September 23, 2014

Trying My Hand at Jewelry with Ilene Steele

Pictured with jewelry designer, Ilene Steele (left), in her studio in Hatton Garden
             In July, I wrote a piece about Ilene Steele (read it here) and her breakthrough into the jewelry industry with the Wave Collection. This past weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting Steele in her studio, surrounded by the fruits of her labor. Hatton Garden is London’s illustrious jewelry quarter, giving true weight to the saying, “diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” Resisting the temptation to pop into a shop or two on my way to Steele required immense self-control, but my wandering eye for jewelry was successfully satiated as soon as I stepped into Steele’s domain.

             One might say that I opened Pandora’s (or rather, Ilene’s) box of jewels and there’s now no turning back. Steele was kind enough to let me try on an assortment of her rings. Speaking for females everywhere, I experienced a little slice of heaven, playing “dress up,” but the grown-up version. Laced with a treasure trove of twinkling gems on my fingers, I settled in to what proved to be less of an interview and more of a conversation with the creative force behind it all.

             I would like to give a big thank you to Cameron Roffey and Ilene Steele for making this interview possible.

Laura Rutkowski: What drew you to designing jewelry opposed to other artistic mediums?

Ilene Steele: As a student, I was a photojournalist, so I did journalism and became interested in photography. I really, really liked photography, but it never occurred to me to actually pursue it from the fine art side, which I actually wish I had now. I went on to become very technical, so I was a systems analyst. I worked in coding and inside systems with very logical data flow. I really was looking for a hobby, something to take my mind off things, and I did a little jewelry course. There’s just something so nice about working with particularly precious metals and doing things small enough so they can be contained completely. Everything is in your control and there’s an organic creativeness in it. If something goes wrong, you look at it and think, “Oh, well what can I do now?” It’s not the end of it. You start again and there’s just something so satisfying about it.

These are some cufflinks I’ve done [shows me] and I decided that actually maybe I want this a bit different, that a bit different, and so I’ve done two more styles and I quite like when you put something together. It’s something about the ever-changing nature of it, that you can smooth and curve, maybe a bit more like this, a bit more like that. I love jewelry, so it’s lovely that at the end of it you have something you can wear and you can enjoy. It’s not just a piece of furniture or something, which is lovely too, but there’s something that’s a bit more portable, with a bit more longevity.

 Steele's latest creation: cufflinks
LR: Something you can wear everyday.

IS: Yeah, the idea that it lasts forever.

LR: Yeah definitely, I think a lot of people see jewelry that way. You wear your favorite things everyday.

IS: When I’m gone, it’ll carry on. My daughter will have it, and someday, some grandchild will probably melt it all down!

LR: Aw no, don’t say that!

IS: Well, I expect because I made it, my grandkids wouldn’t, but you know what I mean. Sometimes things go out of style and people melt them down and reuse them, but then it’s still living on.

 Steele's workstation
LR: Do you find the creative process in London different to that of New York?

IS: Well, because I’ve never actually been creative or worked in the creative industry in New York, it’s hard to say, but when I’ve been to New York recently and I’ve met with other creative people, I find that, not to be anti-London, but I have to say that everything is more accessible in New York. Everything’s cheaper. It’s easier to play and experiment and try different things. Here, there’s less available to be honest. When I’ve been to shops there, in a similar part of town as this, it just blows my mind. It’s like being in an Aladdin’s Cave or something. You could spend hours just looking through the trays of the stuff that they’ve got, and also when I go to the States, I often look at some of the shops that they’ve got over there, you know online, and I order some things and have them sent to a friend. 

Playing with fire
Often times, I can’t be bothered to lug stuff back, but I’ve had lots of people here that have. You just have tools that make your working easier and I have had people literally go across New York with an empty suitcase, because of the weight of some of these things to bring back and then they charge so much tax. There’s like 15 different types of taxes if you have them sent to you here. People actually have gone with a suitcase just to buy a really necessary piece of equipment for their work, so I don’t know why that is, why they don’t have all those things here. I suppose also, it’s bolder in New York. I think people aren’t afraid to stand out. They’re quite happy to put themselves forward that way. Here, I think things are a bit more low-key.

Steele's rings make for the perfect finishing touch to my outfit
LR: Walk me through a typical day at your studio.

IS: Well, I like to get in early. I rarely seem to get in as early as I would like. Both of my kids are living at home again, so I never get in as early as I like, but I get shopping done in the morning, because all the shops are quite empty first thing, so it’s good for any errands that I have to do. If I need to see stone dealers or something, I can, because we’re all on our own. After 11 o’clock, everything just builds. Then, if I’ve left things in a mess, I have to tidy. I normally like to have several things on the go at the same time, because while I’m waiting for something to cool or if I solder something and I put it in the pickle [an acid compound used to remove oxidized surfaces and flux from metal after soldering], I like to have something else. I normally have maybe three things I’ll be working on in conjunction with each other, so that while one’s doing this or that’s cooling down, then I always have something to do, so I’m never sitting there waiting while it’s in the pickle. I have an awful lot of stuff and so I’m always kind of wondering, “Where’s this? Where’s that?” I’ve got so many different things laid out and organized, so I waste a lot of time being inefficient in that way, I have to say.

I play a lot, so I’ve got all these little things over here that I’m playing with right now. They actually were offcuts from other pieces that I made, that I’ve always really liked, so I’ve always been saving all these pieces. For example, I used one here as a jump ring [holds up the necklace she is wearing], so I’ve got some earrings now that I’m making. I just spend a lot of time playing and making models and so I might be in the middle of doing something over there and I think, “Ah!” and I get a piece of brass out and I start cutting it and I think, “What about this?” I really, really like working in brass and I typically do it because, well obviously it’s cheaper to make models and things from it, but I actually really like it.

 Steele's dazzling necklace pops against her rippled royal blue dress
LR: If you had to pick a favorite piece from the Wave Collection, what would it be and why?

IS: That’s a difficult one. Well, I haven’t actually finished the collection yet. This is a piece that I just never get around to making [shows me sketch], which is called the hero. It’s like the hero piece of the collection, a really, really standout piece. I haven’t done it yet, but I do have all these little bits that I have started [shows me], so I’ve got most of the pieces, but not all of them. It’s funny how it’s a very time-consuming piece. I’m thinking how I could do other things with the pieces in the meantime and I get a bit sidetracked. That piece is going to take such a long time to make, so I’m just doing other things with it. One of the things I haven’t quite worked out about it is how it’s going to move, because I can’t just make that as a solid piece, so there’s going to have to be some hinging somehow. I think one day I’ll be down at the pub or something and I’ll think, “Ah!” I’m waiting to get the light bulb on how this is going to move, so I haven’t quite got that yet, so I think that would be my favorite piece.

 Steele wearing one of her favorite rings from the Wave Collection
It’s funny, because right now, I’m really liking this [shows me her necklace]. I actually really like the cufflinks too. I think they’re really clever. You look in the shops and they have chain cufflinks and all those things. You think of Prince Charles and he’s got a valet, which is perfect, but if you’ve ever tried to put on a chain cufflink, it’s ridiculous and so I really like the idea that these push in and they’re quite robust. I talked to lots of people before I started making them and people said they step on them, they break, they always fall apart, this happens, that happens, and you know what men are like, so I thought, “I’m going to make a really indestructible cufflink,” where you can drop them, you can step on them, you can do this, you can do that, and this thing will not be defeated. I do quite like those, but possibly, these might be my favorite piece [shows me pale green drop earrings], because I think they’re really clever.

 According to Steele, these earrings "look good on any kind of an ear," photo courtesy of Ilene Steele Jewelry
Before I started making jewelry, I was frustrated about the fact that my ears are really close to my face and all the earrings are always designed for people whose ears stick out even more. When I go to shows and things, all the props to hang earrings on are like this [holds hands out at the side of her head to mimic ears sticking out], but whose head is like that? These earrings, they’re really, really clever I think, because they’re made to go on the side of your head, the way your head actually is. They’re not straight on, but then I couldn’t find any props that they’d hang from, so that you can actually notice them, so I had to think about making my own little props for them. They look really, really good on any kind of an ear. They do show forward and they look good from all angles. Possibly just because I think these are the cleverest thing that I’ve done, I think maybe these are my favorite.

LR: That’s a good point. I never really thought about it that way before, showing off the earring in the best way.

IS: Yeah, because my ears are really flat to my head, I’ve had lots of disastrous pairs of earrings and I put them on and they just don’t work.

LR: The Wave Collection has a very clear direction, inspired by the sea. What do you find most alluring about the nautical theme?

IS: Well, what’s interesting is, I wouldn’t actually call it a nautical theme, but it’s definitely based on looking at the sea as an analogy for life. It’s very, very deep. It’s awesome, it’s powerful, and it’s got hidden depths. If you delve too far down, you can get lost. It’s best not to go too deep. If we trust life, it supports us and we float and we buoy along, so I see the wave as being about life. I’m a very urban person. I’m not really outdoorsy, although I do find the sea absolutely awesome. There’s something about the power of it, that it’s slightly scary.

I wore stripes to be in-keeping with Steele's sea-inspired vision
LR: You’re attracted, but scared at the same time.

IS: Yeah, and you have to trust in it and float and you have to navigate carefully. The initial rings are about this idea of ships and people rollicking around a bit on the sea and the ups and downs and the juxtapositions that you get on the ocean. The double ring actually is one of of my favorite things as well really, the two stones together. It’s about people finding each other in the sea of life, trying to navigate together.

LR: Have you ever considered working with pearls, considering their relation to the sea?

IS: I have worked with pearls, stringing, not knotting. I do really like pearls. The reason why I haven’t used them in jewelry, this kind of jewelry, is because they’re glued. You can’t heat a pearl and I can’t work in the way that I would normally work, so there’s something about the fact that they’re glued annoys me. I will actually use pearls, but I’ll probably put them, not a whole string of them, but possibly wire them into something and I might actually use them on rings, if I could really believe that they won’t just fall off. When I used to have pearl earrings when I was younger, they would inevitably fall off, definitely if the glue gets wet. Typically, what they do is they drill a hole and then there’ll be a post, which will ideally have threads on it, and the pearl, because it’s so soft, you can use a bit of glue and twist it on, screw it on. There’s something about the inability of pearls on rings and earrings, but not if you put the wire through them. Then I feel it has more longevity somehow. I do know people who wear pearl rings, but you have to be really careful, because pearls are very soft.

Spoiled for choice!
LR: About how long does each piece take to design?

IS: The way that I work, right now these rings that I’ve got here, when I make things for experimenting, I just put them in a box, so I’ve got all these bits sitting around that I’m not particularly using and then I will think, “Okay, well I’m just going to use a bunch of stuff,” so I just make things from components. That is pretty much typically how I work. I make components, so I might have a day when I don’t know what else I should do, so I’ll make a bunch of these or I’ll make some rings up and then I have everything in a drawer when I want to use them. It’s very difficult for me to say how long things take, because as I say, I never work on just one thing, so I’ll be working on several different things at the same time, and if something frustrates me, as these two have [shows me two rings], I can leave them aside for a bit.

Cool silver tones (left) and a dainty twist on the classic knuckle ring (right) 
One of the things that was quite frustrating about this [holds up ring] is it’s seven different pieces of metal soldered together and, literally when you’re heating one bit, another bit can fall off and so you try to find ways to support it. After soldering all the pieces together and then looking at it and realizing now I’ve got it, then typically when I want to take it apart, it won’t fall apart, so I’ll be heating it and it’ll be all bright red and I’ll be hitting it with the tweezers and it won’t fall off. It only falls off when you don’t want it to. Some things can take ages. It’s very difficult to say.

Steele hard at work trying to correct a ring that won't stand up straight 
I’m doing a gold ring right now, in rose gold, which hasn’t taken long at all. I’ve been extremely careful. I’ve done everything in models first, because obviously it’s gold and I don’t want to have to redo it, because in this instance, I’ve got a particular stone, so I can’t say, “Oh, I’ll just do something different,” because it’s an unusual size as well. Normally, the marquee’s width is half the length, whereas this is a much longer stone, so it’s not usual. I wouldn’t be able to buy another stone to fit it. It’s actually going really, really well, but it could be because I’m being so careful, because it’s gold, so I’m just doing everything really slowly. I’ve done so many rings as you can imagine, that the rings are actually quite easy, but these are my newest piece really [referring to the cufflinks].

LR: What direction would you like your next collection to take?

IS: Well, I have to finish this collection first, but I think that once I do the hero piece, which instead of being the first piece might be the last piece I do, once I do the hero piece, I think that my next collection would be something that would work well with this collection. I don’t know what other people do, whether they go on to something completely different, but I like the idea of everything working well together, so the next collection would have to fit in well with all of this. 

LR: Alright, well that’s all I have for you! Is there anything else you’d like to add or talk about?

IS: I might go back to the London/New York thing and say that, although New York is more bold in style and more happy to put itself out there and be a bit more “look at me,” I think in London, there’s definitely something more quirky. I mean, of course in New York they do have the part of the industry that is quirky, but generally, New York does have a reputation for being quite perfectionist, everything really, really perfect. Whereas, I think London fashion’s happier to have things quirky. It’s “cut this off” or “tweak that.” I’m very New York, I suppose. I always like the finish to be really, really perfect. There is a lot to be said for the London quirkiness as opposed to the New York perfectionist.

             With her sleek designs as proof, Steele’s perfectionist tendencies clearly have paid off. Afterwards, Steele turned the interview around on me, which was a pleasant surprise. I found myself answering one of the same questions I had posed to her: If you had to pick a favorite piece from the Wave Collection, what would it be and why? I opted for one of the mini rings set with a dusty blush-colored stone, the ultimate definition of femininity and grace, not entirely unlike Steele herself.

             Shop the Wave Collection at Wolf & Badger online here and in store, at the Clerkenwell Collection (for directions, see here), or from Steele’s official website here. I certainly know what I’m saving up for…

Stacked and matching my favorite rings of the day; I'll take one of each, please

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