Visiting Jewelry Designer Nettie Kent At Her Brooklyn Studio
Nettie Kent is an environmentally conscious jeweller who “practices sustainable production in her studio” and minimises the use of chemicals that are so common in the jewelry industry today. Nettie’s designs have a gorgeous gypset like look and feel to them. All her jewelry has texture and appears very effortless.
The pieces seem to carry the spirit of an artist and a free-mind and this feeling prevails when I meet Nettie in person. Our interview takes place in her tucked away studio in Greenpoint Brooklyn where residential buildings make space for industrial constructions. Nettie greets me warmly and we immediately enter into a lively and passionate conversation.
Nettie, what made you start up your own jewelry label in 2010?
When I first started this business I just knew that I wanted to work with jewelry and I hoped I could sell some. I knew that I didn’t know what I was doing, so I moved back to New York. I had actually left and had lived in the country for three years where I had met my husband. But then we both wanted to move to New York. He in order to pursue his painting and me to pursue jewelry. So I actually got three apprenticeships.
I was really naive about how things were. And it helped me being naive because I wasn’t shy and I would just e-mail stores and be like “Here's my jewelry.” It’s that lack of self-consciousness that only comes when you don’t know very much. It’s so funny, things that worked then won’t even work now and I’m like “How did I do that?” Like I got into some really good stores, just by kind of pestering them in a funny way. So it took me by surprise when I was like “I’m running a business, how did that happen?” I wish that I had started with more intention and maybe more slowly, but for me it’s just like, I have to jump into something. If I take things too slow, it leaves me room for questioning things too much and maybe for me too much fear. And so I just went for it. I don’t know how smart it is but it’s working so far (laughs).
Prior to learning about jewelry making you studied fine arts and creative writing at Hampshire College. How did that inspire your work?
I don’t know. Art school is so silly. It really is. If students ever ask me “Should I go to art school?”, I'm like “No, no, no” (laughs). Don’t go to art school, get an apprenticeship. My college actually interviewed me a few years ago, and they were like “What could you suggest to us?” And for me, they just taught us “Oh, go out to the world and be an artist.” And I was like “No, teach me business.” I didn’t want to learn that at 18 but now that I’m running a business, and I am learning as I go, I wish I had learned that back then. I had an intern one time who was taking business classes, and I was like “How are you 20 years old and you’re so much smarter than me?”
What kind of art do you find interesting? Do you have any favourite artist that inspires you in your own work?
I feel like I’d have to say my husband. It’s funny, we share a studio and sometimes I’ll find that with my shapes will make his shapes in his paintings. He used to do these long geometric shapes with lots of triangles, and I would look at my designs and I would see all these triangles in there. It’s one of those subconscious interactions. I’ve always loved art. I studied painting and art history and my fathers is a painter, as well. So being in the studio is a natural place for me. Helen Frankenthaler is one of my favourite artist. She’s amazing.
I love her work!
One of my dad's best friend was her studio assistant for years back in the 70s. I used to just pester him “What was she like?”
Yes, what was she like!?!
She just smoked cigarettes all the time, and I was like: “Oh I love that!” It’s funny, before I lived in New York I liked more challenging art, things that made my eyes bounce around. But since living here, I want to be soothed by art. I think it’s just a reaction to being in the city where there’s so much to see all the time. I feel like my senses are “boom, ping” all over. My husband does these landscapes and I really love those. I find myself drawn to art that’s kind of vague. Soft and vague and I can fall into it and make it whatever I want it to be. I really like that.
I read that you grew up on the island of Martha’s Vineyard and that your background was quite bohemian. Were your parents political and raised some kind of environmental awareness in you?
I think maybe not intentionally but because of how they were. My father is a painter, my mom is a free spirit. And she is a librarian, so she really encouraged me to read. And kind of through necessity. There was not much money and there were a lot of kids. So I would just hang out in my dad’s studio after school and he would set me up with drawings so that I would be out of his way. Or I would hang out at the library and I would be reading books or magazines. I liked National Geographic when I was little. And then the nature thing. I grew up in the woods, in this little cabin, there was no electricity, no running water, no telephone. I was my mum’s 4th child at that time and she just gave birth all by herself, which I can’t even believe now thinking about it. My parents were hippies, and it was a very free upbringing. And so I just played in the woods and that’s where nature became my friend. I don’t how much longer I’ll live in New York. We keep driving upstate New York, and we are like “Wow, look at that house”. There’s just a certain calmness that comes from nature and I’ve been craving it more and more. I think as my business gets more and more busy, I want to be in surroundings that are less busy.
When you design your jewelry, who do you design for? Do you have a particular person in mind?
I love the process of the making so much that I can actually get a little carried away. And then I’m always pleasantly surprised when people like it. When I am making it I think about what I want to wear. I recently started making a lot more smaller stud-earrings, because that’s what I want to wear. And then I’ll throw in bigger pieces, because I know that there is an audience for that. I try not to look around too much. I cut off Instagram and magazines, because I don’t want to be too influenced by what everyone else is doing. There are just so many jewellers even in this neighbourhood. I think it’s really hard to be unique and I want to be as unique and different as I possibly can be and so I don’t want to get too influenced. And sometimes I think “Why am I making jewelry?” There’s so much jewelry in the world already and I am putting even more out there.
I think your work is important not only because your designs are beautiful but also because the way you work is different. You are concerned about environmental and human well-being and you design and produce accordingly. Most people don’t know much about the negative impact of jewelry making. Could you explain to me how raw materials for jewelry are usually sourced and why it is so harmful?Have you ever seen photographs of mines? It’s really upsetting. It’s depleting the earth. The mining corporations go in and they basically hollow out the mountain. The trees and the wild life have to leave or else they’ll die because of all the chemicals involved in mining. Once a mine is closed, all that is left is basically a barren wasteland. And because of all the chemicals that have seeped into the earth, there’s nothing that can be really done with that land afterwards. There are links on my website for “No Dirty Gold”, “Ethical Metal Smiths” and “Earth Works”, three different environmental and anti-mining organisations. "No Dirty Gold" are really informative about the negative environmental effects of mining.
So what are the strategies that you have adopted so far to produce your jewelry in a more sustainable way?
When I first started designing my jewelry it was important to me to only work with recycled metals, because of the devastating effect of mining on the environment. But I think that once you dip your toe into sustainability, you eventually have to dive in all the way in because you learn that there is much more to it than just working with recycled metals.
How do you find your reclaimed metals? Is it difficult?
Well I am lucky that I don’t have to source it. I work with a refiner in the city and they source it all. It’s actually really easy for a jeweller to use recycled metals, because a lot is more and more prevalent. I think that a lot of jewelry lines, especially in New York, are using recycled metals. But for me that was just the tip of the iceberg. That’s what got me started. After I found my refiner I found a caster. In the jewelry making process it’s me who carves the wax and then I bring it to my caster. They make a mould of the wax and they do the actual melting of the metal for me. At first I was just happy to have a caster that used recycled metals. But then I learned about what happens after the cast. A lot of casters wash the casted pieces in chemicals. So that they are cleaner when they give them to the customer. But I thought “Oh wait, I don’t want those chemicals.” I will polish, file and finish the jewelry pieces anyway when I am working on them back in the studio. So it’s totally unnecessary and it’s harmful. It was really great when I met and interviewed this caster, Frank from Long Island. And when I asked him why he doesn’t use these chemicals unlike so many other casters, he was like “I’m not going to put that shit around my family.” So for him it totally wasn’t an environmental reason. His wife works there, his son, his daughter, he doesn’t want them to be exposed to toxins. Because making jewelry is pretty toxic. For example, I’ve really wrestled with plating. I’ve gotten requests for doing gold plating and I’ve really struggled with it.
Why is gold plating so harmful?
Gold flash plating is harmful because before you plate it, you have to put a layer of a white metal underneath, nickel mostly, and then the gold is basically just like a layer of colour. That’s why you wear something that’s flash plated for a couple of days and it just wears right off. I think it’s wasteful on so many levels. You have this beautiful ring, it’s gold coloured and then it just rubs off the more you wear it and the gold comes off. And all of a sudden it’s this weird silver color and that’s the nickel underneath. At that point most people will stop wearing the ring because it looks dull and ugly. So it gets discarded. It’s not only harmful but also wasteful. When I was getting requests for plating, I looked into a really high quality plating. It is basically gold filled as opposed to gold plated which means it’s an actual layer of 14 carat gold. But the cost of it is pretty astronomical and so I’ve been struggling with having to educate my stores and my buyers. You could flash plate something for $5, but it might last only a few days, it’s so silly. Gold filling, on the other hand, is quite expensive but it lasts.
You work a lot with brass …
Brass isn’t an expensive metal by any means and people have asked me “Why is it $100? It’s just brass.” And I’m like: “Well, it’s really good quality brass. There’s no nickel, there’s no lead and it was made by hand.” I know what’s in my metals because I work right in the city. I go to my caster and I know where he gets the metals and I know how it’s refined. I pay a little more for my metals and for my caster but I don’t worry. I just couldn’t imagine sending off my designs and having them totally made elsewhere and not knowing what was in it. But very often people don’t understand that, they don’t understand the difference of metals or why brass can be of such different qualities.
Why do you like the material and do you have any advice on maintenance?
Brass is a really cool metal, it reacts to its environment. So if it’s humid, it will get dark. And it will also react to your body’s pH-level which is really interesting. I had to learn a lot about the material because when I started working with brass people told me that they were allergic to brass. So I had to do research. When you wear a brass ring and it gets green, that’s when people say it’s an allergy. But it’s not an allergy, it’s your body’s pH-level and the brass is reacting to it. So the more acidic you are, the more it’ll change in colour. It’s so interesting, my friend wore this necklace the other day and it turned really dark. I was actually worried about her because she wore it just one day. And I was like “You need to detox a little because it’s the acidity that causes it.” You don’t want your pH-level to be too acidic so you need to balance it out. She was like “What’s wrong, am I sick?”, and I’m like “No you’re just drinking too much coffee and you are having a stressful time.” But even if brass darkens it is so easy to clean. All you have to do is take some steel wool and some soap and wipe it and it’s clean again.
Is your whole production based in New York?
Another thing that is important for me is that everything is made locally. I worked for a jewelry brand in the past that at some point decided to outsource and use a factory in China. Up until then we were making everything in the city but they were just getting bigger and bigger, and couldn’t keep up with producing locally and ended up making that choice. I remember when our first shipment came in from China. The quality was worse and I have no idea what the factory was like over there, what the conditions were like, what the people were payed. And each piece of jewelry was wrapped up in about five pieces of plastic. I would be unwrapping and unwrapping and then I looked at all the waste on the floor, all the plastic and I just got that pit in my stomach. I actually quit right afterwards. I think a lot of businesses decide to outsource when they can’t keep up with the orders and when they think that producing domestically is too expensive.
What is your experience working with retailers?
I’ve worked with really big stores like ASOS. They bought one collection from me, my own collection, made by me. And afterwards they were like “And now, we want to do ‘Nettie Kent for ASOS’” and they wanted me to send my designs to their factory in China so that they could sell Nettie Kent jewelry for cheap. It felt a bit like a trick and I was like “No”. It’s so soul sucking. I do work with really great boutiques but they are all small boutiques. When I work with larger companies who place larger orders, they just want to cut costs and they’re like “How could we produce this cheaper?”. I think that is what’s hard about making a living as a conscious designer. The only large company that I worked well with is “Master and Muse” by Amber Valetta. Their mission statement is similar to mine and they specialise in sustainable brands.
Do you have any ideas on how to turn sustainable fashion into the new norm?
There are some brands that are doing it really smartly. Do you know the brand Everlane? This is their t-shirt (shows her t-shirt) and it costs $15. So what they’re doing is transparent pricing. When you buy the T-Shirt it tells you how much the materials cost, who made it, how much the person was paid and also what their own mark-up is. And they tell you where their factories are and give you information about their factories. They sell directly to the costumer via their website, so there is no middle man. And they also give you the information on how much more you would have to pay if you bought it in a store. Reformation are great, too, they’re being so smart. Do you know those guys?
Yes! They are based in Los Angeles, right?
In LA and then they also have shops in New York. I think they’re doing it in a cool way because they’re coming at it from a fashion-girl, cool-girl kind of angle and it’s smart. They’re getting all these girls who normally do not give a shit about environmentalism and human welfare and they’re making it cool. I think that’s important because the demographic they’re appealing to want to be cool. Reformation are getting them to buy their clothes and they send out marketing campaigns all the time with little blurbs like “Real babes recycle” you know, things like that.
How do you imagine the future of your own brand?
It’s funny, I think a lot of businesses want to get bigger and I almost want to get smaller. My dream would be to only do direct sales because that way I would be able to set the prices myself. My jewelry would be half the price but I would be making the same amount of profit. I love working with stores but sometimes I feel a little self-conscious about what stores charge for my jewelry.
So I would love to be able to do just direct sales and if I did that I could really take my own time with designing my collections. The fashion calendar is really crazy, it’s a constant push for more and new. I only do two collections a year but they have to be pretty big collections because buyers want to see a whole new selection. And I feel that it’s a little wasteful. Not only wasteful for my time and energy, but each design I create needs a new mould and additional materials. I just want to be able to move at a slower pace that isn’t dictated by “Well you need a new collection, because that’s what everybody wants to see right now.”
NY City Brands
"Kordal, Study NY, Miranda Bennett Studio and Gamma Folk are all creating not only gorgeous work but doing so with intention, whether it's working with sustainable yarns, creating zero waste designs, crafting each piece by hand or employing local communities. These ladies inspire me everyday."
Nettie Kent's NYC
#1: Greenpoint Brooklyn
"My neighbourhood. It's growing and changing so fast but there is still a comfortable vibe of old Brooklyn neighborhood
that I treasure. And we have the greatest restaurants!"
#2: Metropolitan Museum
"I love the Met, it's such a mammoth of a museum and I love getting lost in it. I also have my special rooms I seek out and revisit all the time, it's an endless source of inspiration for me."
#3: Fort Tilden Beach
"It’s a fun crazy scene in the summer but on the right day you can really feel far from the crowds and
have a perfectly chill beach day."
Nettie's Top 5:
#1: A Song For You
by Gram Parsons
#2: A Whiter Shade Of Pale
by Procul Harum
#3: Sweet Emotion
#4: Young Forever
by Jay Z