls, and assorted baubles. Upon a wall to the left, coils of silver sprout like mystical vines. Wires, pliers, hammers, and more are queued up in the lower reaches of her bench, awaiting the next 2 a.m. studio session.
Stepping into this intimate space feels like gaining entry to a secret club or mysterious order, yet Mann remained delightfully candid about the details of her design process. Her go-to work soundtrack: Miles Davis. Number of hours per week in the studio: no idea! She revealed to us her “clipboard of inspiration,” and also shared her “recipe book.” In her 25-plus years of making jewelry, Mann has marked down every measurement and illustration within the book’s pages—precise details for more than 100 pieces.
Despite this careful catalog of pieces past and present, her recipe book doesn’t contain any divinations of the future: When I asked Mann about what’s next in the evolution of her designs, she tells me she isn’t exactly sure—she doesn’t make plans, but simply lets the ideas come to her.
“I can make guesses [about the direction of my work], but that’s kind of foolhardy because I really, really have no idea,” Mann says. “I just kind of have to be open to what feels right and what’s coming through me.”
Sometimes, it seems, the inspiration just happens—like magic.