Cranes and blossoms turn jewellery Japanese

"Welcome to the smallest studio ever" reads the sign on the door of Filou Designs in the Beaumont Studios. You could say that. Somehow, Fiona Louie has shoehorned a desk, jewellery-making equipment, a display case, and a couple of chairs into a space that, even by the most generous estimate, can't measure more than four square metres. But, as the young designer points out, jewellery is small and, anyway, she works on some of her projects at Patina Designs (3648 West Broadway) where she's currently apprenticing, her apartment doubles as her office, and much of her line is out there in the stores so the space that she moved into in February fits her just fine.

Jewellery had been there in the background since right after high school, she says, but when she exited UBC with a bachelor of fine arts in 2002, the 25-year-old Louie had no clear career goals in mind. Hightailing it to Japan, she taught art for a couple of years and learned that working with metals and jewels was what she really wanted to do. "I've been doing it on the side for nine years," says the Vancouverite, "but I've only been trying to do it full-time since October." Even though other influences fed her creativity as she took the long way home to Canada via South East Asia and Australia, it is Japan and its culture that continue to inspire her most strongly. She brings out her sketchbook to show a crane outlined in pencil, and then the actual crane necklace in sterling silver, its wingspan almost 10 centimetres across.

Classes in Japan and at Vancouver Community College, and her ongoing apprenticeship propelled her into serious jewellery-making last year with the launch of her sterling-silver Kyoto Garden collection, which features cherry blossom, pagodas, bamboo, and other iconic Japanese images. Imagine paper cutouts in gleaming metal and you have an idea of the pieces' precision and delicacy. Louie brings out a square of the silver, then, like magic, slides out a worktable from below a desk drawer. Using a fine jeweller's saw, she carefully outlines the motifs, comparing the square or rectangle that surrounds them to a frame. Earrings in the same collection incorporate portions of the pendant designs.

In just a few months, Louie has already managed to get her work into fashion shows and stores around town. "You just have to get yourself out there," she says. Depending on the neighbourhood, stores (listed on her Web site at stock different lines, with Mala Kuja (1067 Hamilton Street), Mine: Stylesource (177 East Broadway), Barefoot Contessa (3715 Main Street), and Object Design Gallery (4-1551 Johnston Street) all carrying pieces from the Kyoto Garden collection ($64 to $300).

Louie defines her overall approach as "silver and mixed media…it depends on the styles that inspire me." While in Japan, she became so intrigued by the art of kimono-wearing that she attended classes to learn its intricacies, becoming skilled enough that she won third place in her region in competition. When she was about to return to Canada in December 2004, she shipped back a ton of kimonos, fabrics, and beads, which she also incorporates into jewellery, stitching fragments of cherry blossom-patterned fabric into little pillow pendants. "These were inspired by geisha," she says of handmade flowers of kimono fabric attached, along with silver "dangles", to hairpins. A dramatic one-of-a-kind neck piece starts with a string of coral beads to which she has attached over a dozen long pieces of wire-wound kimono fabrics in various patterns. "I love colour," says Louie. "I felt I had to throw colourful beads with it." A long braid of indigo-dyed fabric can be wrapped around the wrist and tied for an impromptu bracelet. She also takes lengths of silver wire, fusing them together like an irregular lattice from which she hangs semiprecious stones or abalone or paua shells. Three Swarovski crystals hang like dewdrops from a necklace that appears to be made from tiny spider webs.

Louie's silver pieces move comfortably from dress-up to casualwear. Take the white zip-front cardi she wears over a turquoise tank, teamed with Fidelity jeans rolled to show bold black-and-white-striped socks and curlicued black Mary Janes: at her neck is a string of large turquoise-dyed freshwater pearls and a silver "lily" pendant. She reaches over to a bamboo ladder displaying strings of beads in aqua, leaf green, and soft yellow. "Very spring-y and fun," she says of them. "These are good for layering" and proceeds to do just that, adding a long string of orchid purple beads to what she's already wearing, thereby "framing" her silver necklace.

Don't ask her what her next design direction is. It's wherever inspiration takes her. "I'm just pursuing my passion," she says.