How I Got Here: Shari Cohen Explores the World Through Seal & Scribe

Thanks to jet lag and a lifelong affection for antiques, Shari Cohen (Botswana 1987-89) made her way from a fine arts and consulting career that took her around the world into her own fine jewelry brand that turns intaglio seals into one-of-a-kind pieces.

Cohen, who founded Seal & Scribe in 2016, says her foundation in art, photography, and storytelling helped her develop a thriving business. Her family, who also are jewelry lovers, also were significant influences on her interest in restoring and marketing heirlooms for another generation of owners.

Her parents had an apparel business that frequently took them from their home in northwest New Jersey into New York City and on business trips to Asia. “My mother always had custom jewelry made when she was in Hong Kong,” says Cohen. “Sometimes we would put in an order. One trip it might be watches, another it might be pearls.

“But there was always jewelry in the equation, whether it was for an upcoming birthday, holiday, or just because.”

Seal Scribe
Seal & Scribe jewelry preserves and celebrates the antique intaglio seals from which it’s made.

The inaugural piece in Cohen’s collection was a locket from her maternal grandfather, who told her parents to take her to a local jewelry store and let her pick out something she liked. “I chose a gold brushed Florentine finish heart-shaped locket, and I have that locket to this day,” says Cohen.

After graduating from Syracuse University in 1982 with a BFA in fine art photography and a minor in film and video, Cohen got a job with the Magnum photo agency in Manhattan, creating prints for magazines and other media.

“Everything was analog back then, and my happy place was in the darkroom, printing images,” Cohen says. “It was a dream job at the time, working around such esteemed photographers and hearing their stories in the hallways.”

Seal Scribe Three Graces
Punctuated by gold and diamonds, the Three Graces necklace ($6,900) features a lemony yellow antique glass seal depicting the Greek goddesses Euphrosyne, Aglaia, and Thalia, daughters of Zeus.

Cohen left that job for grad school, and received her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in 1986. Realizing she didn’t have the fortitude to scrape her way through the politics of the art world, Cohen joined the Peace Corps and was sent to teach in Botswana—where “the diamond mines in Orapa, Jwaneng, and Letlhakane were up and running,” she says.

“I taught art in the senior secondary school in Kanye, a large village southeast of Jwaneng.… It was an eye-opening experience, for sure. I learned that teenagers in every country are basically the same, and that teaching was not my calling.”

She returned to California and became an international development consultant, working for the next three-plus decades in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands on issues related to public health, girls’ education, water, and sanitation.

“My work in development focused on training local teams how to be more effective social change makers, and often used storytelling as the foundation of community-based communication,” Cohen says. “The aspect of storytelling would eventually lead me to my jewelry career, though I didn’t know it at the time.”

This is also where the jet lag comes in. As a consultant, she frequently traveled for one or two months at a time; she would recover at home on her couch, surfing the internet on her iPad, looking at beautiful antique jewelry to relax. She spotted intaglio seals and honed in on them as a collector.

Tu Me Fix Seal
Seal & Scribe’s Love Letters capsule collection includes this gold and ruby ring ($8,500) with a blue seal showing a butterfly and the words “Tu me fixe,” which translates in ancient French to “You are my only obsession.”

“I sat with those pieces for a couple of years at least, having no idea what to do with them beyond appreciating what they were as is,” Cohen says. “Then one day, I was looking at one of those seals and it hit me. They are miniature etchings sorely in need of a new frame.”

Cohen sketched out some jewelry ideas and ran them past a friend in the business, who became her mentor. Cohen commissioned necklace and ring prototypes, and her friend offered to list them for sale to gauge interest. The first piece sold out in two hours.

“From there I’ve never looked back, growing the line by word of mouth and social media. Now we have clients all over the world,” Cohen says. “If you told me 10 years ago that I would be doing this right now, I’d have laughed and told you you’re crazy.”

Seal & Scribe jewelry is made in the company’s San Diego workshop, where each antique seal is carefully cleaned and restored before it is reset, through a mix of traditional and modern metalsmithing techniques, as a handcrafted gold or platinum piece of jewelry.

Cohen says she takes inspiration from whatever surroundings she happens to be in. Her jewelry philosophy is to make what you love and someone else will love it as well.

“Be yourself. Do some good whenever you can. I try to not pay attention too much to what others are doing, and trends aren’t something I follow,” she says.

“I prefer to let my creativity wander wherever it wants to go and explore creativity in many ways—visually through all mediums of art, mentally through meditation, physically by moving through nature.”

Top: Shari Cohen is the founder of Seal & Scribe, a company that makes modern jewelry out of antique seals. (Photos courtesy of Seal & Scribe)