Beauty in the Bones

Words by Emily McMackin
Photos by Christina Block
 

Each tooth she pulls from the sand has been fossilized over tens of millions of years in the depths of the Atlantic, blackened by the minerals around it and tousled by the wind and waves before washing up with shells in the surf.

Spotting the dark gleam of a shark tooth hidden along a stretch of sand never loses its thrill for Cresta, who sees beauty and baubles where most people see bones.

Instead of tossing the fossils back into the ocean or throwing them into a jar, she transforms them into fine jewelry.

“I love taking materials that are not necessarily considered precious and elevating them in a way that makes you see and appreciate them differently,” Cresta says.

She showcases the unique shapes and natural allure of the fossils she finds by framing them with 18-karat recycled gold and precious and semiprecious gemstones, such as diamonds, sapphires, and turquoise. From striking cuffs and drop ear-rings accentuated with white diamonds, to dainty layered necklaces, chokers, and stack rings with subtle sparkle, the handcrafted jewelry in her Ponte Vedra collection mixes raw and refined materials with bold and delicate designs.

A minimalist at heart, Cresta prefers creating purposeful pieces that are versatile enough to slip on anytime and personalize, yet have a timelessness as enduring as the shark teeth themselves. Her favorite fossils to forage are those that don’t look like shark teeth until you walk right up on them. Not only do they offer an “element of surprise,” but their jagged edges have been tempered by the ocean and time into softer, more sculptural pieces resembling hearts and other organic forms.“You get addicted to the hunt once you know what you’re looking for, and the shapes start to pop out at you,” she says.

Unlike ivory, fur, or other high-fashion materials that rely on poaching, sharks shed thousands of teeth over the course of their lives, making them cruelty-free, rarified treasures “given to you by the earth if you’ll just take the time to find them,” Cresta says.

To keep her collection eco-friendly, she pairs the fossils with natural gemstones that are ethically mined or with vintage stones deserving of a second life.

Shark tooth hunting has long been part of the lore of coastal communities where fossils wash up. Cultures since the Roman Empire have used shark teeth as antidotes for snake bites and have worn them as amulets for protection, especially in the water. Though  Cresta grew up along several U.S. shorelines as a kid, she had never heard of the tradition before visiting Ponte Vedra Beach with her now-husband Tom and meeting his family for the first time in 2005.

“He said that all of the Bledsoe women were avid shark tooth collectors,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what he meant until we visited their homes and saw these big bowls of beautiful black and gray shark teeth fossils in all different shapes and sizes.”

That sparked her curiosity about the history and mystique of shark teeth—and she soon fell in love with the pastime, too. More than the fun of finding the fossils, she loved the meaning and memories it evoked.

“I love tradition,” Cresta says. “I come from a family that doesn’t have a lot of tradition. My dad was a pilot for the Navy and the airlines, so we moved around a lot and were kind of nomadic. My parents loved change, which I love, too. But I was so intrigued by the fact that shark tooth hunting was something Tom’s grand-mother, mom, aunt, and sister all did and the whole community here shares.”

An interior and product designer by trade, Cresta began thinking of ways to turn the prized fossils into more permanent keepsakes by combining them with satin-finished gold and other precious materials.“I thought it would be fun to create something special for Tom’s family to show them how much I appreciated them sharing this tradition with me,” she says.

The gesture quickly became an obsession. Flooded with ideas for fossils of all shapes and sizes, Cresta filled sketchbooks with designs and took jewelry making classes to learn fabrication techniques. But her biggest source of inspiration was Tom’s grandmother, Elaine McCallum, the family’s stylish matriarch, who left her two most valuable possessions to the Bledsoe clan when she passed away in 2007: her jewelry and her lifetime collection of shark teeth.

“Even though hunting for shark teeth was something she spent 50 years doing and enjoying, the only piece of jewelry she had that showed her love for it was a necklace made from a large shark tooth wrapped in gold wire,” Cresta recalls. “It didn't match her elegance or refinement or even the quality of the other jewelry she passed down.”

That gave Cresta the idea to create sophisticated, modern heirlooms out of the fossils that could be worn and cherished for generations. What started with a few custom pieces for family soon flourished into a full-fledged collection. She sought out master jewelers who were open to experimenting with unconventional materials to help bring her designs to life. Though she had spent much of her career producing larger-scale designs and materials for spaces, she found herself drawn to the intimacy of jewelry design.

“It’s so small that you can work out the details in a purposeful way, but you can create it in a few weeks and then get to see someone wearing it,” Cresta says. “It’s such an expression of who they are and what they value.It became something I loved and that I wanted to keep developing.”

As interest in her shark tooth jewelry began catching on, Cresta balanced her burgeoning jewelry line with a busy corporate career in Atlanta as Global Design Director for the flooring division of Milliken & Company. She brought her affinity for clean, architectural design to her jewelry, creating simple yet graphic pieces that could be worn as easily with casual wear as with cocktail attire. 

With her design aesthetic established, Cresta began growing her line even more, branching out from working solely with shark teeth to experimenting with combinations of other organic materials. Her Arc collection mixes precious and semiprecious gemstones with an array of rocks and minerals to create eclectic statement pieces with lively forms and vibrant colors. Her Geometria collectioncombines gems with even more diverse materials, including leather, marble, and fossilized palm bark, for original pieces with an exotic look and feel.

“I enjoy working in different mediums—and this one never gets old be-cause you can always change up the material and how you’re doing it,” Cresta says.

Some of her favorite new materials to explore lately include include rough gemstones mined by artisans in East Africa—the sale of which supports education and training in the region—and wood beads imported from Bali.

The custom nature of her jewelry requires her to work closely with jewelers on every detail of a piece, from its fit to its finish, but she enjoys the collaboration as much as sketching designs.

“I love trying new things,” Cresta says. “I feel like as soon asI'm not growing anymore or not learning something new, I'm done with it.”

Her creations, including signature pieces of her shark tooth jewelry, have caught the eye of some of the hottest Hollywood starlets over the years (including a piece gifted to Angelina Jolie for her birthday). But for Cresta, cultivating relationships with clients who collect her jewelry and value its authenticity and one-of-a-kind appeal has proved more rewarding than any celebrity nod. She’s been able to deepen those ties since opening a private studio and showroom in Jacksonville Beach in 2017.

“It’s created a brand experience for clients that feels more intimate, almost like they are visiting a friend’s house as opposed to a store,” she says.

Open mostly by appointment, the studio draws locals and out-of-town visitors searching for specially designed pieces, including those bringing their own shark tooth fossils for Cresta to customize. One client even asked her to design an engagement ring for his soon-to-be fiancée. “That was fun and a different kind of challenge knowing that this was something she was going to have on her hand for the rest of her life,” Cresta says.

Cresta’s jewelry line has grown into a family affair for the Bledsoes. Her husband Tom, who runs a creative consulting and branding firm, designed her logo and directed early photo shoots and styling. Her four-year-old twins, Isles and Clary, inspired two of the newest additions to her line. The Silhouette Collection draws on the skills of a profile artist to capture the cherished and changing features of a child in silhouette jewelry, while the Littles Collection features matching 14-karat gold, hand-cut charm necklaces for twinning with a child.

“I made one for my daughter with her initial, a teeny shark tooth, and a ruby because she loves pink, and she’s so proud of it,”Cresta says. “She never takes it off.”

On weekends, the family heads down to Ponte Vedra Beach to unwind and continue their tradition of hunting for shark teeth together. The twins found their first ones while they were still toddlers, and Cresta’s sister-in-law still gives her first dibs on the fossils she finds.

“You’ll see people walking on the beach whom you don’t know at all, and they’ll say, ‘Having any luck?’ And you know exactly what they’re talking about, because it’s something the community here has always shared,” Cresta says.