Much like the first imperial egg crafted by Carl Fabergé—a somewhat plain-looking enamel piece that opened to reveal a dazzling gem-encrusted work of art—the small King Street gallery belonging to Russian émigré Mikhail Smolkin is a treasure trove encased in a slender, unassuming storefront. Inside, cases are laden with feats of ornate craftsmanship that resemble family heirlooms: richly detailed family crests, antique-style engagement rings, and precise cameos, an all-but-lost art that requires 50 to 80 hours of painstakingly detailed work per commission. Smolkin’s flair for realistic facial proportions and dedication to old-world carving methods place him in a rarefied category of artisans—a distinction that is not lost on discerning cameo collectors.
“Of the many temptations I’ve succumbed to in Mikhail’s store, my favorite is a black cameo ring that I bought twice,” says Leah Greenberg, a Sullivan’s Island resident who owns several of Smolkin’s custom pieces. “In its first version, the antique setting was too large for my little finger, and I returned it. But I continued to admire it, so Mikhail designed a new smaller setting. I’ve worn it every day since, and it gets more comments than any other piece of jewelry that I own.”
Smolkin speaks with curatorial precision as he flips through an album of his work and recounts the provenance of several pieces, including a necklace with a gem the size of an apricot, which he wrought for an out-of-state socialite; a new setting for a family diamond; and a set of South Sea pearl earrings with a gem-encrusted spider clutching one of the orbs. Missing is a record of perhaps his most meaningful works—his first.
Smolkin was a highly skilled mechanical engineer when a budding romance inspired him to embrace his hobbyist passion for filigree and stonecutting. “I would polish pieces of amber and lapis and give them to Galina to wear as buttons on her dress,” says Smolkin of his courtship of his wife some 45 years ago. “We were young, living in Leningrad, and had nothing.” They married and eventually moved to Lvov, Ukraine, a culturally rich World Heritage site that enabled Smolkin to switch vocations. There, he sold his jewelry designs through salons regulated by the Union of Soviet Artists. “It was prohibited to work with precious material, like silver and gold; I could only use pewter,” he explains. “Also, we were only allowed to make 10 copies of any one design, so I had to develop many styles, which was good for learning.”
In 1990, they immigrated to Charleston, and today, Smolkin works with all types of material, including conch shells that he transforms into cameos. “Mikhail has a knack for finding beautiful and unusual stones in the rough,” says Patsy Prioleau, whose first Smolkin-designed piece was a silver pin set with an indigenous Russian mineral known for its vibrant veins of red. “Mikhail has the innate ability to extract a hue from a stone and set it perfectly.”
Though some clients bring specific designs to his workbench, including one woman who had him recreate a family brooch that had been stolen, Smolkin’s original creations are his hallmark. For rings, he casts wax molds that are often retooled
several times until his vision is articulated perfectly, while other clients simply leave their raw stones in the care of his imagination. “He was born with the ability to create beauty,” says Prioleau. “He is a tremendous artist.”