Growing up, I was surrounded by art. My dad was a photographer and graphic designer; my mom was a true creative, too: a fashionista who organized fashion shows, an interior designer, antiques dealer and pillow creator who used vintage everything. My parents’ love of art ran far deeper than occupation. Our walls were adorned with famous pop art. Museum trips were frequent. They lived and breathed what they did, as artists often do. They surrounded themselves with beauty and turned celebrations into extravaganzas of light, color and memories. Though we were Jewish, my parents couldn’t wait to adorn our house with whimsical Christmas decorations.
Birthdays were even more of a project. On the eve of every birthday, our parents would put my brother and me to bed. They’d wait long enough to ensure we were reliably conked out and then break into our rooms with hands full of their elaborate art projects — taking old photos of us, mixing them with doilies and streamers and magazine and book cutouts — mazes of wonderment concocted just to make us feel warm, loved and celebrated on our special day.
On one birthday, the door would be covered with newspaper and littered with designs, with a small exit door on the bottom. Another birthday, I’d wake up to a ticker-tape scavenger hunt with clues that would take me from room to room, exposing new creations with each passageway.
When I became a parent, we carried on this tradition with my two kids, decking their rooms out with a mix-and-match of their past year, displaying our love for them and their obsession du jour.
If it isn’t clear yet, becoming a creator was never a choice I made. It was all that surrounded me, exemplified by a poem I found while moving recently, written by my mother (a poet on the side), articulating precisely why and how much I value the beauty around me:
By Judy Rosley
I love things
Bits of leftovers From a life before:
Others’ treasures, I treasure.
A button box is my fun, Sifting through little
That no longer serve
But sit in groups Conversing about
What they held together.
As a child, I wanted my ears pierced more than anything in the world. I’d beg and plead with my unrelenting parents. I was so obsessed I would even glue fake pearls to my ears to scratch the itch. Eventually, at 13, I brokered a deal with my parents to get them pierced. My dad said my personality totally transformed! But that didn’t end my obsession with earrings — it only fueled my love of creation.
My schooling at Cornell and Pratt, where I studied interior and graphic design, taught me the wonders of designing space, branding and everything in between. And while I’m a jewelry designer first and foremost, I’m just as much fueled by the spaces I create — the worlds I conjure. My jewelry lives in the world I create at trade shows and pop-up shops. A gift and a curse, my insatiable appetite for beautiful, maximalist spaces extends everywhere I go.
To my tall kids’ chagrin, our family vacations often set sail in my VW Beetle or Mini Cooper because I couldn’t get enough of those cars! My home and workspace are carefully curated odes to my style. They inspire me and put me in the creative space where I can thrive every time I walk into them.
After college, I spent a summer in Europe, where I met a local woman from the Netherlands who taught me how to make beaded earrings on my final night there. She made me promise not to tell anyone how to do it (oops!). I practically ran off the plane when I touched back down in New York and dashed to the jewelry district to get beads, lest I forget my new skills before I could put them to work.
I was obsessed! I created a style that felt like my own — mixing the antique elements of my mom’s sensibilities with this funky ’60s/’70s stylistic approach and beads I’d fallen in love with. I’d wear my jewelry while I waitressed and sell it to customers. My mom, who was a new age therapist at the time, would bring my jewelry to appointments and sell it to her customers!
Eventually, I found myself selling on the streets of New York City, where I made friends with the immigrant vendors from the world over, selling their wares alongside mine.
In the process, I fell in love with buttons, beads, ribbons, flowers and metal pieces — learning a technique to turn copper a gorgeous patina green, exposing my metals to the elements and incorporating elements from disparate corners of the jewelry world.
In 1983, I started “Elements’’ as a vessel for these maximalist creations. We hocked our wares by shoving as many antique display cases, foam boards, banisters, French doors, and odds and ends — paint chipping in their aging beauty — into scuffed-up cargo vans, and we’d drive to trade shows in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Atlanta, New York and more.
The same thing would happen each time: I’d gather ingredients and get to work creating my world. Different every time — a function of how I was feeling and where I was. I even picked up a few “best booth” awards along the way!
In 1999, after my second child was born, we moved the business from New York City to western Massachusetts, and some of the Elements team came with us! When my kids were young, we used to bring their classes in for a tour of my studio and teach them how to make jewelry and home goods of their own that they would take home for Father’s Day.
In addition to being a great place to raise our kids (and a closer commute to Brimfield, Massachusetts, where I’d go antiquing with my mom each year), the area was beautiful and inspirational all to itself, between hip sculpture gardens, gorgeous hikes, cross-country skiing and swimming — the picturesque spaces fed my inspiration and made me lean into the nature I love so much.
Nature didn’t just become part of my designs, it became a retreat, a source of joy and replenishment and a religion of sorts. The nature bug and wanderlust were inherited from my dad, who’s always been a gut check for me in business, art and life.
One of the most challenging parts of this 39-year adventure has been the pursuit of new, creative ways to move about the industry — to avoid feeling stale or out of fashion — moving with the times while maintaining an authenticity that makes my work appealing to customers and fun to create.
You’ve probably heard the saying “where there’s a will, there’s a way” and that “necessity is the mother of invention.”
Both apply to the way I work.
I love using things that are around the house. Perhaps in a sewing kit or an old jewelry box of broken pieces. If you have a box of things you gift wrap with, that’s a great place to start, too. Old buttons are great. Ribbons. Lace. Old fabric scraps and old keys. I also have an affection for the graphic image. Of course, you can find these in many places: on the internet, in magazines, in your old memory book. You can go to your copy shop and make miniature laser copies of old photographs of things you’ve painted and cut them up and start working. I love having a plethora of things around me to work with. I lay them out, picking the part that I’m most attracted to and then another and seeing how they play off each other. That’s how the process starts. And then it goes from there. I do whatever operation needs to happen. If I need to change a color, I use dye or paint it. If something needs connecting, I can do it a number of ways. Glue it; bead it; sew it; string it; jump-ring it; tie it. I just start playing.
Most often, I have an idea of what I’m making when I begin, so I have something to work towards, but often once I get started, I just go with the flow. Things morph, and I let them. I don’t commit to attaching things just yet; I layer them and manipulate them, creating a sort of painting with my parts. It’s incredible to see how the different parts can change a mood or feel of the piece. I take a lot of photos of each arrangement so I can go back to them and see what I liked.
Once I decide which way I like my piece, it’s now time to attach all the parts.
This is where “when there’s a will, there’s a way” comes in. I find a way. I think outside the box.
Over the years, I’ve tried to innovate with studio sales, design work for the likes of Anthropologie, Neiman Marcus and Harrods — and even selling a line of do-it-yourself jewelry kits to Michaels under the title Vintage Groove. And then, there’s my most beloved creation: Jingle: A Holiday Pop-Up Store.
In the early 2000s, I’d walk through Chelsea Market and see these big, empty warehouse spaces sitting unused. One year, I found the building manager and told him about a concept I had. Pop-up shops may feel like a foregone conclusion now, but when I started Jingle, it felt like we were the only game in town. Once I got buy-in from Chelsea Market, we set up shop. I recruited a dozen visual artists and designers who sold their art as gifts during the holiday season. It was more than a collection of vendors: We made it into an experience, with extravagant decorations, musical performances — even a performance artist who roamed about the store in character, interacting with customers. It was the stuff of dreams, and we kept it going for a decade.
My work really is less of an accessory and more wearable art. It’s something you can put on for a night out on the town to feel fancy and special. It’s something you can wear at home just for yourself. Every piece is designed to speak to a part of my personality and convey an emotion that I hope people feel and embrace when they put on my jewelry.
That sentimentality is an offshoot of the feeling I get when I put on my mom’s old clothing or jewelry. She was a one-of-a-kind collector who loved her “things.” She’s no longer with us, and sometimes I look around at all of the stuff I kept from her and wonder why I have it, but each time I put on something of hers, it’s a reminder of a memory we shared.
Wearable art is more than something to display in the moment. It’s something to remember your moments by. It’s art that you can create beautiful memories in. All my creations are an attempt to repurpose the past into the present, with a little bit of a modern flair. It’s my life’s work, and a kid’s dream, fulfilled.
I make memories for a living. And I get to wear them everywhere I go.