For many generations, a marriage proposal entailed asking a mother or grandmother about the possibility of acquiring a family ring – or a pilgrimage to Holly Golightly’s favourite breakfast destination. But times have changed, and jewellery is increasingly thought of as an expression of one’s individual style and personality.

This preference for bespoke pieces is reflected in the continued expansion of Melbourne jewellery business Cushla Whiting. Designer Cushla Whiting and her siblings Hamish (a gemologist and diamond expert) and Anna (the business manager) founded the brand in 2013. They’ve subsequently added more staff and last year moved to the O’Donohue’s building on Little Bourke Street, which was built by bookmaker James O’Donohue in 1920 on the site of the former Racing Club Hotel. Phillip Island-based practice Richard Stampton Architects designed the light-charged new showroom, turning it into something more like an art gallery than a retail space.

“Everyone who comes in just really loves that it’s very different for an engagement ring experience,” Cushla says. “Engagement rings are traditional, and it [the usual shopping experience] can be boring.”

Stampton has worked on yoga studios, offices, schools and homes, but this was his first jewellery showroom. The architect didn’t take the project lightly – he looked into cosmology, how gems are formed and further explored the work of a longtime influence, Danish artist and former geologist Per Kirkeby.

Soon after receiving the commission, Stampton also found himself in south-east Victoria working on a futuristic campsite named Bush Camp 1. The region is rich with white quartz-laden granite boulders, and in the evenings, Stampton observed the “jewel-like phenomena” of moonlight reflecting off the quartz flecks in these boulders. The vision inspired him to design the space-y ring-display cases that consist of “floating” granite rocks bound by cylindrical perspex tubes.

Staff raise the protective tubes by engaging the counterweights on adjacent posts. “The cosmological arrangement of the floating boulders is clearly a reference to the astrological arrangements,” says Stampton. He describes the space as structured in a way that encourages customers to “meander through and around” the displays, “hopefully subconsciously reminded of the preciousness of gems by the prehistoric rocks”. “We hope that the minds of Cushla Whiting’s customers are at least subconsciously drawn to the origin of her precious jewellery,” he says.

Cushla Whiting’s rings have relatively simple bands. The focus is on rare and unusual stones, such as grey spinel and Colombian Muzo emeralds, and interesting cuts such as lozenges and hexagons. Cushla prefers the broad flashes of light these styles produce, rather than the constant “in-your-face” sparkle of modern diamonds.

The Whitings appreciate the way Stampton helped set these unique engagement rings in a similarly unique environment. (“Rocks on rocks!” Cushla says, joking.) The design has also enhanced the way they operate the business. “Customers come in now and it’s more of an experience,” says Cushla. “I think it’s more interactive now and people really enjoy how we have the rings split into different themes on the rocks; it’s like a journey through the collection.”

“People will come in to see us having seen a ring on our Instagram thinking, ‘I want this ring’, and then by the time they’ve finished their appointment with us, they may have completely changed their direction,” Anna says. “It’s really valuable being able to see all the collection rings in stock, and also being able to sit down and see all the gemstones. We have a big collection of loose gemstones – when people look at them, they will naturally gravitate towards a certain stone. You don’t get that at a traditional jewellers, where they don’t have a lot of stones in stock.”

The larger showroom also provides a wedding-band table in addition to the engagement ring table so two appointments can run simultaneously. Stampton also came up with the idea of a luxurious gold curtain to divide the showroom from the staff workspace. “It gives people more privacy, so it doesn’t feel awkward, having their engagement ring appointment in front of six people,” says Cushla.

The pretty pink floor was a happy accident. “We stripped back all the layers of paint on the floor thinking it would be normal concrete only to find it had this pink pigment in it,” Cushla says. “I actually really love it. It goes so well with the gold – it’s almost like an abstract painting.”

Cushla Whiting
Level 2/377–379 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne (entry via Racing Club Lane)
(03) 9670 4403

Tue, Wed & Fri 10am–5.30pm
Thu 10am–6.30pm
Sat 10am–4pm

This story originally appeared in Melbourne Print Issue 25 .