Susanne Verallo made the first move.
The first time we met each other, just a little over two years to this day, was at the opening of Go Lokal in Ayala Center Cebu, a concept store for up-and-coming Filipino entrepreneurs to showcase their products. I was looking at a display of minaudières and was fascinated with their iridescent detail under the harsh shop lights when someone approached me.
“Hello,” her voice was soft-spoken and polite. “I’m Susanne Verallo.”
The name immediately rang a bell—after all, it was proudly displayed next to the statement bags that had so caught my attention.
We shook hands and made small talk about her products, particularly about how the minaudières on display were among her last. She explained that they take too much effort and generate a lot of waste to make, and will be shifting her focus to jewelry instead.
In our short conversation, I learned the essence of Susanne Verallo pieces: They’re handcrafted out of shell off-cuts and overruns from larger shell craft companies that use them for furniture and home décor. It’s a very innovative—not to mention chic—endeavor to make the most out of shells and reduce waste at the same time
We exchanged Instagrams, and two years and hundreds of double-taps on her photos later—not to mention some fangirling on our boyfriend Enver Gjokaj a.k.a. Daniel Sousa in the Marvel TV universe—I am even more fascinated about her work.
In recent years, I’ve been developing curiosity and appreciation for Filipino artistry. My interest was piqued through people who love to explore our heritage further than what was discussed in school (history lessons always seemed to start with the Spanish colonization and never before that).
It also helps that a lot of brands, like Susanne Verallo, now embrace our culture and incorporate it into their products, ushering these ancient designs into the modern era.
Beyond the impeccable craftsmanship, Susanne’s collections tell the stories of Filipino culture by interpreting design elements into statement pieces.
The aforementioned Pintados collection, easily my favorite of Susanne’s main releases, utilizes white kabebe and blacklip shells—the color combination striking in itself—to create geometric, intricate patterns reminiscent of the Visayan tradition batuk or ritual tattooing.
Susanne’s attention to detail presents itself further by incorporating the traditional placement of these tattoos into her jewelry.
“Some of the motifs inspired by scales or mountain ranges were typically placed on the arms and hands, so in this collection, they were interpreted as cuffs and hand chains,” she wrote on her website. “The sun and flower motifs were placed on the chest and face, so these were likewise interpreted as chokers and earrings.”
Susanne was supposed to launch her third major collection this year, but along with everyone else, her plans were put on hold because of the pandemic.
“The first couple of months in lockdown didn’t seem too bad because we were all hopeful and felt that things would go back to normal soon,” she confides. “However by May-June, the situation got worse in Cebu and everywhere else, and I had to come to terms with the reality that all the big plans and dreams I was excited about for this year weren’t going to push through.”
“It’s been rather confusing and depressing coming to terms with that fact,” Susanne adds. The strict border controls during Cebu City’s Enhanced Community Quarantine period left her unable to visit her artisans and suppliers in Lapu-Lapu City. “I was also supposed to start metalsmithing classes, which I’d been looking forward to for the longest time because I’ve always wanted to make the leap from designer to maker.”
While in lockdown, she decided to turn to things that were readily accessible to her: Beads. Years ago, she did what every jewelry designer does when starting out—scope out Divisoria and Quiapo for supplies. “I remember my aunt, who sadly passed a few years ago, kindly took the time to show me around these places and even haggle prices for me,” Susanne recalls. From those trips, she amassed a collection of beads and findings that she never got around to using as her brand went on a different direction.
“It took a while, but eventually I realized that just because I couldn’t do [metalsmithing], that didn’t mean I couldn’t explore other jewelry-making techniques,” Susanne says. Besides finding her old stash of beads from when she started out, she also found an old caboodle that she used as a jewelry box all the way in 1995, which kickstarted her recent obsession with beading.
“I knew I wanted to do something different with the beads besides just stringing them together, so I searched ‘seed bead jewelry’ on Google and Pinterest until I eventually found out about bead weaving.” She started learning basic stitches and conceptualized designs, both of which eventually led to her latest project.
Una Artesana, in Susanne’s own words, is a space where she can explore her creativity in jewelry design through different materials and techniques. This project brings together her love of craft and her interest in pre-colonial Filipino culture with pieces inspired by stories from Philippine mythology and folklore.
As an offshoot of her main jewelry brand, Susanne is taking a slightly different approach with Una Artesana. It will be more of an ongoing project, exploring and evolving as she experiments with other materials and techniques, rolling out designs as they come along. Pieces will be made-to-order and released in small volumes rather than full-scale collections.
Una Artesana Vol. 1 revolves around the theme langit, or ‘sky’ in Filipino. A preview of this collection shows stunning celestial-inspired dangling earrings made out of beads.
The process has become rather therapeutic for Susanne, especially in the midst of the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic. “Bead weaving is very labor-intensive, so it can take a few hours to complete a single design, depending on complexity,” she explains.
These days, when she’s not neck-deep into her beads or researching Philippine folklore to reference in her future pieces, Susanne has been keeping herself occupied with non-jewelry interests.
When I’m not keeping my mind or hands occupied I find it very easy to spiral into an existential crisis, something that’s happened quite often during quarantine. So learning a new craft and designing new collections has helped me stay busy and feel a little bit more in control of my situation.Susanne Verallo
“I love learning, so I’ve also been listening to a lot of history podcasts while I work, with topics ranging from medieval to Victorian history, fashion history, and of course, Philippine history,” she shares. “I also completed a short course on Fashion as Design from the Museum of Modern Art in June. Other than that, I’ve also done the requisite quarantine hobbies: cooking, baking, and ‘farming’ haha!”
Living through the pandemic has been challenging for many people. Susanne is certainly no exception—and she’s not afraid to admit it. “Quarantine has definitely afforded a lot of time for introspection and conflicting thought. A lot of times I find myself asking what the hell it is I’m doing and whether or not I should move on,” she reflects. “But I’ve also come to realize that I love being creative, and I know I can be so much more.”
In a world that glorifies instant success and overnight popularity, it gets quite overwhelming for people who are struggling, who feel that they have to measure up (this writer included).
But it’s equally important to celebrate small and personal achievements; even just getting through one day is already significant especially in these trying times.
That’s what makes Susanne’s journey so resonant: by making yet another first move and taking the reins of lockdown blues at her own pace, she turned it into the thoughtful beginnings of something new and exciting—one piece of impeccably-crafted piece of jewelry at a time with Una Artesana
“Despite the despair and confusion I’ve been feeling, I think I can still say I’m a hopeful and optimistic person, even though it can feel very hard to be so at times,” Susanne concludes. “When push comes to shove, I believe I can pick myself up and keep going,”
Una Artesana | Main Website
All photos courtesy of Susanne Verallo