When The Times recently invited five independent jewelry designers for a morning of conversation, they all arrived wearing their own creations.
“We are our brands,” as Bernard James, one of the jewelers, put it. “We represent what we make.” The designer, 32, wore, among other pieces, rings from his namesake brand’s Flora collection, inspired by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and a diamond tennis bracelet.
He was joined at Nine Orchard, a hotel in downtown Manhattan, by Jennifer Koche, 38 of Storrow Fine Jewelry, who had necklaces with vintage-inspired charms dangling from her neck, and Johnny Nelson, 35, of Johnny Nelson Jewelry, sporting a razor blade earring and a four-finger gold ring depicting four influential hip-hop stars.
Also, Lorraine West, 48, of Lorraine West Jewelry, wearing oversize hoop earrings and a necklace with the word “Major” in a font based on her own handwriting, and Wing Yau, 36, of Wwake, who had an array of delicate rings on her fingers and hoops adorned with opals.
They discussed their unconventional backgrounds in art, retail and music; the challenges of running a small business; and how much investment money can be raised from the sale of a pair of collectible boxing gloves.
The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Many of your pieces are more than just decorative, and feel like personal statements. Is that important to your customers?
JOHNNY NELSON I believe so. Basically, a lot of my pieces are Black history figures, which are symbols of empowerment. Somebody might wear a Shirley Chisholm necklace or ring right before they go to a meeting or a job interview — it gives them that extra oomph to do what they’ve got to do. To me, it feels really good to be somebody that is able to give that to somebody, to add a little bit more fuel to their fire.
BERNARD JAMES I would say the same. I feel like I got into jewelry specifically because it’s so personal.
LORRAINE WEST I think it’s not only the jewelry but it’s us. I believe that we are elite: we are elite artist-jewelers — our work intersects through art, fashion, commerce.
WING YAU I don’t see how the personal aspect can be separated from fine jewelry.
I think that is what we’re all saying we gravitate toward: There’s this heritage of the material. Gold is literal currency. I think there is an undying wealth and value attached to metal, especially fine jewelry, and that’s what brought me into becoming a fine jewelry designer, is that I could have that base value as a conversation starter.
None of you come from a traditional background in jewelry design. Did you begin by designing pieces that matched your own taste?
NELSON Basically, all I did was just do things that I felt like I needed, which also resonated with what a lot of other people needed.
JENNIFER KOCHE I feel like it’s the same way for me. I made what I wanted to wear and I made what I felt like are things that I gravitate toward. I think for me it’s a little different, coming from a jewelry background already on the buying side, I kind of had a backdoor of understanding what the customer prefers, what resonates.
Early in your careers, how did you find the money to buy raw materials like gold and gems?
JAMES I got my start at Ferragamo, which was one of my first internships. I wanted to learn the back end of the business and also be able to afford the materials I was buying. I started out in silver because that’s all I could afford at the time.
NELSON When I started, I was working on several things: I’m in the Screen Actors Guild, so I was doing a lot of background acting and stand-in work for a lot of actors. I was working for an interiors staging company, so I would go around making houses and apartments look nice before people rented them. I was doing catering. Then, also, I was working in brass. It was a lot of money for me — basically, everything that I would work for, I would put it into the jewelry, everything. I was even selling my old Supreme stuff.
I box; I sold my Supreme boxing gloves on eBay. That was big to me. When I made this four-finger ring right here, it was in my head for so long. I needed that extra thousand dollars so I could actually make the mold — because these rings are so big, the actual silicone mold costs like $500 — so I had to do it. It’s like a big trust thing: you trust yourself so much it’s kind of like borderline insane, because I really put all of everything I had into what I believed was supposed to be amazing for everyone else.
You’re all nodding in agreement.
YAU I so relate. I would work in a coffee shop when I started Wwake. I was nannying, I was also working for artists — just trying to gather as much as I could …
JAMES Mmm hmm.
YAU … to have that studio. With that money.
WEST For me, what helped spark my career was individuals: Individuals saying “OK, I want this custom.” Also, I would meet people and say, “I can make that for you,” and I didn’t even know how to make it yet — I would just figure it out.
You all have items at a range of prices, and pieces that lend themselves to buying in multiples.
JAMES It is that balance of having those star pieces and the pieces that people can get into. Collectibility is super important.
KOCHE The way that I built the collection, there was the price point in mind, of having potential price resistance, having the appeal to a first-time customer versus a more mature customer.
I have a whole segment of the collection that’s under $1,000 — up to, obviously, the more aspirational pieces. The way that my brand is positioned is that in an ideal state, a customer would buy one, either because they just like it aesthetically, or to commemorate a life experience or something that is meaningful to them, and then have that expand over time. They’re meant to be collected, either as a gift or as a self-purchase. I think it’s really important to be able to appeal to a customer, to keep them around more long-term.
How do you balance the creative side of your work with running your business?
NELSON I think it’s challenging to be honest, to be able to handle emails, to have to go out and meet people all the time.
NELSON Invoicing, following up all the time on the payments. I had a meeting with one of my mentors, he was like, “You’ve got to set aside at least two design days out of the week and just be like, ‘This is the day that I’m just going to focus on designing,’” because I run around and I do a lot of operational work.
JAMES Everything is very time-consuming, and it’s all about balance. Sometimes that balance feels almost impossible to achieve but the resounding thing is that you have to make it work. You figure it out.
YAU I feel like I did that for most of the last 10 years. I literally was in that place of tension at all times, between all of the balls that I was juggling. I was constantly juggling. The picture that I have in my head when I say that is not the action of juggling, but the balls floating in the air.
When you’re working with suppliers or jewelry manufacturers, do you face racism or sexism?
WEST Oh yeah. All the time.
JAMES All the time.
WEST I never let those things get to me. I’ve heard stories from other jewelers how they feel afraid, they feel intimidated, things like that. I never felt intimidated — actually it makes me grow bigger.
JAMES We deal with challenges and barriers at every level, especially because we don’t come from traditional backgrounds in terms of jewelry, and they assume that we don’t know what we’re doing because of who we are, whether it’s gender, race, all the identifiers.
We’re so fortunate to be around a lot of different creatives from diverse backgrounds that look like me, and have the same ideology and resonance. It’s all about access and relationships, and it’s hard to form that, especially when certain people have preconceived notions, or treat you like you don’t know what you’re talking about because they don’t know who you are.