Handmade jewelry is probably one of the most fascinating things. Metalworking has been around for so long – and there’s a cool distinction between scrap metal and something that’s precious. What makes metal precious to us? How do the aspects of jewelry create something aesthetically beautiful? How do they play a role in our society?
I think it’s easy to overlook the work it takes to create jewelry from start to finish, and that’s something I didn’t think about until I started dabbling in metalwork myself. So it’s great to get the perspectives of people who are actively doing these things now.
On this issue of Shop Well, I interview Wendy Brandes, owner of Wendy Brandes Jewelry, to learn more about how she got into jewelry making and the process behind her pieces.
ISM: What motivated you to start designing jewelry, and what’s your inspiration behind the pieces you create?
Wendy: My first designs were my own engagement ring and wedding band in 2001. I was a rebel bride who insisted I couldn’t wear anything “wedding-y”! After that, I did occasional custom designs for myself until 2005, when I felt I had so many jewelry ideas that I quit my corporate job to become a full-time designer. It still took a couple of years for my designs to evolve enough to represent my main inspiration: the true stories of the interesting and powerful women of history.
Wendy & Her Jewelry
ISM: You’re a former journalist. Can you tell us how you got into the profession, why you moved away from it, and how the experience has affected you and your work?
Wendy: I planned to be a journalist since grade school. I was always curious about true stories, and the stories behind those stories. If I heard a song from a musician from another era, for instance, I couldn’t merely listen to the music. I had to check out all the biographies from the library. Those were the pre-Internet days. You know how now you can go down an hours-long rabbit hole of related links online? I used to do that in real life; it’s much easier now!
I remained focused on journalism throughout my time at Columbia University in New York City. I wanted to stay in NYC after graduation, but so did a lot of other would-be journalists. This was the late ‘80s and, again, there was no Internet as we know it now, with limitless online outlets for the written word. There were print newspapers and magazines. Being very practical, I took a detour into business news and worked at the Wall Street Journal and CNN. After 10 years — during which the Internet arrived in newsrooms in a relatively primitive form compared to 2019 — I got the pop-culture job of my dreams as managing editor of People magazine’s website. But I was before my time: No one knew what to do with a online news outlet. People on the print side didn’t see the website as a tool to get a jump on competitors, but something that created more work and/or cannibalized the print publication. My frustration with that was so intense that it made me abandon the professional path I’d planned for my entire life.
ISM: How do you view jewelry in the lens of today’s culture? Do you think there’s an interest in buying well-made pieces? Or has cheaply-made fast fashion affected the way jewelry has been viewed over time?
Wendy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — which has a superb exhibit called “Jewelry: The Body Transformed” through February 24 — says jewelry was the first art form, recorded tens of thousands of years before cave paintings and sculpture. It goes back to the Neanderthals. People have always wanted to express themselves — or transform themselves, as the museum puts it — with jewelry. For millennia, both men and women wore jewelry to define themselves. In the past century or so, as jewelry became primarily a woman’s accessory, it became stigmatized as an art form. A lot of cultures, including ours, are dismissive of anything that is seen as a woman’s area of interest. More recently, the Internet — which keeps cropping up in my life as a source of disruption — made it increasingly easy to get mass-produced jewelry. Jewelry site Blue Nile was founded in 1999, the same year I was urging People magazine to take the online world seriously. As e-commerce jewelry sales soared, the purchase of jewelry became detached from the emotional and physical experience of buying it in person in a local store. Shopping from home tends to be price-oriented, and, for a long time, it felt as if jewelry had become fungible to consumers — like one piece was the same as another, as long as the price was right. The pendulum is now starting to swing the other way, as people become more conscious about their consumption and more interested in expressing their individuality.
ISM: What do you think is the most important lesson you’ve learned through starting jewelry making?
Wendy: Always be prepared to change direction, but at the same time, think it through. Don’t blindly follow the conventional wisdom for your industry; in my experience, it’s frequently wrong. I’ve learned the hard way that there are a lot of jobs not worth doing and strategies not worth pursuing, even if they’re all the rage at the moment. I’ll warn you though: It’s not easy to buck the trends. Being the first to do something is not necessarily a professional advantage, even if it is a personal thrill.
ISM: How do you think a consumer can start transforming their fast fashion mindset (and closet)?
Wendy: I’ve always been obsessed with things that last, which is why I went into fine jewelry. Jewelry can be passed down for generations. You can wear something 100 years old, easily. For that matter, if you go into the Metropolitan Museum, you can see gold jewelry from ancient Greece that you could imagine wearing right now, if only you could slip a hand into that glass case!
As far as clothes go, in the 1990s, I shopped at thrift shops, consignment stores, and sample sales in person to get high-quality, unusual clothes at prices I could afford. Then eBay got big. One of my favorite purchases from eBay is a 1960s/70s dress by Donald Brooks Couture that I bought for $60 in 2004. I still wear it! Now there are many additional options for getting well-made high-end or secondhand clothes inexpensively. In addition to eBay, there’s Etsy, Poshmark, Vestiaire, Outnet, Yoox, Bluefly, the RealReal, just to name just a few … plus tons of interesting vintage sellers and resellers on Instagram.
To transform your mindset, you’ve got to learn to love the thrill of the chase. Shopping for slow fashion means you might not have instant gratification, fulfilling every retail-therapy whim the moment you have it. That will slow down your consumption right there. Set your alerts on all your favorite shopping sites, then spend the waiting time learning everything about a designer or time period that interests you, so you have an appreciation for the pieces beyond aesthetics. Then when you do get your dream dress, or shoes, or bag, you’ll appreciate it much more. It’s human nature to value the things that are harder to get!
Ignore the advice about always buying basics. You do need your basics, of course, but after you have them, turn your attention to the statement pieces. Buy things that make your heart skip a beat, whether or not they’re on trend. Those are what become interesting down the road. If you’re buying something very distinctive that’s new and in-season, it’s true that the next year it might seem passé. After that, as it becomes “vintage,” it gets more rare and more interesting. That idea that it’s bad to be able to date something to a certain year? With true vintage clothing (meaning at least 20 years old), those traceable pieces are the most valuable. Documentation and provenance are assets.
I’m the anti-Marie Kondo. I do admire her technique and tidiness in general, but I’ve accepted that I’m a maximalist and collector by nature. I believe that as long as you have the closet space and something still fits and — important thing here — it’s AMAZING, keep it. Getting rid of something if I don’t wear it for a year? Don’t make me laugh! In 1994, I bought and wore an unlabeled vintage dress trimmed with feathers at a costume/vintage warehouse sale. I wore it again in 1995. The next time I wore it was in 2010. I’m not kidding! I had thought of getting rid of that dress a hundred times — for years I felt no spark of joy — but I practically exploded with happiness when I finally put it on again.
That’s my advice for people who like to buy and own, wear and repeat. If you prefer to keep your possessions minimal; are sure you’ll only have one use for certain clothes; or desperately yearn for something new without the commitment, check out Rent the Runway. (Just beware of late fees: https://www.thedailybeast.com/i-wanted-to-rent-the-runway-what-an-expensive-mistake) Keep in mind that even if you don’t have the lifestyle to rewear a particular look, there are rare occasions when there’s special meaning in purchasing, as lawyer Jenny Carroll explained to me for a story I wrote for the Huffington Post. Seriously, if you’re invited to a Nobel Prize ceremony, throw caution to the wind!🌱