Chris Davies

Jewelry Designer and Independent Scholar, Lecturer, and Member of the American Society of Jewelry Historians

Conducted by Ana Estrades on March 9, 2016 at Chris Davies’ studio, New York, New York

Chris Davies in his studio, New York, New York, August 3,  2015.

A Los Angeles native, Chris Davies (b. 1975) studied religion at Vassar College, with an emphasis on ancient civilizations. He later graduated from New York's Parsons School of Design with a degree in Fashion Design and opened a bespoke wedding gown business. As fashion and culture became increasingly casual, he shifted his focus to jewelry, which he felt offered a more dynamic and luxurious space in which to create. He learned the jeweler's art in studio environments with metalsmiths and designers such as Maurice Galli, Valentin Yotkov, Michael Good, Bianca Lopez and Michael Fitzgerald. His background as a fashion designer, lifelong interest in the ancient world, and training as a dancer very much inspire his jewelry designs.

In this interview, Chris Davies describes the many generations of artists in his family, and how at an early age he organized fashion shows in his neighborhood. He also names the two American designers who have influenced him the most, Seaman Schepps and Tony Duquette, neither of whom formally trained as jewelers yet created extraordinary work. Davies discusses how he integrates his practice as a fashion designer with jewelry making by using a traditional goldsmithing technique, granulation, in imitation of lace. In some of his newer pieces, he deploys precious stones to amplify color and light. Davies defines himself as a designer-craftsman whose innovations are technical, conceptual, and aesthetic. In his working process, he prefers to "sketch"; his ideas in three dimensions with wire, and also uses a mannequin to see how the pieces work on the body. Regarding the relationship between jewelry and clients, Davies describes thinking about loyal customers while designing, especially helping people see the jewelry's bolder and more powerful qualities in themselves. A set of his jewelry is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Interview duration: 1 hour and 34 minutes.

Ana Estrades (AE): Can you tell me about your early career, and even further back in time, a little bit of your education, where you grew up.

Chris Davies (CD): I grew up in Los Angeles in the Hollywood hills, which I think is significant because I do feel that environment affects aesthetic consciousness in some ways.

AE: Mhmh.

CD: I grew up in a beautiful classic Hollywood, Italianate home that was built in 1912. It was built for one of the daughters of the Chandler family, who founded the LA Times. It was kind of a historic house. The neighborbood of Los Feliz, where I grew up, is a historic neighborhood where many of the first wave of important Hollywood actors made their home in that area. So we had the homes of the director D.W. Griffith, Errol Flynn, Bella Lugosi. There were very important Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the Mesoamerican style. This is a very architecturally rich section of Los Angeles. And I was very much influenced by the diversity and complexity of the architecture around me. I spent a lot of time as a child wandering the neighborhood, looking at homes and noticing details in the treatments of stone, and carvings, and all the really imaginative things that architects in the early twentieth century were doing in Los Angeles before modernism. Because they were living in a place where there were fewer rules about what was appropriate, you know, this was the west. This was Hollywood. People could dream, could make styles, could do things that nobody in New York or Boston ever would have done in a residence. And so there was kind of a legacy of creativity, even in the physical environment of the neighborhood that I grew up in.

AE: Can I ask you in connection to that, how did your parents end up in this house, in this Italianate home in this neighborhood?

CD: Well, I'm fifth-generation Los Angelian. Both generations of my family moved to Los Angeles in the late 1800s. So we have been in the city for generations. And knew the neighborhood well. My mother was a fine arts major, sculptor, and an interior designer, so she fell in love with this home and wanted to have a canvas to build her world. So moving from the neighborhood, kind of into the home, and into the interior space in which I sort of grew up and had my first extended experience with material culture, right.

AE: Mhmh.

CD: The environment of my home was very, very rich and varied: carpets, textiles, porcelains, paintings, and a whole diversity of objects, in this grand Hollywood style, spanning cultures. Anything from Morocco to eighteenth-century France was represented and so as a child to be surrounded by things like that and have the opportunity to touch these things and play with them, had a deep influence on my taste and interest in terms of ornament and form.

AE: Mhmh. Is there anyone else in your family, apart from your mother, or can you tell me more about your mother as artist, maker, designer?

There are lots of artists and makers in my family. My mother's father was a very renowned landscape architect, he designed the sculpture gardens both of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as the UCLA sculpture garden. And he was a painter and architect. My mother's mother was a painter, my father's mother was a painter, my great-grandmother was a sculptor [laughs] and a mosaic artist.

AE: Wow!

CD: It is just many, many generations of people who were very connected to material culture and to explorations of form and color, texture in a variety of mediums, from fine art to decorative art.

AE: How did they transmit that to you these grandparents, parents?

CD: There was never any pressure to become an artist or a designer but it was all around me. Every visit to anyone's home involved sharing of work, a visit to their studio, a new discovery, conversation, a walk in the garden. So I think that the transmission was gradual, and slow and natural. It was really less about teaching and more about sharing joy, and sharing a kind of close observation of the world around you, really learning to look and appreciate and notice things. And when you have your great-grandparents, grandparents and your parents, all modeling that practice of closely observing the world and appreciating all the beauty and wonderful things that people have put everywhere, that's a big training.

AE: You mentioned this to me before, but your parents were young, or are young, sorry, so you got to meet your great-grandparents and your grandparents, where they all living in LA, in the same area?

CD: Yes, until I was fifteen I had everyone living all the way up to my great-grandparents, and I had four great grandparents alive until my late teens, really. And they were all living in Los Angeles. Big family gatherings, every Sunday was a family dinner you know twenty, thirty people. [both laugh.]

AE: But are you an only child?

CD: I have two sisters.

AE: Are they all so creative?

They're both creative, both of them are painters actually.

AE: Let's move to you more.

CD: Yeah.

AE: When did you know you would become a jewelry designer?

CD: Well I didn't know I would become a jewelry designer until I graduated with my masters degree, actually, I thought I would become a fashion designer. And that, I was very clear about, that connection to fashion and the idea of style from a very young age. In the first grade, I remember announcing possible names for my house, the name of my business.

AE: [laughs.]

CD: By the third grade I'd already designed five different logos and had three fashion shows in my neighborhood. So as soon as a child could even conceive of the idea of a profession, I had identified myself as a designer.

AE: Wow. So it seems you were an entrepreneur at a young age, you wanted your own business.

CD: Yeah, I definitely had that sense of independence. I have actually never worked for another designer.

AE: Not many people can say that, I think.

CD: So that idea of myself as designer, an entrepreneur, and creator started from the very beginning.

AE: And I sense it was very powerful.

CD: It was a powerful idea, it was a powerful idea. And a way of constructing identity in a way, and making sense of, you know the way that children developmentally get through this process of liking, “I like this, I don't like that,” right? It's this kind of crude way of piecing together who you are, by figuring out what you like, what you don't like.

AE: Mhmh.

CD: It was kind of a developmental thought, a basic idea. To really construct an identity as a designer, sort of progenitor of a house, a fashion house. And you have to really start wrestling with what's a part of that world, and what's not a part of that world, and you began to develop a style as a result of that.

AE: So, can you explain how did you jump from that powerful idea “I am a fashion designer” and identify with a style, and then in your master's degree you decide to be a jewelry designer?

CD: Yeah, I mean they are not so far apart, right? You know, it's kind of like should we meet on the southwest corner of 30th and 6th, or should we meet on the northwest corner? I mean there is not a huge separation really between how jewelry functions in the world, and how clothes function in the world. I think they occupy the same psychological space. And what moved me from one discipline to the other, however, was the opportunity in jewelry to work more dynamically, more luxuriously in a way. I think a lot of what attracted me to fashion as a child was largely disappearing by the time I came of age as an adult ready to have a career. The world has become increasingly casual. The whole idea of society as a space, this sort of group of elite people that patronized high fashion has really lost importance as a cultural idea. And that began in the sixties. And Balenciaga was complaining about it [AE laughs] a long time ago. So you know, by the time 2000 came around, it was just, I was really aware that the sort of clothes that I wanted to create didn't have a lifestyle to really match it. But jewelry was beginning to take on a new significance and was gaining a lot of momentum with the remnants of all the high fashion ideas. And so people were having a lot of fun wearing casual clothes and really fantastic jewelry. So I naturally shifted to the space where I was having an opportunity to create work on a really dynamic scale.

AE: Yeah, it sounds like dynamic and luxury are important

CD: Luxury is important not as a status symbol, I want to clarify that when I use the word luxury—

AE: Yeah.

CD: — and I use it a little reluctantly, I'm using it to refer to traditions of making that do not privilege the idea of a profit actually, that luxury is a space where the idea comes first. And what is luxurious about it is that you're willing to put any amount of material resources, and human hours into the piece, whatever is required is given to the piece. And so that's what's luxurious about it, it is this great sacrifice actually that the maker is willing to make to bring the idea to life.

AE: So more valuable might be another word.

CD: Yeah, something that is created without holding back, that's what luxury means to me.

AE: So if you had to choose one jewelry designer that has influenced you the most, who would that be and why?

CD: [long pause.]

AE: I know.

CD: It's hard.

AE: You can choose two if you want. [laughs.]

CD: Oh, boy. [sighs, long pause.] Well, I'm gonna, just to limit it, I'm gonna stick to American designers. I'm gonna name Seaman Schepps and Tony Duquette. Both, the common thread between these two designers and myself, what I think is interesting—and I'm thinking about it as I'm saying it—neither were trained as jewelers, and yet they created some of the most complicated, extraordinary, ambitious forms that exist in the jewelry world. And I think it’s that lack of training in some ways that prevented the obstruction, that rules learned in formal training can sometimes instate. And so, it was that lack of limitations, that wild imagination, that sort of “why not?, why can't I do this?, why can't I put these stones together?, why can't I use these colors? why?” They had to find alternative ways of designing. Seaman Schepps couldn't sketch, so he invented this method of collage that Tony Duquette, later I think, also used to great effect. This idea, sort of stacking and combining unexpected elements together in dynamic volumetric ways, that traditional sort of high French or Italian jewelry training does not really support. I think it's that rule breaking and that willingness to value things in a way that feels more visceral, and pure, and it is divorced often times in the work of both designers from the material value of the piece. Duquette used stones that would not have sold for very much, however when combined, and incorporated into an important design, become valuable as aesthetic ideas.

AE: Let's switch gears here. I just asked you about the American Society of Jewelry Historians, because you told me that you are going to give a lecture there. And I wonder since when you are a member in this society, and why?

I joined the society about six years ago, when I had just begun to develop the vocabulary of the collections we have been looking at together, this woven granulation. And I realized that I had struck on an idea—that was compelling for me as a designer—that I really wanted to dedicate myself to understanding all the possibilities that were latent within this idea and technique. And I was interested in—I was very much working like a hermit in my studio with very little contact with the jewelry world at all. I mean, six years ago I was not selling in any retail environments or galleries, I had this small private client-base, and I was creating work kind of alone and anonymously. And it was really this understanding that I needed to have a community of thinkers and makers that could interact with me, and the ideas that I was exploring.

AE: Mhmh. And do you belong to any other professional association?

CD: That's the only professional association that I belong to right now. It is kind of a funny group that includes a really lovely variety of almost everyone who is involved in a high level way in jewelry in New York City. I mean, I didn't know that at the time when I began to get involved but I’ve since learned that this is a really incredible group of people that are totally dedicated, to making their lives really about understanding, and creating for some other designer members, fine jewelry.

AE: So it's also made of makers, collectors, sellers—

CD: Collectors, sellers, curators, academics, designers.

AE: Do you want to tell us a little bit, just really quickly because we have to move on to the next part, about your coming lecture?

CD: Sure. I gave a lecture last year on the use of gems in European medieval medicine. So this is kind of a follow-up lecture on the Indian tradition called ‘Potentials and Potencies, Gems in India’s Myths and Medicine.” And so I’m going to be discussing the role and the symbolism of gems and jewels in Indian myths, as a way of foreshadowing and talking about the use of these gems as ingredients in Ayurveda, which is Indian medicine. We’ll be touching on the alchemical tradition in India, that sort of reaches a peak in the sixteenth, seventeenth centuries, some really juicy wonderful things, so—I’m looking forward to giving the talk.

AE: That's interesting. I'll be there, May 5th, right?

CD: May 5th, yeah.

Chris Davies, From Paris to Seville necklace, 2016. Photo: Ana Estrades.

AE: Let's move on to jewelry, maybe some of these topics will come back. I'd like to talk first about this [showing picture of necklace] From Paris to Seville, it has the granulation you were talking about, and you put names to the jewels and I wanted to know why that is important for you.

CD: I think it is because I'm a storyteller. I've had a lifelong writing practice. I taught writing for many years. So part of my design process is really constructing a narrative for the jewel, so my jewels are almost like artifacts that emerge from stories. The design exists within the context of a story. And it’s sort of like I am developing the story and telling the story, figuring out the story in my mind and the jewel sort of takes form within it, and like kind of is almost lifted out. [laughs.]

AE: Nice, so can you tell us the story of this one?

CD: Paris to Seville is the story about a young Coco Chanel who travels from Paris to Seville on holiday and—[laughs.] She encounters, she has a wild, riotous evening during feria, [AE laughs] where she gets swept away into a cave and dances with the queen of the gypsies, [AE laughs] and she comes up with the idea for a collection based on this experience. So she is trying to figure out how she can express the unbridled ecstasy of these dancers from her night in the cave. And restrain it enough to make it palatable to a conservative French audience. [both laugh.] So Paris to Seville is my imagining of this gypsy exuberance, and this kind of conservative French idea of taste.

AE: Was this story in your mind when you were making the piece or did you actually write the story to inspire you?

CD: Both, it's both a narrative that I'm talking to myself as I'm creating the piece and also something that I journaled about, and wrote little excerpts from.

AE: So you keep a journal and would you say that all your pieces come from that journal?

CD: I wouldn't say they come from the journal, it's simultaneous, it is not that one comes from the other, they are happening together, they are kind of inseparable.

AE: I guess my question is more like; really all the pieces have a story that is written, a fiction?

CD: All the pieces have a story, yeah. And I even have plans to publish a book that will include the jewels in illustrated format on characters in the story.

AE: Wow!

CD: I must take it full circle to the other side, pull the jewels into the story, because I've been pulling the jewelry out into the world, and now I kind of wanna go the other way—

AE: Yeah.

CD: —bring them into the story.

AE: Is that book project close into the future?

CD: I'll say it's in the next year and a half, to two years.

AE: Great, yeah.

CD: It's definitely in the works.

AE: Okay, near future project. What are your favorite materials and techniques? It's kind of a double question, but maybe combined, if you can explain.

CD: Well [sigh.] I'm kind of—I have been working for six years now on this technique of woven granulation.

AE: So maybe you can talk about that.

CD: As a technique granulation was interesting to me because you can create these very rich textile surfaces and very intricate and delicate patterns, with really no boundaries. I love the simplicity and the complexity of it. The simplicity of it is that you're working with spheres; I mean the geometry of it couldn't be any simpler, you make thousands of these spheres. And the complexity of it is in the arrangement of these spheres, which can tessellate or fill a plane in any variety of ways, so there is no limit to what you can do with that idea of tessellating spheres. But in ancient times this was done by fusing gold spheres to sheet metal and I learnt this, I was instructed in this technique, and I was both compelled by it and also frustrated by it. I felt like there were other effects that I wanted to get in the jewels that I was imagining in my mind that were not possible through fusing spheres onto sheet metal. And that's when I began to reach into my background as a fashion designer and as somebody who studied textiles to kind of reinvent it. So I wanted to keep this idea of tessellation, but I wanted to gain the flexibility in the movement of fabric and I also wanted to gain the textile ideas of openness and floats, and netting, and all of these other things that you can do by manipulating the distance between fibers. So I brought these two ideas together to create this woven technique that incorporated both ideas. I love working with gold. I think that symbolically gold has a lot of importance. It’s connected to ideas of immortality, to ideas of purity. In alchemy gold represents the sun, whereas silver represents the moon. There is, historically there have been, magical and talismanic properties attributed to gold. In contemporary science we've figured out that gold actually has microbial properties. So it’s, gold is used in the construction of materials for space travel, because it can be thinned to the thickness of a single atom. So the poetics of gold are extraordinary. And for that reason it is really my favorite material.

AE: And for many people probably. [laughs.] Great, in connection to the spheres, maybe it's time to bring in what you're wearing.

CD: [laughs.]

AE: I'm not sure if it's your favorite jewelry piece, but—

CD: It is representative.

AE: It's representative probably because you are wearing it and I asked you to wear something. So because it's granulation too, can you talk about this in connection to you were just saying?

CD: We are in my studio, just so you know because we are verbal, and sitting at a workbench where we do all of our metal and gold work and fabrication. And I'm dressed for a day of work, I'm working today.

AE: Casual.

CD: Casual, and I'm wearing a piece of jewelry that makes sense with what I'm wearing today. It's a handcrafted lentil-shaped rock crystal ellipse and it is encased in a woven net of 18-carat gold and it is a pendant, necklace. The piece is based on the geometry of the six-pointed star, so if you look at the center of it, it's a six-pointed star. And this forms the basis for the lace pattern. So I use a lot of terminology from textiles, which I studied. Lace making is something I've been interested in throughout my design career. And I'm calling it a lace pattern because it explores and exploits this idea of openness and transparency and graduation from something very small into something larger. So it's an explosion of this six pointed star across an elliptical rock crystal surface and what is delightfully confusing to the eye is this question when you look at it—you are not really sure how these golden spheres are in place and how, the construction of the piece is somewhat confusing, and that's something that interests me and is a part of it—to invite curiosity, what something is doing. There is also a lot of—the crystal functions as a lens, so there is light play in the piece. This is very intentional where the gold is reflecting in and out of the piece magnifying certain things, and so it's a piece that has classical ideas interpreted in a very contemporary way, and definitely fabricated in a way that the ancients did not fabricate their pieces.

AE: You haven't yet explained what you have on top there.

CD: Above the woven granulated pendant—

AE: Rock crystal, yeah.

CD: —is a small talisman that I'm wearing. It’s a Rudraksha bead and it's on a golden chain, matching the chain of the pendant. And it's a bead that was worn by yogis and holy men and women traditionally in India. It [Rudraksha tree] grows very high up in the Himalayas and this particular one was given to me by one of my Indian teachers, in my study of medicine and other aspects of Indian tradition. And it is sacred to Shiva, and different Rudrakshas are sacred to different deities in the Hindu pantheon. The one sacred to Shiva is supposed to bring peace of mind and good health.

AE: Mhmh. So I'm wondering because you have been mentioning some instruction in granulation and now with this Indian medicine. Where do you find these courses, it sounds like, you know, you self taught yourself a lot, but you also find these sources that you need, so how do you go about that?

CD: [laughs.]

AE: I know it's to jump back to education, but just to bring it in here.

CD: You look for experts, I mean, when you want to learn something, you find an expert. So that's all, you research, that's exactly what you do in graduate school, you research, you follow the breadcrumbs until they lead you to the home of the expert. Then you knock on the door with some kind of a gift and beg them to teach you everything they know.

AE: Really? So you did that privately.

CD: [laughs.] Yes, you can only learn, you learn so little in school really. I think in the world of traditions of craft and making, the real learning has to happen in an apprentice situation, you have to seek out the master.

AE: Now that you are mentioning craft and making, I feel like going to this question about the meaning for you of these words, 'cause this is for a project on craft and design, and I just notice that on your website you use them, like for example, designer is a section in your website and so it seems important. And then you have a lot on tradition and craftsmanship, they seem to be related. If you can talk a little about both, design, designer, craftsmanship tradition.

CD: Mhmh. Yeah, well, I think this is an ongoing conversation amongst academics and what these words have meant historically is not necessarily what they mean today. And I think the line between a lot of these spheres, which may have been more distinct at other times in history, are less distinct now; and the role of designer, craftsmen, artist, philosopher even, have began to overlap in ways that make these distinctions sometimes problematic. For the purpose of practicality, I don't think it's unimportant to know that I chose the word designer as the section heading on my website. So you know, for me a designer is definitely a creative director, an idea maker, is a curator, who has, can have a really varying variety of training as a craftsman, right. We talked earlier about Seaman Schepps, who really had no training as a craftsman, but he was a brilliant designer. And so I think that the designer in many ways is like the conductor in an orchestra, right, a really good designer doesn't need to know how to play every instrument, but needs to be familiar with the potential and possibility of every instrument in the orchestra, so that they know what to do with them, and how to direct them and how to bring out their fullest potential. But I think a good designer does have a grounding and training as a craftsman, and so moving in and out of the thinking, creating role of the designer and the learning role of the craftsmen—'cause the craftsman is always learning, seeking to learn more—is important for me. So I work as a designer-craftsman because I feel that they are two related conversations that have important distinctions that inform one another.

Chris Davies, Nefertari earrings, 2015. Photo: Joe Gold of JGOLD&CO.

AE: Mhmh. Thank you. Okay, let's move to some other examples in your jewelry. To talk about the inspiration in past civilizations, and still your jewelry looks personal and contemporary, so I just have these here, it can be others that inspired you, but we have here Egyptian-like earrings here and also a snake-shaped necklace.

CD: Mhmh.

AE: The question is how do you choose these sources? The kind of tradition and contemporary blend in your work.

CD: Well, I mean, the sources come out a lifetime of interest in the ancient world, which is not the only source, but I mean you brought it up as a strong influence. I think that the pieces are able to say something new, because the influence, and the seed maybe for some of these ideas has been germinating for so long that I don't have to think about it too consciously. You know, so it's not that I think to myself that I’m gonna do a Greek collection, or I'm gonna do an Egyptian collection. That influence happened such a long time ago, you know, those intellectual experiences are part of my identity. So I can approach the creation of the jewel with an immediacy, and independence from those influences, so it's kind of a letting go. When a dancer learns a choreography right, a good performance isn’t a replication of everything they have rehearsed, it's a letting go of that, so that what stands, can be immediate and entirely of that moment. If that makes sense.

AE: Yeah, maybe my question was not well formulated, what I mean more is, when do you choose what you choose? Something like that, because there are so many, I see so many different cultures, it can be Chinese, or it can be Egyptian, you have this Scheherazade necklace that I remembered too, that speaks to One Thousand and One Nights, and you are moving on, and you’re always—

CD: Yeah.

AE: So I guess, when do you bring that in, as something that you have inside, like you were saying? You know, it’s a choice that I feel that you make, right? Like on your website, right now, you have this Chinese background—

CD: Yeah, right.

AE: —and you create this necklace that has some, some connection to China. This is kind of Egyptian. It’s not that is all of your jewelry, some of it, but I find it something interesting that—

CD: I feel like—when did I choose these sources? I feel that these sources were chosen in childhood, you know, they are like distant memories of things that I encountered very early on, long ago, and they got re-explored and studied again in college. They are constantly cycling through in different ways, they are not particular moments, like “oh, this year I'm gonna do a Chinese collection.” You know, these are lifelong interests, and explore—I mean, I have these two dragons from I think it's a sixteenth-century screen. Chinese screen that I painted and colored as a backdrop for the jewelry on my website.

AE: You did that?

CD: I did that. Yeah, so you know I have maybe over 150 [Chinese] scholarly works and Chinese classics in my personal library. I mean there was no moment where that interest—it’s not a superficial choice, “Oh, let's do an exotic Chinese collection.”

AE: No, no.

CD: It’s a cultural interest that circulates through my awareness—

AE: Yes.

CD: —and will come back again and again. It’s not a personal fad, or interest. It’s an awareness that I continue to be invested in deepening.

AE: Yeah, so you have a full library of different cultures—

CD: I have a huge library, you know—where to store all my books?

AE: How many do you have?

CD: Thousands. [laughs.]

AE: Thousands. Okay, let's move onto something different, you have recently been in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, like last week, and one of your pieces is on view there, the ZaZa necklace and earrings, and I wonder how did this, you donated this to the museum I understand, but how did this gift come about?

Chris Davies, ZaZa necklace, 2014. Gold, pearls, amethyst, and ametrine, 17 in. long. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo: Emily Stoehrer.

CD: I was contacted by an independent curator, who was working with the Forbes Galleries, before the Forbes Galleries sold the collection of Fabergé to a Russian collector, and the gallery changed quite a bit. But she curated the last jewelry exhibit at the Forbes Galleries, which was called Out of This World, and she considered some of my work for that exhibit. We didn't end up working with one another on that exhibit, however she asked if she could bring a study group to my studio that spring. And two of the people who came to my studio were curators from the MFA, and I gave them a thirty min[ute] presentation about my process and work, and by the end of that, the curator of jewelry at the MFA who was Yvonne Markowitz at the time, pulled me aside and said that she though it would be important for the MFA to have one of my jewelry pieces, and talked about how to do this. That’s how the conversation started.

AE: And why this ZaZa necklace, why this piece in particular?

CD: I wanted the museum to have something that was certainly representative of my style and the style in which I've been working, and of what I spoke to the group about. I wanted something that was more monumental and less commercial because I knew the museum would be interested in that editorial quality of the work. And the piece was worn by Robert de Niro's wife with a really elegant gown to some important events in which she was photographed. And so that connection of the piece to the world of fashion, film was interesting to them, so it was a combination of factors. The context in which the piece had been worn, as well as the stylistic elements of the piece that were indicative of the work that I do.

AE: So Mrs. de Niro didn't own the piece?

CD: She did not, she borrowed it for an event as many celebrities do.

AE: Really, you've a lot of celebrities that come to you?

CD: I’m just speaking in general. When you see celebrities wearing things—

AE: Yes.

CD: —to events, they rarely own it.

AE: [pause.] Let's move to the process, ‘cause we have this example here. I know this is more recent. So if you can talk about your working process, from idea to making the actual jewel.

CD: [pause.] I work in two main ways, as somebody who was first trained as a dressmaker. I often times work on my mannequin, and I cut out shapes and silhouettes from paper that are then arranged on the dress form, so I can see the forms in relationship to the body, to the bust line, to the neck, I have that whole body awareness, which I think is not always well developed in jewelers, who can sometimes make jewelry that is really uncomfortable and rigid. And that sort of fluidity and comfort of the pieces is something that I think about a lot. And so in this first step I am mapping out scale and basic shape, and that might start as a sketch and then move to some paper cutouts, which are then arranged on a mannequin. From there, I began to work on volumes, and volumes can be developed through building up layers of fabric, through crinkling foil or paper to get dimensions. [long pause.]. So that's one way that we approach getting a volume. With some of the woven technologies, because we are working with materials that are repeated, tessellated in a similar size, I can work mathematically, so I can actually write out a formula, the way that a weaver, a dress maker will write out a pattern. So sometimes I work like that.

Chris Davies, work-in-progress, 2016. Photo: Ana Estrades.

And then the picture that you have here shows another technique that I use for developing form when I 'm using combined, fabricated, cast and woven elements, and these are more complicated pieces. And these began as wire frames, much in the way that Alexander Calder worked, so there is the working out of an illustrated gesture in wire. So I’ll sketch the gesture, the movement of the piece, whether it is abstract or representative in a soft brass or copper wire. We’ll move from that, I’ll then do some more sketches, indicating points of contact or thickness of metal, or other elements that I want to incorporate to realize the form. And from the wire sketch and the notes, and the pencil drawings, we then develop a silver prototype that's evaluated, some woven work might be done on the prototype to explore some possibilities there, and then from that we develop lost wax pieces that will be incorporated into the work, and we then look at that silver prototype, make final edits and decisions and then the entire thing is rendered in gold. And from start to finish it is about a three to four month process.

AE: You read my mind, I was going to ask, this sounds like a lot of work.

CD: Yeah, it's very time consuming, there is lot of evaluation of the work where we’ll get to a certain point with it and we'll put it away and look at it over one to two weeks, just making more sketches, making more notes. There are no pieces in my studio that take less than six weeks to make.

AE: Mhmh, so I wonder once you have worked so much on this prototype and you have done one piece, do you do a lot of replicas just so, you know, make up for all of this work and the process.

CD: [laughs.]

AE: Or maybe just because you think they are great and people think they are great they want them. [laughs.] I wonder how many copies you make.

CD: A lot of the pieces are one of a kind and they are priced accordingly, and you know we sometimes create sister pieces. They are not really replicas because everything is handmade. In order for, especially with the formed and sculpted pieces that are more illustrative looking, you can never replicate a line exactly, it’s not really wise to try, you know, every time it's like a calligrapher who makes a brush stroke, it has to be new. So we might make a piece that's related but it's always a little different and we really respect that and encourage that in the piece. If we are doing a bird wing, you know, we will create a different movement of the wing, something to speak to the fact that the piece was made at a different time, and under a different mood, and energy, and space. But we never, we've really never made more than three in a series. The pieces are pretty limited, and we like working like that.

AE: Talking about this, and the progress of your work, I know you are moving on to a new line, and moving a little bit from granulation that has been your arena for six years you said. So how would you describe these changes, from one technique to the next, what did you have to learn new, let go, I guess this is a little bit where you are now.

Chris Davies, new collection, spring 2016. Photo: Ana Estrades.

CD: I think that with the woven granulation the interest was really—the primary research was really around pattern and texture, you know, that was the field to explore. And with this new work it's about light—it's minimal, which is equally time consuming, although the forms may look deceptively simple, they are actually very complex to achieve, so we are now creating these very distinct shapes and volumes and large jewels with very rich tones, and bold strong gold work that highlights the stone rather than surrounds it. There’s a lot of disappearing edges so the gold is a lot more—the gold is taking second stage, that the stone, the lapidary work, is really what we are showcasing, which is really the opposite of what we were doing before. We were really making the gold the center of the work. All of these stones we're cutting ourselves and also with some very wonderful lapidary artists who are working with me, and cutting to my design. And it takes months to have these stones cut, because my color specifications are so specific. So the interest here in formal terms is really light and color. [short pause.] So we are exploring effects, what's possible to achieve through the use of stones as lenses and amplifiers for light and color.

AE: Now that you have been talking a little bit about “we,” you know, like your assistants, stone cutters, or other people that helped you, and you are the one that has the idea, how do you build this relationship with them and how do you express what you want. You mentioned for example how long it takes for the stonecutter to get the stone right, as you want it, so if you can explain.

CD: It's a slow process that's about trust and communication because when you are working with a craftsman who is not a designer necessarily, with whom you have a good relationship, so they know something about your taste, your requirements, your pickiness, what's important to you, what is not important to you. But most of these pieces are prototypes in a way because they are one of a kind, so they are the things that the stonecutters have never done before, that I, as a designer may have not done before, so we are both learning the potential of the material, and as a designer I have to accept that there are going to be several—[pause.]

AE: Trials?

CD: Trials, yeah, that don’t fully reach the vision, that I have to be okay with that, and allow for that, and be patient. And for the craftsman, the craftsman needs to trust me and relax, trust that I'm here to guide him to reach the goal, and it requires faith on both parts, because you are sort of walking blindly towards something that is not fully defined, and that's what’s really exciting about doing this sort of exploratory design work, but it's also what's maybe frustrating for some and it's also what is certainly not commercial about it.

AE: What is the background of your assistants? Are they craftsmen as you call them?

CD: A lot of my assistants are of other academic or fine art backgrounds, and they get trained in craft tradition. And the reason I choose to bring to my personal studio fine artists and academics is because the critical thinking and the problem-solving mind is developed in a different way. And because the type of work that I do is about research, and development, and trial, I need people who are trained to think like that. Often times people who just have a trade background aren't invested in pushing ideas further on their own, and I need a team around me that is invested in pushing the ideas and doing the research.

AE: That's great to talk about innovation, what innovation means to you? Because that's a big part of design, right?

CD: Yeah.

AE: I actually have one example that came about when you showed me these works, like the bracelets that kind of have rigid interiors, fixed in shape but you can easily put it own, and—

Chris Davies, Dangerous Beauty bracelet, 2016. Gold, lapis lazuli and cultured pearls. Photo: Ana Estrades.

CD: So those are a kind of technical innovation. We are looking at a coiled flexible bracelet that is made of metal, but that is treated in a certain way that allows it to move flexibly and snap back into place. And then the other example that we are looking at here is a three strand, very opulent, three strand gold and luminescent mother of pearl necklace with a clasp system that allows for the removal or recombination of any of these three strands. These are kind of engineering ideas, right? So that's one type of innovation, it's mechanical, and that's definitely what we are interested in here, that I’m interested in. So we are always looking for mechanical innovations that provide greater ease of use to the wearer, more comfort, more elegance of form and greater versatility. Other innovations, which I feel we have touched on, are more conceptual or aesthetic and—

AE: For example?

DC: Like the creation of a pearl fabric that is folded and draped in the way that satin is treated in a couture gown. Innovation in jewelry in that instance is the application of an idea for treating a flat plane in another tradition. The reapplication of that idea and the mechanical engineering of how to do that in jewelry, in a space where we don't see that. We have seen historically the illusion of that, right? We have seen gold formed to look like fabric, but we haven't seen the actual creation of flexible fabrics of precious materials that can actually be manipulated like fabric, not just look like fabric. So that's both an aesthetic, conceptual, and a mechanical type of innovation.

AE: Yeah, I remember this tweed necklace that you showed me that reminds me of what you are talking about the fabric, you said that it took many hours, probably weeks, to figure out how to design it so that it will be wearable, how it will be on the body. That's something we'll talk next in markets and clients. Let's start from custom jewelry versus creating your own pieces, because I know you do a lot more of creation of your own pieces that you offer to your private clients. But you do some customize jewelry, you offer that on your website certainly, and you do that especially with rings, and I wonder why rings?

CD: Well, when I first started learning jewelry, you know I studied traditional goldsmithing, that’s before I kind of invented any of my own ways of creating jewelry and I received a very traditional, classical kind of training, and I had had a wedding gown business, so it made perfect sense to me to begin making engagement rings, and so that's how the whole business as a custom jeweler really started, with the creation of wedding rings. So I have a long history with that, and that's one that I continue to honor and practice. And it's a wonderful opportunity to talk about storytelling, to help a couple tell their story through the creation of an object, and to work with them as a storyteller and a designer to synthesize and distill their experience together.

AE: This is what you did on your very first piece, you had this commission and you decided “I'm gonna talk to them about what they want and create a story here.” Did it work like that?

CD: Yeah, it did work like that. I mean I got more sophisticated and more skilled, in the bringing together of the psychodynamic work, of working with a couple that is going to get married, and the design work of realizing the piece evolves every time. But I think from the get go, that idea of a jewel, a story, in the case of a custom ring as the very real story of two people, was there from the beginning.

AE: So how do you cater your work to clients, talking about the other side, you create your own pieces, you come up with your own ideas, and how do you cater those to your own, to your clients?

CD: You mean when I’m creating collection, not custom?

AE: Mhmh.

CD: I don't cater the work to my clients. [both laugh.] I educate my clients and invite them to participate in the story that I'm telling.

AE: Aha, how do you do that then?

CD: It's a lot of work. I think that a lot of the work that I make is challenging actually, that people, that it's new for people. I think a lot of the jewels that I make feel bolder and more powerful than people feel about themselves. And they don't feel entitled to be that powerful. And so part of the work that I do with clients, I'll explain, I'll tell you one story in a minute about it.

AE: Great.

CD: Part of the work that I do is to help people see themselves differently. And helping them to feel, to see the things and the qualities that are present in the jewels in themselves, whether that's beauty, or style, or elegance, or authority, you know, all of these qualities exist in each and everyone of us. And so the jewel is simply acting as a door, a doorway for that principle in us to project outward into the world. So you know it's about helping people to see that in themselves. I've had it happen a couple of times. I was doing a design show in the Hamptons once, and a very beautiful older woman around seventy-five looked very sad and a little bit broken, and she walked up to my booth, and I immediately felt interested in her. She wasn't really asking any questions or looking around, we began to talk a bit. And she told me that she had recently lost her husband. And—she was telling a little bit about the life they had lived together, and you know, how magical it had been with him, life had been with him, and it had been very hard since she lost him. As we are talking, she is kind of perusing the jewelry and I just began to pull out a few things that I thought might be very beautiful on her. And she's "no, no, I don't wanna buy any jewelry," and I said "look, you know, we are just talking, and I can just put this piece on you." And I had this huge green citrine and pearl necklace, we are talking about 500 carats of giant lime citrine jewels, with this, I mean it was a very bold piece, and she was a red-head so of course this was a fabulous color for her. And here was this woman who looked so beaten by the events that had recently transpired. And I placed this necklace over her head and she looked up into the mirror, and it was like all of a sudden somebody had turned on the light switch. I mean, her eyes literally became electric, her shoulders moved back, she took a deep breath and she looked like a completely different person because the vibrancy and the dynamism of these stones and these colors reawakened that awareness of what it felt for her to feel that inside herself, which was the story she had been telling me. And, you know, she bought the piece, I mean, [laughs] because it had awakened something that was sleeping. So I think that jewelry has that symbolic power—

AE: Yeah.

CD: It's not about anything New Age, it's about memory, it's about association, it's about symbolism. So I think jewelry has that ability to operate in a psychological way and we can use that to our own advantage.

AE: In connection to this that you are saying, so interesting, what do you think your jewelry means to your clients? More in general, you've touched on this example of this great jewel.

CD: [pause.] I think jewels mean different things to different people, but I think rather than “what does my jewelry mean to my clients?,” if I can rephrase that—

AE: Certainly.

CD: I may say, maybe a more apropos question is, “what type of relationship do my clients have to jewelry?” And I think, what we were talking about, associations and symbolism you know, while the associations and the potency, that aspect of personality that might get activated in different clients, may be different in each one of them, the relationship that I see in my clients to my work is a deeply personal and emotional one. And that's what is exciting to me. That the relationship to the work is not transient, it's very personal and very intimate in many ways.

AE: I wonder if you can explain, because this has come across. I wonder if it also has to do with your background in fashion, but, you seem to think a lot about the connection, the integration between the jewel and the body, and right now when you were explaining this story, you were really emphasizing how everything changed when you put it on her, and it was, you knew exactly how it was lying on her shoulders. Yeah, I don’t know if you want to say anything about that, body and jewelry.

CD: [pause.] I started training as a dancer at age fourteen, and I’m still training as a dancer. So the idea of our bodies as vehicles within space, right, objects in motion, it's not only something that I'm conceptually interested in, but it's something that I've been practicing my whole life. And this awareness of the body, how we are using the body, how the carriage of our bodies reflect what is going on inside of us, and how what we put on and in our bodies affects us is a lifelong study for me. So naturally with this training in dance and a background in encasing the body as a dress maker, learning to comfortably unfold, develop and protect the body—that these ideas would enter into my work as a jewelry designer. So the mechanical part of that comes through in the creation of jewels that acknowledge the position of bones on the frame, that rest in comfortable places, that take into account the variety and variation of body types, from breast size to neck dimension, to height. These are kind of some of the mechanical elements that we design for. The conceptual element is the more sculptural one, right, the aesthetic one. How do the sculptural lines and the ornamental lines in a jewel relate to the lines of the face, of the nose, of the neck, the hand, of the clavicle, so there is a mechanical and aesthetic awareness of the body.

AE: We move to some another topic, the commercial aspect. Where do you find your best market? Is here in New York, outside, stores, fairs?

CD: Your best market is everyone you are talking to really, because the personal connection is key. I am saying that a little bit jokingly, but I'm saying it as a truth that finding clients for your work is about making personal connections. And being open to connecting with people truly, from the heart, so that's where you find your best market, it's when you've made a friend, and you've made a connection with someone. The more commercial answer to that question is, you know, definitely large, urban centers with a strong fashion presence. New York, I live here, I make work here, this is my home, it's a dynamic place, and an important market for me. San Francisco is a very important market for me, and Texas has been a very important market for me. I think it’s interesting that Texas spends more money on haute couture than any other state in the United States. So the desire for and support of high-level design seems to be very strong in Texas. And I’ve been consistently impressed with the collectors that I have met in that state, and the types of works that they surround themselves with, from paintings and sculpture, to the architecture of their homes, it’s an important market for me, as it's an extremely savvy and educated market that understands what's going on in the world.

AE: You have just been and you have it fresh, do you want to tell us how did it go this time around, an anecdote.

CD: Every season is different because I'm presenting new work. I have a very loyal body of collectors that I see every season. Always some new ones, but there's a strong following. And I sort of think a little bit, how do I cater to the needs of my clients. But I'm gonna speak to that in a little bit, now just in talking about having a body of clients and a following, you do think about particular individuals that have been strong collectors over the seasons. Their color preferences, you know how they wear their clothes, you know what's going on in heir lives, and the stories that they are living and telling, so that comes in, in subtle ways. It may not be the direct source for a design, however when something is produced, you might immediately think “Ahhh, this is definitely for so and so.” And often times I'm right with those feelings, it's kind of being a matchmaker, right, you see something and “these two will make a great match!” So you set up a day, and a rendezvous, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

AE: And this is how it worked this time around.

CD: This is how I always work, yeah, it's never about trying to get people to buy things. It's about [pause] making opportunities for people to find relationships to objects that are meaningful for them. And so my work is to be a facilitator in that process. If they are coming to see the work, we know that they have a love for material culture, and enjoy the process of collecting. And my job is really to help them find the things that enrich and magnify that love that is already there.

AE: I find it interesting that you talk about them as collectors, but they will be wearing your pieces. You know, when you think of a collection is probably on display in your home. So it's because of their social standing that, you know, they have a lot of material culture that they surround themselves with.

CD: What you're saying is interesting, right?, speaks to a little bit about this conversation around “what is the difference between art and design, or art and craft?” And we have these really old fashioned museological ideas about what a collection is, what it means to be a collector, and so yeah, I wanna leave us with this, up against this challenge, right, to our idea of what it means for someone to have a collection, to be a collector, what does it mean for these objects, these jewels to exist in a real life, to be worn, and to be off the pedestal. I think it's food for thought.

AE: Well, that's a great way to finish, but I want to leave it open now, I can ask you about that book project or another project that you might have, just to end up with some future project, but also if there is anything else that you haven't said that you feel like talking about.

CD: Well, we've spoken about two things that I'm working on going forward, one this new collection that's more lapidary and playing with stones as lenses to augment light and color. And we’ve also talked about working with jewelry conceptually, as objects within a story. So these are things that I've been working on but there are new projects. I think that I'm kind of reframing myself right now, and thinking about. [pause.] You know, spending a considerable amount of time developing a language and a vocabulary, both technically and aesthetically, there is a fluency with that language now, and I'm exploring ways to use that language that go beyond just the making of jewels. I also have a magazine project that I'm working on, a quarterly magazine, and we are hoping to launch the first issue in June, and each issue will have a theme. And the first issue will be dedicated to the idea of taste. We will be talking about, there will a review of the exhibit currently at the Met, painted portraits by Vigée Le Brun, and we will be discussing ideas about beauty and the sublime, and there will be also a collection of articles and papers, and reviews, a very kind of multifaceted exploration of the idea of taste.

AE: Wow, what's the name of the magazine, where can we find it?

CD: More details to come.

AE: Okay, you don't have the name of the magazine yet? You have all the content though!

CD: More details to come. You know, it's like making a baby, you get pregnant before you name the child. [laughs.]

AE: Who are you collaborating with in this magazine project then?

CD: I don't wanna give names right now. But several contributors, some very well known and published.

AE: But it's not just jewelry designers.

CD: No, it's a cross pollination, so we are going to be discussing architecture, and gardens, fine art—both contemporary and historical—jewelry, fashion. [pause.] It'll be a rich web of conversations.

AE: That's great! Fantastic.

[End of interview]
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