Sara Beltrán followed her bliss to a flourishing career in design

Passion Project

By Chris Chafin

In 2006, on her third job assisting superstar photographer Bruce Weber, Sara Beltrán found a shell. The shoot was on the beach—a preferred location for Weber who regularly photographs celebrities and supermodels like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell for major publications such as Vogue and W Magazine—so finding a shell wasn’t really that unusual. What was unusual was Beltrán, running around and collecting shells. One of the other assistants started making fun of her, asking her what she was going to do with them. “I said, ‘I’m going to make jewelry!’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’” Beltrán recounted as we chatted recently in her Soho loft apartment. Pointing to the shell-shaped centerpiece on one of her bracelets, she said, “This was cast in gold from one of my souvenirs from that day.”

In the years since, Beltrán has become a successful designer with an aesthetic formed by three fascinations: Mexico, her home country; India, her adopted home for the past three years; and her deep love and fear of the ocean. The shell has become for her the essential embodiment of the latter of these pillars. It’s the model for the upholstery tacks and the feet on her Relaxing Chair. It’s a recurring motif in her line of friendship bracelets—usually with a small diamond embedded in the center. And shells have been the inspiration for countless paintings, designs, and details across the diverse media of her work, from jewelry, furniture, and wall hangings, to ceramics, photography, and more.

Beltrán took a circuitous route to her current career in design. She left Mexico in 1997 to go to college at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology. “I was the worst in school,” Beltrán explained. “I only went to FIT to move to New York! I could never have moved here otherwise.” She studied fashion merchandising and worked in PR for a number of years before she began assisting Weber. During that time, Beltran saw a necklace of wooden beads and decided to make a copy for herself. This piece, in turn, caught the eye of a friend who owned a small jewelry line, which resulted in a further few copies. These pieces eventually made their way in front of Weber, who was stunned. He asked for 300 pieces for his own clothing line, Weberbilt. Suddenly, Beltrán, who’d never trained as a designer—or even really aspired to be one—had a massive order. And it came with a set of maddeningly vague-yet-specific instructions: “He told me that the pieces should all be one-offs, but also look like a collection,” Beltrán recalls. Rather than indulge in the kind of logistical panic that this might inspire in some people, Beltran simply went to work.

Sara Beltrán © Jay Wen for L'AB/Pamono
People always think I’m a hippie, but hippies don’t hang diamonds on the wall! Weber’s directive—to keep her pieces as close to one-of-a-kind as possible, but animated by the same spirit, so they hang together as a collection—still shapes much of what she does. She’s developed a signature repertoire of forms and colors, including shark fins, palm trees, a color she calls “Mexican pink” or “flamingo pink,” and a liberal use of diamonds in combination with humble and organic materials. During our conversation, she casually pulled off her bracelet and handed it to me, before telling me it’s studded with nearly $100,000 worth of rough diamonds. I handed it back very carefully.

Beltrán is drawn in equal measure to the spiritual and artisanal traditions and contemporary street styles of both India and Mexico. “Last year, I called my presentation Nahual, which, in Mayan mythology, is a person who becomes a sacred animal. For me, this idea resonates with the way I feel about India. I’ve decided that I’ve become half Indian,” she said. “My presentation this year is called Shiva, named for the Indian god in whom I see both my guru from India and my shaman from Mexico.”

All of these influences are on display in Beltrán’s apartment, which she calls her beach house in the city. Its walls are bright white, with light streaming in through large windows that cover much of the back wall. Soft music plays over a sound system, a surfboard hangs from the ceiling, and Beltrán’s work is everywhere. A short tour includes stops at benches and tables inlaid with camel bone in the shape of shark fins, a glass-fronted box containing fish fins pinned like butterflies that she bought at a fish market in Tokyo (they’re normally used to change the flavor in sake), a 20 kg stone of purple fluorite she shaped into a softball-sized pendant which sits on its own custom base (her version of men’s jewelry), photographs of beaches and palm trees shot in Tulum, and one of her earliest pieces: a painted shark’s jawbone studded with diamonds. “People always think I’m a hippie,” she says, “but hippies don’t hang diamonds on the wall!”

Despite her success, retailers sometimes pressure Beltrán to make her work more uniform or more profitable, or even to split her line into low- and high-end pieces. Currently, it includes both $100 friendship bracelets and more sculptural pieces in the tens of thousands of dollars. “I could never split it” she tells me, shaking her head. “I want everyone to be able to own a piece.” And the unique nature of each Beltrán design is at the heart of her overall approach. “My customer understands that my pieces are handmade, and they know each one will never be repeated. It’s more special that way. It’s the perfection of the imperfection, like homemade food.”

Beltrán’s work fully embraces the paradox of attention to detail blended with rustic naiveté. She’s especially proud of a handmade wall hanging displayed near her bed. She commissioned it from a community of women in Chiapas, Mexico, each of whom wove one section of the dark textile before it was all stitched together. The sections differ slightly one from the next: here, the weave is a bit tighter, there, the hexagonal pattern becomes suddenly larger. It’s almost as if your grandmother had made it, with lots of love.

That sense of care shines through in all of her work—as does a lighthearted freedom reminiscent of that day, nearly a decade ago, collecting shells along the beach. “This is my motivation to get up everyday—simply to do what I do,” Beltrán says. “I don’t feel like I have to make the company ten times bigger; I’m not driven by that. I’m lucky that I can do what I love. I can design a chair; I can design a surfboard; I can do whatever I want.”

  • Text by

    • Chris Chafin

      Chris Chafin

      Chris is a Brooklyn-based writer who's contributed to publications like Rolling StoneWiredFast Company, and The Awl. He'd be flattered if you'd consider following him on Twitter

  • Images by

    • Jay Wen

      Jay Wen

      Jay is a NYC-based photographer specializing in interior, food, and landscape photography. She's also cofounder and creative director of Eco-Urban, a non-profit that provides community-focused educational workshops.