ISLAMORADA — Judging was harder than ever with more Florida Keys schoolchildren participating in Blue Marlin Jewelry’s Sixth Annual Saige Raiche Junior Designer Mother’s Day Competition.

“We had about 25% more participation over last year. There are 429 lucky moms out there whose children love them so much,” said Aimee Alderson, a sales executive with Blue Marlin Jewelry who organizes the event.

“We can’t thank the teachers and the students who participated enough. The love that they conveyed through their art and written word is just overwhelmingly beautiful.”

Competition was fierce as most schools throughout Monroe County participated in designing potential jewelry pieces to be created by Blue Marlin Jewelry to unveil by Mother’s Day. Ten judges ruminated over the entries for about a week and recently made their final selections in three age brackets.

Alderson has previously estimated that Blue Marlin’s master jewelry usually spends about 50 hours cumulatively making each jewelry piece.

The competition honors Saige Raiche, a young girl the community lost due to illness in 2016.

Kids designed original wearable jewelry pieces with chosen jewels, materials, colors and wearability in mind. The winners will be announced in the near future as well as ceremony details.

Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, gold, rose gold, silver, aquamarine, tourmaline, pearls, pink pearls and more were sourced as materials. Some Plantation Key School students even bedazzled their conceptual drawings for effect. The essays submitted along with the designs were just as compelling, Alderson said.

Through the initial round, the judges were able to pare down the 429 entries to 36 finalists. Some of the winners were unanimously decided.

This is his sixth year as a judge and one of the toughest for Islamorada artist Robert “Pasta” Pantaleo.

“By the time you read everything and look at the designs and consider the age groups, it’s daunting,” he said. “You have to look at what catches you and figure out why. It also has to be a feasible design to make into a piece of jewelry.

“I sat at a desk and went through batches of designs and read their stories. When you read, it’s like maybe a mother or grandmother loves butterflies and that’s why they want a butterfly. There’s always a touching story behind it. At the end of the day, I have to go with what my gut tells me. If I come back to the answer three times, that’s the one I know I have to pick. It’s heartfelt. If you know anything about me, I’m not judgy. It’s my least favorite thing to do.”

Judy Hull, executive director at the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce, agreed with Pantaleo that judging the entries is extremely difficult.

“I was honored to be asked to judge the entries. I was amazed at how many students from kindergarten to 12th grade participated, which made my job very hard,” Hull said. “The creativity of the drawings was far beyond my expectations. It was easy to see that the students had put a lot of thought and effort into their designs. But I think my favorite part was the inspirational words they wrote about why they picked a certain design like a flower, a turtle or an octopus, and how much they hope that their mother or grandmother loves it as much as they love her. I know there are going to be some awesome jewelry pieces for some very lucky moms.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Blue Marlin Jewelry owner Armando Gonzalez has been an anchor in the community. He has hosted community events and scavenger hunts throughout the Upper Keys to boost morale and kept his employees working by adapting his business.

Employees worked from home and made cold calls to sell jewelry — and it worked successfully as Blue Marlin Jewelry celebrates its 25th year in business.

Blue Marlin Jewelry is located at 81549 Old Highway in Islamorada. For more information, call 305-664-8004, find them on Facebook or visit bluemarlinjewelry.com.