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Artisans Suess (left) and Pridham at Common Ground Fine Jewelry & Studio, their shop on Greenport’s Front Street. Photography by David Benthal

In December 2017, Susan Pridham was officially burnt out.

The dual demands of being the sole owner and operator of her Greenport jewelry store, Blue Ruth, and crafting many of the handmade pieces she sold there had caught up to her following the busy holiday season. She was so desperate for change that she even considered selling the business. 

Then one day fellow jewelry maker Alexa Suess — a talented goldsmith, metalsmith and gemologist who also lives in Greenport — walked through the front door. The pair started talking, and suddenly Pridham had another idea.

“I was going on about how tired and miserable I was,” said Pridham. She turned to Suess and asked, “Well, what are you doing? Do you want to partner?” 

Photography by David Benthal

Pridham recounted the story with a big laugh while standing inside the small and beautifully appointed store on Front Street, leaning on a glass display case adorned with handmade necklaces, earrings and other jewelry created by both her and Suess. 

“She sort of blurted it out of nowhere,” said Suess, with a laugh of her own. “It took me by surprise because I was not expecting that conversation to happen at that moment.”

It didn’t take too much reflection for Suess to realize it was as perfect a moment for her to make a change as it was for Pridham. That’s how their new store was born. After initially naming it Orenda, they recently renamed the shop Common Ground Jewelry, a name they said celebrates individual principles while recognizing “we are all part of the earth that bore us.”

Photography by David Benthal

Pridham has been making handcrafted jewelry for nearly four decades, and worked in retail spaces for years before opening her shop in Greenport in 2010. Growing up and living in a small town like Greenport means “everybody knows everybody,” Suess said, and each artisan was familiar with the other. 

Suess debuted her first line of handmade pieces — which she offered for sale at a local salon — when she was just 10 years old. They sold out within a week. She had just finished studies at Parsons School of Design in New York City and become a certified gemologist when Pridham made her impromptu offer. She was at her own crossroads of sorts, trying to decide whether she was ready to “make my own reality,” she said, or stay in the “safety net” of working for others. 

The collaborative leap of faith has paid off. The design and overall aesthetic of Common Ground is a perfect blend of the sensibilities that define both artisans. They readily acknowledge their differences but have also struck the kind of balance that their business name implies. “We are very different but if you do a Venn diagram with the two of us, the stuff that’s really important we have in common,” Pridham said. “I really appreciate her vision and she appreciates mine. We fell into a rhythm, and here we are.” 

Photography by David Benthal

Suess recalled a moment in the early stages of their partnership that sums up their differences. They were working on the design for a logo, one that required a choice between an ampersand or plus sign. Pridham preferred the swirly, non-linear look of the ampersand, while Suess, who described herself as more of a left brain, analytical type, preferred the minimalist simplicity of the plus sign. 

“She’s grounded, and I’m up in the air,” Pridham laughed. They joked that their astrological signs — Pridham is a Gemini, Suess a Taurus—reflect their design approaches as well, and that the store has become a blend of those differing styles. 

“There’s a really beautiful balance of science and ritual, and color and architecture, and things that are linear and those that are freeform and organic,” Suess said. 

As a result, the pieces they craft offer customers a great degree of variety. Suess said she has enjoyed working with couples to design jewelry for weddings, engagements and other momentous occasions, particularly for the growing number of people looking for something nontraditional when it comes to those big life milestones. 

Photography by David Benthal

It is clear that both Suess and Pridham are basking in the moment, at having arrived — after years of searching and working all kinds of jobs, from food service to graphic design, retail and in the aerospace industry — at their passion project. “It’s been fantastic,” said Suess. “We are supported by such a beautiful local community, and we’re eternally grateful. And we’ve met so many new people from all over the world who we always find something in common with. We’re really lucky to be here.” 

They are determined to share their passion with the community, not just through sales. Common Ground has begun hosting silversmithing workshops, led by Suess, and recently rearranged the shop to create a studio space with a large worktable. On a nearby wall, painted in black, are these words: “You have the potential to make beautiful things (yes, you).”