Name: Elizabeth Thompson, Jewelry Designer, Brooklyn
This Artist Profile has us catching up with Elizabeth of Elizabeth Knight Jewelry. Her Greenpoint studio has the feel of a ubiquitous New York creative’s work space – graffiti over an unmarked entrance and a rather industrial, no-frills workroom that speaks to the gritty work with her hands that Elizabeth’s craft requires.
She speaks with a conviction and clarity about her inspirations, particularly those rooted in historical myths as well as family and jewelry-making heritage. Elizabeth’s obvious hunger to explore new avenues and expand her own capabilities mark her as a prodigy of her trade. Take a look at her musings on working with horse hair, the superiority of solid gold, and karma in wedding bands.
Tell us about your background and how you got into jewelry design.
I went to school at the Savannah College of Art and Design. I actually went there for graphic design because that was the only kind of creative class I’d taken in high school. But once I got to SCAD and realized there were all these other options, I realized quickly that graphic design wasn’t the road I wanted to go down. We were able to take elective courses, so one of the ones I took was in jewelry design.
I immediately was drawn to it; there’s a nice gratification in making jewelry because the items are so small – you see your friends who are in, say, furniture design class or other projects where it will take a whole semester for them to complete one piece. [In jewelry design] you can have an idea, sketch it on a piece of paper and make it pretty quickly. So it feels good to go through that process and have something at the end you’re really proud of. I love working with my hands and with tools, so it was an exciting first class to take.
I know a lot of your pieces are inspired by and named after Greek history and mythology. What about that part of history really spoke to you?
The first collection I started is called “Ground and Water”. My mom doesn’t live far from Savannah; she’s in South Carolina, and she has a nice piece of property there where I started collecting organic objects. I used them in my casting class to make into metal. So it started with finding bones and other interesting objects, and I was really drawn to the skeletal figures. I really liked the message of where we’ve come from, where we’re going, the core of who we are – I started thinking a lot about that for future collections.
All that translated a little bit differently; I started looking into traditional ways of making jewelry and interesting parts of history. I wanted to be inspired by stories, folk tales, myths – I felt like there was a connection going from the skeletal castings to digging deep and thinking about what makes us up, and then stories and traditions that we grow up with and have been passed down to us. And with jewelry, you want it to be passed from one generation to the next. You’re sometimes given jewelry from your mother or grandmother; you want to have things you can pass down to your children. I think that within itself is in vein with the process of storytelling.
So there was the Greek mythology and then the “Leopard Hunter”, which was inspired by Victorian jewelry. So it’s fun to experiment with the processes of how they made jewelry at the time, and implement that into the designs as well.
Do you have any favorite collections or pieces inspired by a favorite myth or story that really spoke to you in particular?
I did a collection of horsehair jewelry that was called the “Dark Horse” collection. They’re really unusual pieces, and not really meant to be worn regularly – some of them are just show pieces or for editorials. But it was really fun to bring in another material that I’d never used before and practice different techniques of braiding and work with different colors. I was very proud of the pieces by the end of it. Kind of in the way that I’ve researched different techniques from one time period to he next, half fun of doing a new collection for me is wanting to branch out of what I’ve already done.
What is it about horsehair that ultimately makes the pieces not really for every day?
Horsehair just doesn’t hold up the way metal does. It can get tangled or caught on something, even if you have a nice tight braid. If you have a sharp ring or something, it can easily pull the hair. It’ll stretch and lose its shape if it’s worn too often.
Where do you source the horsehair from? I would think that’s harder to find than stones or metal.
It’s not that hard to find. I found a few different places that sold horsehair, and I did some research about where they got it and made sure they got the hair from somewhere that was ethically processing it.
Besides the horsehair, do you have a favorite material to work with, like particular stones or anything?
Well, I’ve started working with gold a little bit more recently, and there’s something about it so that brass or just a gold plate will never look the same as solid gold. For some specialty pieces that people have asked for, it’s been a pleasure to work with solid gold and see how beautiful it looks in the end. It’s just in a whole other league. You can even feel a difference in working with it.
Where do you see line going in the next year or two? Do you want it to be an organic evolution and take it as it comes, or do you have a specific plan for where you want it to go?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I’d like to start working more with fine jewelry and custom pieces. Outside of that, I’ve started designing some simple wedding bands.
This past season I’ve taken a little bit of a break – we’ve been doing a lot of production work together, and I wanted to start considering different ways of making jewelry that aren’t so high-production-oriented. I’ve loved working with solid gold, and I think some more sentimental, specialized pieces like wedding bands will be a fun new direction for the brand.
You were saying that the term “jewelry designer” brings to mind somebody in an office who is just conceiving the ideas or doing the sketches. What do you think of yourself as? A jewelry designer, or something else?
Well, there’s silver-smithing and then there’s gold-smithing. Silver-smithing is when you’re mostly using silver, but you can also be using any lower-end metals. [Whereas with] gold-smithing, you shouldn’t technically refer to yourself as a goldsmith until you’re working mostly with solid gold.
So I guess we could call ourselves silversmiths. But we want to be goldsmiths; we’ll be there one day (chuckles). It doesn’t take take too much difference technique-wise; it’s literally the matter of whether you’re using gold or silver. So those [terms] imply that you’re working with materials and making [jewelry], versus just designing it.
Any fun facts about the jewelry-making process?
What I really get a kick out of is being able to use new tools and experiment a lot with what we’ve got in [the studio].
Another thing – separate altogether – just being in this studio, there are twelve other jewelers in here, and everyone’s kind of kooky and different. Really genuine, wholesome personalities. So the fun part of our day-to-day is that we get to come into a shared space and work with other people we wouldn’t necessarily be around otherwise, and share ideas and processes and learn from them.
So how did you get connected to Goldyn?
I found Goldyn because they carry Mara Hoffman. I’ve worked in a few retail stores in the neighborhood, and we’ve carried her line before. I think her designs are really beautiful. She does all of her own prints; they’re really unusual and in great colors. I look up to [Mara] as a designer in the fashion world. I figured stores that carried her line are ones I would be interested in approaching to carry my brand. I scoped out some of the stores she’d been working with and saw Goldyn on the list.
My brother is in Denver, and I’d been wanting to go out to Colorado and explore some stores in that area. So I reached out because of [Mara Hoffman] and wanting to get my product out there.
Moving beyond your line, do you think there are any essential pieces every woman should have in her jewelry collection?
Knuckle rings are very cool right now. Any kind of jeweled pendant with a stone I think is essential – a longer one. It’s nice having something with a little bit of length to it; it’s eye-catching.
I think it is important to have a few special pieces in your jewelry box to suit different occasions. We wear jewelry because it expresses our sense of style and makes us feel good. Under that circumstance I’ve found that there are specific pieces I have which have become my favorites.
I’m thinking of pieces my mother has passed down to me from my grandmother. They’re not essential in the sense that I’d wear them every day, but special as far as having something that has been a part of the family; that my mother had while she was growing up and now I get to have in my jewelry box, and feel like I’m connected to those other generations.
They’re mostly rings – they’re unusual and types of rings that aren’t really made anymore. And my dad has given me his wedding bands. (laughs) He’s been married three times, and I think he decided he didn’t need the memory of them anymore. So I have my dad’s wedding bands; I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I feel like there’s a little bit of bad karma with the “divorced” wedding ring. But it’s cool to have them. And he has really large hands, so they’re unusually big rings and all designed a little differently. I feel like there’s a story behind them.
If I’m dressing for a special occasion I will often wear a necklace paired with a small stud earring, or a larger earring that has length and movement with no necklace. Usually I don’t wear both a necklace and earrings unless one is very simple. When dressing up I like to let the outfit steal the show and prefer to balance it with more delicate, elegant jewelry. Jewelry attracts attention to different parts of the body, and depending on your outfit, you should choose if you want focus on the hand, jaw line, neck, ear or chest.
When I am dressing for fun I like to pick more playful pieces - I find that I go through phases of different types of jewelry I like to wear. This spring and summer I am styling my outfits with longer necklaces, large cuff bracelets, and fun cocktail rings.
But I find that I often don’t wear jewelry day-to-day in the studio – you shouldn’t wear stuff like that while working with tools. Outside of the studio I wear my set of crown rings on a regular basis.
Outside of the jewelry, does fashion play a role in your life?
Absolutely. Over the past few years I’ve had a second job working in retail, and I’ve always loved fashion.
I like how jewelry and fashion are integrated together – how jewelry is meant to be something that’s eternal and lasts forever, versus fashion, which is very seasonal. I’m happy to be on our end of things. But I get very excited about clothes, new designs, new designers, how they’re made.
I like being a part of the whole process, from making the jewelry to selling it, and seeing who the customer is that’s buying it when I’m in the store. And after being [in the store] for a while, I’ve been able to help with managing and buying. So that’s a nice way of being involved in the fashion end of things.