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John & Debby Frederick Magazine

Frederick Magazine "Maryland Made" by Holly Smith/Photos by John Keith

    Imagine twirling your fingers around the sun's rays, pulling them from the sky and looping the tendrils around your neck. How would your celestial bauble look? Would it lie opaque, swallowing the surrounding light? Or would it trifle with the oncoming radiance, sifting and filtering the colors of the spectrum?

    Well, John and Debby Sosnowsky, owners of Sozra Studio can prove-at least figuratively- that it's the latter. Working with niobium (a precious metal three times more valuable than silver), these artisans craft jewelry in such striking shades as to render the descriptor "unique" a bit understated.

    "Niobium [acts like] a butterfly wing or an oil slick. It's fascinating," says John, demonstrating by angling a collar Debby wears toward the overhead lamp. The couple's signature medium, niobium is fashioned into popular collars (rigid necklaces with a front opening), freeform earrings, pendants, and funky earcuffs that have given Sozra a loyal following both at craft shows and online (www.sozra.com).

    In business for twenty years, it's partly their interest in the shape-shifting properties of light that first drew them to niobium. Though they work skillfully with gold, silver, and Swarovski crystal, it's through the niobium that their creativity soars. "I'm more geometric, she's more flowing," says John of their individual styles. "[I'm] more organic," adds Debby, displaying an intricate piece crafted for a show.

    With edges round and jagged, lines surgical and swishy, and shades from tempered fuchsia to watery amber, the silver and niobium piece illustrates a key to Sozra jewelry: multi-layered, the ornament relies on light to illuminate its breadth. Similarly, Sozra Studio (which encompasses both the jewelry and John's musical endeavors) derives much inspiration from nature and sunlight. The name Sozra, in fact, is a combination of John's college nickname and Ra, the Egyptian sun god.

    Outside the studio window, Debby's Arabian horse grazes in a chill, wind-whipped pasture. Across the fence, against a backdrop of countryside and little else, two llamas trade disinterested gazes.

    "Sometimes I dream about pieces, or just walking through the woods or being outside [will] inspire me," says Debby. Gracious and unassuming, she admits to sketching several versions of a piece before it materializes. John, on the other hand, tried to avoid dry runs. "I'm a create-on-demand kind of guy. I allot a time and I just do it," he says. "I have a lot of faith in my abilities."

    From their home studio in Frederick County, John and Debby nurture the family-centered business. With 21 year-old daughter Jessica maintaining customer correspondence, 16 year-old son Corrie exploring jewelry design himself, and a niece assisting, too, Sozra has become a place where big ideas blossom in a small setting.

    "You take that piece of rod and start with a larger hammer and move to a smaller and smaller [one]," says John, holding a short length of niobium (it resembles thick, silver wire) and walking toward a low workbench. Aligned behind the bench hangs a collection of highly polished hammers (and headphones to temper the noise), some oversized and dense, others spare and precise. Wielding them in descending order, John can flatten the niobium into any desired form, from long and sinewy to short and spherical.

    "It's instant gratification," he says of muscling the metal into shape. "I see the piece form right in front of me." After the figure coalesces, the real magic of niobium reveals itself. Through the application of heat to its surface (Sozra's first machine for doing so was built by John's father), the metal takes on wildly vivid hues, from earthy teal to indigo-crimson; brush-like attachments allow for detail work and minute tint variations. And because of niobium's chemical makeup, the color and luster won't fade over time.

    And neither likely, will John and Debby's interest in working with the material. Although they still utilize crystals, they find the process of stone-setting to be tedious and less interesting than metalwork. Not that pounding and torching niobium is all they do. To the contrary, they also design stamps to use as imprints on their creations, customize their own tools, and occasionally delve into carving silver.

    Their willingness to embrace the once unknown niobium, use their talents to express themselves in a variety of mediums, and cultivate a loyal customer base allows the Sozra vision to thrive. Their understanding that it's a business, too, allows it to support the family. "It's creatively demanding to be able to live like this," says John. "You have to have an independent spirit." An ability to handle mounds of paperwork, scores of craft shows, and hours of chitchat with the public doesn't hurt, either. "People think this is the hard part," says John of the hands-on creation of jewelry. "This is the easy part. The hard part is turning the art into money."