Why This Jewelry Designer Calls Making Jewelry “Addictive”
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Photographed by Shoji Van Kuzumi
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
“It's just like learning alchemy,” says Gillian Steinhardt of the process of creating jewelry. A master in one-of-a-kind, meaningful jewelry design, Steinhardt has become known for the signature hand motif in her pieces. As someone who studied textiles and art history in school, she married her love for form and shape to her interest in the ancient to create pieces with a unique reimagining of architecture and history that are intricate in their simplicity. Her work has even been worn on the CW historical drama Reign. We got the chance to visit her at home to look at her beautiful collections and discuss how she got to where she is today, her design process, and advice for budding jewelry entrepreneurs.
On getting her start in jewelry design
I've always been a maker of things. I studied textile design and I just started making for fun.
I was making knit jewelry early on. I was knitting chain and selling these pieces here and there when I was living in Los Angeles. It was quite amazing how many people loved it and wanted to buy it, it was a unique look at the time.
I didn't really know how to make jewelry in any formal way, but … I promised myself that one day when I had time I would take some jewelry classes and learn how to do proper metalsmithing. When I finally did have some time, I moved to New York and started taking classes and learning how to make jewelry.
And it just took me. It's just like learning alchemy, basically. I just became addicted to the art of making jewelry and working with metal, and silver and gold and different materials, and seeing how those forms come together. I was just playing around making one-of-a-kind pieces. And just for fun — I had no real intention of selling it or going into business with it.
But a friend of mine who was a well established jewelry designer had seen what I was doing and asked me if I would be interested in meeting some buyers who were in town. So I showed them what I was doing and they loved it. They asked me if I could go into production and sell to them for the next selling season. So that's kind of how it started for me.
On her most meaningful pieces
The dog tag necklace I always wear was my dad's necklace. It was something that my mom had made for him when my brother and I were babies. And it's a 22 karat gold dog tag with with my brother's and my thumbprints on it. It was something that I remember him wearing always and forever, and he never took it off. He passed away about 10 years ago and now it's something that I wear all the time.
I have a collection called the Reliquary collection. From the very beginning I’ve been working with the hand motif as a consistent and signature motif in my jewelry.
I don't know what drew me to it. But it's something that I love and it's historically a significant motif in so many different cultures, so many different eras and centuries — the hand in jewelry. So I took it as my own as something that resonates with me, and it to me is a strong symbol of giving and receiving and of humanity and charity and all of those elements. Each piece I create kind of has meaning in that regard with the hand.
So there's a symbol that I had been wanting to work with called the The Alchemist's Hand, or the Philosopher's Hand. It's a Masonic symbol and it's basically the hand with five images on the tip of each finger. The crown, the lantern, the star, the sun, and the key and each one symbolizes sort of the next level of enlightenment.
And so something that I have done is like a charm necklace with the hand holding each one of these charms, and then the charm can be taken on and off. As you want to add another level of “enlightenment” to your charm you can add more pieces. So that's an exciting piece that I've got going.
I started out as a fashion jewelry / costume jewelry designer. And then as that developed I started to make smaller pieces and — it was almost like some of the pieces I made sort of told me that they wanted to be made in fine materials.
I also wanted to start working with stones and it didn't make sense to put them in non-fine metal. So I changed everything and I began to develop a fine jewelry collection.
The hand was one of the first things that I had done in my costume collection. It was two hands on each side of a bracelet. Every season I just would add one or two other pieces into that hand grouping and that became the thing that buyers would buy. It was funny — I had all these pieces which were really saying more about me as a designer, and then I had these hands which I built out because they were doing well and because people were drawn to them. So it just kind of happened naturally. When I moved to fine jewelry it was definitely something that I took with me as one of my main signatures.
The ones that I do — they're very feminine. They're supposed to be about female empowerment. There’s the idea of giving — the right hand is the giver, the left hand is the receiver — and that balance of humanity and charity and strength and power and all of those things.
But it definitely is a statement about female empowerment. When I made them fine, I put the enamel on the fingernails, just as a little nod to the strength of women — the red fingernails.
My design process usually starts with a shape that I want to start working with, and it comes from research. I start looking at books and I just look around me everywhere.
For instance, the collection that I did for the Hadrian [Opera, in collaboration with Rufus Wainwright] was very specific and very narrow minded as far as I wanted it to look like Roman jewelry. I wanted those elements of typical Greco-Roman jewelry to be part of it. I wanted to use the coins and everything. That inspired me now to draw out some of those things and put them into my regular collection.
So the design process really is just sort of very intuitive. I sketch out a little bit. It's almost like a collage process, just piecing bits and pieces together from from all these other images. Then I start to work with CAD [Computer Assisted Design]. So I work with computer rendering and I also do hand carving. I'll print it from that CAD design and then make a wax out of it, and then I'll start hand manipulating it so that it has a little bit more organic. I tend to like things that have a ancient quality to it or an old feel to it. It depends on the other pieces but that's that's my natural tendency.
Everything is done my office and I work with different people, different jewelers and setters who are part of my project. It's not all just me.
I read about jewelry history a lot because I really do love history. It's super fascinating for me.
On women who inspire her
One of my very good friends who started with me in jewelry is Kimberly McDonald. Her business model, her business savvy, her everything has been a tremendous inspiration for me. She has done so well with her accomplishments and I saw it firsthand.
I started working with her while I was a stylist and I saw the beginnings of her career, and now I've seen it explode. The pieces that she makes are extraordinary and her business has really just become something that's very inspirational to me.
Somebody like Ashley Longshore who everybody knows now is definitely an inspiration. She's an Instagram sensation and she's done it on their own. I would say she's self-made. She created everything on her own. The art world wouldn't accept her so she did it on her terms and and created this amazing path for herself.
So those are two people that I think have inspired me business wise and just in terms of what you can do and how successful you can be when you really do it on your own and push hard and find the loopholes.
On jewelry entrepreneurship
The business aspect of it is changing a lot. Even from when I started to now the retail landscape has changed dramatically. The amount of jewelry in the marketplace has grown dramatically. Once you find your voice as far as the design goes, I think that it really is imperative to find a place, whether it's your online presence or retail partners, that can help you find a customer and really really build your one-on-one customer relationship. Because with jewelry it is a personal thing and you really want people to come back. You want to sort of be able to find opportunities to get in front of your customer. whether it's doing little markets or doing trunk shows or anything where you really can build that relationship.
Once people trust you and trust that relationship, they can be a customer for life. And you know it's a beautiful thing to be able to do customized work, to work with people and and develop pieces for them specifically.
The thing about making jewelry is that you feel so empowered by making it. You're turning liquid into solid. You can't get enough of it, it's an eye opener. I think it becomes addictive to so many people and they just can't stop once they start.
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