So Olivia, how did you get started?
I’ve always felt it was important to be self-expressive. Growing up I loved coming up with interesting outfits, never following trends but making my own. It was my first way of expressing myself to the world and finding my voice. During college at Clark U, I double majored in Communications and Studio Art. At first in my art degree, I spent a lot of time doing line drawings. I loved the simplicity of forms, shapes that define our world.
By the middle of my college career though, I was craving the use of my hands in my work. Drawing didn’t fully satisfy my creativity, and so I switched to focusing on sculpture. I experimented with a lot of mediums until I was introduced to wire by a transformational teacher, Valerianna. Wire made perfect sense to me as it is the three-dimensional line. It captivated me, spending hours on a single sculpture of a tree, wrapping the wire around itself. I made mostly sculptures of animals, people, and trees using copper and brass wire. It was while I was making the leg of a bull that I paused and thought to myself “This looks like a necklace pendant.” Inspired, I made 4 more pod-like shapes and created my first necklace.
During an independent study with Valerianna to further explore the medium of wire and for the remainder of my last semester, I made over a dozen copper and brass designs, teaching myself along the way. Jewelry-making satisfied so many parts of me, from fashion, to self-expression, to building something totally unique.
Edited by Padmini Chandrasekaran
As a group of primarily graphic designers, the margins team are interested in craft and how that manifests across disciplines. While we consider strong typography, quality papers and beautiful finishes part of our craft, it's fascinating to hear about artists who work with their hands. Olivia Ashjian James creates intricate wire structures that result in gorgeous, unique jewelry—pieces that have never failed to garner a compliment when she wears them out.
While I know her to be a thoughtful, creative mind in conversation, I was really struck by her intense attention to detail and unfailing determination when it comes to her jewelry-making, but also in building her business, KEZI. I sat her down to hear more about her process and learned that when it comes to Olivia's original designs, it's about style and substance.
Is that when you started thinking about turning jewelry-making into your career?
By the time I graduated, I knew the only job that would satisfy me was to start my own jewelry business. I spent the following year living in Boston exploring this self-taught medium. By 2013, I made the switch from copper and brass designs to sterling silver, which opened up the jewelry market for me. I founded my company, KEZI LLC. KEZI is an Armenian word that means “for you” and captured what I wanted my jewelry to be for people as it was for me: a way to find your own unique voice of self-expression.
I have since moved my work outside of my apartment and into a studio in Somerville, MA. KEZI is currently carried by 12 stores in 5 states along the east coast, and is sold on my e-commerce website, www.designbykezi.com. I attend wholesale trade shows to find more stores to carry my line, and attend retail shows to reach more customers looking for one-of-a-kind designs.
"[Working with] wire made perfect sense to me as it is the three-dimensional line"
Who are some designers/artists that you feel have impacted your own practice? What about outside the fields of design and art?
The first truly influential artist was my teacher in college, Valerianna. She was the one who encouraged me to explore different mediums, and even suggested I try wire, which then became the medium I found my creative voice through. As a watercolorist, she never was limited to her own medium in what she could teach. Rather, she was able to teach other mediums just through her encouragement and eye. She gave me the courage to try and try. She was honest when things didn’t work, and didn’t make me feel like that was a failure, just part of the process. She showed me how to be an artist.
In terms of an inspirational designer I’ve admired from afar, Coco Chanel for her unwavering belief in her work. She introduced women to wearing pants in their day-to-day wardrobe (and not just for while riding horses), challenging the restrictive dresses they had previously been told to wear. She saw potential that no one else did, and made a business that, to this day, is still top of its market.
Frida Kahlo for her fierceness and internal strength/fortitude. She was hit with so many tragedies, from being speared by a pole during a bus crash through her uterus, to becoming a prolific artist, channeling her sadness and pain into captivating paintings, and marrying the famous muralist Diego Riviera only to be cheated on with her sister by him. And through it all, she was filled to the brim with life, dancing and singing, not wallowing in her tragedies but turning them into beauty.
Coco and Frida to me are an inspiration for their fortitude and foresight.
What have been some of your biggest strengths vs struggles during your career so far?
Owning a business always forces you to see what your strengths and weaknesses are. For me, I found that my strengths are on the creative end, and it’s the operations side that I am pushing through trial and error to improve.
Coming up with new designs, seeing stones and knowing which would look good together, designing my booth displays for shows, writing about my work, these are all things I can do naturally. Like with any business, it’s finding your customers and retailers that is the most challenging, especially with the niche market I’m in. Getting my product into the market is the hardest part.
As an artist, I’ve also had to learn to see what I make as a product. Learning to turn my art into a business is a steep hill because there is so much of me behind every design. It’s natural to feel a pang when someone doesn’t buy something you made, however such is the world of business. Not everyone is going to want your product and you can’t take it personally. You just have to spend the time and energy to find YOUR customers.
What are some trends in your field that you wish you could bring back, and which ones would you rather forget?
Bringing back quality craftsmanship and dumping overseas mass-produced jewelry would elevate the entire industry. The prices of that jewelry, and standards of design, are so low yet feed a compulsion to buy something, anything, and it cheapens the entire industry. Handcrafted work is not valued the way it once was, which makes it that much harder for designers like me to find a market for our designs. Our pricing will never be able to compete with mass produced jewelry.
Tell us about your process working through your favorite project – how did you develop this practice?
I love the process of coming up with a new design. When I take a step away from business and allow myself to go through the journey of finding a new design in me, it reminds me what it’s all about and refreshes my dream.
The start of a design can come from so many different sources of inspiration. Sometimes it’s a trip to NYC where I hand pick new stones to use. Sometimes it’s going for a long walk through the woods or in the city. On these walks, I pay attention to shapes and patterns, which is what my designs are based around.
Once I have my stones or an inkling of an idea from my walk, I’ll sit down and sketch or start working with copper wire to explore an idea. From there, the rest is totally organic. I’ll try one thing, which will lead to another and by the time I have my final design, you can see from the initial idea where it came from, but it always looks totally different. Rarely are my initial ideas what the final look is. The process of making new designs allows me to let go of what should and shouldn’t be and just go with the flow.
What do you wish the world knew about people in your field?
As with any form of art, I wish more value was put on it. There are so many talented designers whose work never reaches the surface of the public eye and that to me is a waste. Instead, shelves are filled with mass produced items that are just made to make money, and are void of qualities that would elevate the consumer.
Invite any three people in history to dinner. Where do you hope the conversation will go?
I’d have to have my heroes, Coco and Frida, and then Albert Camus, my favorite author and philosopher. I’d hope the conversation would be fluid and natural, going in and out of topics of art and fashion to human’s purpose and the ways of the world. I’d want it to be lighthearted at times, and deeply confounding at others. I’d want there to be banter and challenge to accepted norms of thought, and to be left inspired to continue down the path I’m on.
"Bringing back quality craftsmanship and dumping overseas mass-produced jewelry would elevate the entire industry."
What's in your
Start of Design
Making what I thought was the design
Got rid of the Pink