Mollie Dash is quitting her day job. She is leaving behind her desk and Rolodex and company email to get her hands dirty. She is freeing up time to turn her Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment into a working studio where vintage charms and chains come together. Mollie Dash is becoming a full-time jewelry designer. And she isn’t the only one.
Brooklyn has always had an artisan spirit; ever since the glass blowers and metalsmiths of the 1850s, it has been a place to find crafts hewn from the rough industrial environment and the sense of independence that comes from the outer boroughs. It is only natural, then, that Brooklyn should be the home of the new handmade jewelry boom.
The practice of making and selling unique pieces has been growing steadily since the influential Renegade Craft Fair arrived in Williamsburg in 2003, making Brooklyn a national hub for arts and crafts. The combination of artists already in the area, the availability of raw materials and a growing consumer interest in quirky, one-of-a kind pieces created a new class of designers and shop owners in the borough who trade in quirky, off-beat work.
“It is a movement that is feeding on itself, “ said Rony Vardi, a jewery designer and the owner of the popular Willamsburg boutique, Catbird.
“Everyone can buy chain and jump rings now. Still, most jewelers have their own styles — everyone you see walking down the street here is working on a fabulous project.”
Williamsburg, where Vardi has set up two stores, has a long history of local artists working out of their apartments. Now, several women have expanded beyond home studios into their own shops and public workspaces.
Camille Hempel, who crafts humorous gold and silver pendants that wink at Art Deco and Victorian styles, owns her own eponymous shop on Wythe Avenue. Shana Tabor, whose “In God We Trust” line is an edgy mix of cast-iron antique charms and delicate chain, also owns a store in the area.
Vardi believes that Williamsburg has inspired its own aesthetic.
“The pieces here have a sense of humor without feeling dated,” she told GO Brooklyn. “Even though the items are often odd, like golden rats or iron-cast snakes, they all have a very feminine touch to them. It’s hard and soft at the same time”
In Williamsburg, where the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and factories shadow a buzzing design community, residents have learned to find beauty in everyday urban life, and the jewels reflect that. Cast razorblades, soda tabs, worms and beetles seem to suggest decay, but they glisten and shine in 14 carats. The sense of humor that pervades the pieces is the same one that makes life in northern Brooklyn exciting.
In Park Slope, a different style of jewelry has emerged. Rena Tom — one of the pioneer jewelry makers in the Brooklyn craft boom — recently stopped making her own line in order to devote her full attention to her store, Rare Device, which supports and showcases local designers.
“I love carrying pieces you could not find anywhere else,” Tom said. “I carry moms, poets and teachers who create pieces on the side.”
The “mom factor,” as Tom calls it, separates her store from those in Williamsburg. “Up there they have a funkier style. In Park Slope, a lot of the mothers want more refined, feminine pieces. Hoop earrings and small gemstones do very well.”
Though Tom separates her shop from those in Williamsburg, there does seem to be a common theme for many of the pieces. Brooklyn designers tend to work with organic materials, reuising and recycling vintage pieces to create something new. Darker colors, like bronze and pewter, are more common than flashy gold. And animals and nature come into play a great deal in the work.
Judith Hoetker, who runs a line called “Analogous,” casts old lockets with golden insects inside. Nora Kogan’s “St. Kilda” line features delicate rose gold charms embossed with birds. And Laurie Currin’s designs include filigree leaves and sea glass. The theme that runs between the designers is the marriage between metal and flora, the way that the city inspires and crates change.
“I am interested in the physicality of Brooklyn,” Dash explained. “The buildings here are so old that I just want to get my hands on earthy, antique materials.”
Camille Hempel Design (317 Wythe Ave. at South Second Street in Williamsburg) is open Thursday and Friday from 3pm until 8 pm, Saturday from noon until 8 pm and Sunday from 1 pm until 6 pm. For information call (718) 387-5076.
Catbird (390 Metropolitan Ave. at Havemeyer Street in Williamsburg) is open from 1 pm until 8 pm on weekdays and from 12pm until 8pm on weekends. For information call (718) 388-7688 or visit www.catbirdnyc.com.
In God We Trust (135 Wythe Ave. at North 7th Street in Williamsburg) is open Tuesday through Friday from 1pm until 8 pm, Saturday from noon until 8 pm and Sunday from noon until 7 pm. For information call (718) 388-2012 or visit www.ingodwetrustnyc.com.
Rare Device (453 Seventh Ave. at 16th Street in Park Slope) is open Wednesday through Saturday from noon until 7 pm and Sunday from noon until 6 pm. For information call (718) 301-6375 or visit www.raredevice.net.