I n the Middle East the name Jay Strongwater is a symbol of stature, style and sparkle. But now we speak to the man behind the luxury eponymous brand, twenty years after he launched his first collection. Discover the history of the American jeweller, uncover his start with Bergdorf Goodman and go behind the scenes of his workshop to experience the illustrious designs he continues to create...
Congratulations, you've recently launched your 20th anniversary collection. How did you decide what would warrant special attention after all of those years?
Thank you! I wanted our 20th anniversary collection to celebrate everything we have loved creating these past 20 years and to highlight our strong craft aesthetic that we feel so passionate about. It was very important to me that the collection was designed with our most ardent collectors in mind. I wanted to create something very limited — each of the five designs has been made in a limited edition of twenty — and showcased by only our most important partners. Each of the five designs was chosen to honour some our most revered designs: the picture frame, chest, sea life figurine, jungle figurine and the peacock figurine. We approached each one wanting to work in a palette of gold, white opal, and black jet with touches of ruby. We slowly painted layers of enamel and then meticulously hand-set thousands of Swarovski crystals on each one. I am very proud of what we have accomplished these past 20 years and I feel that these five designs are a true reflection of all that craftsmanship, superlative materials and beauty.
What is it about gold and jewels that people are attracted to?
I think the great heritage of past civilisations carving metals and setting stones in jewellery and objects of beauty has captivated people for centuries. I walk the exhibitions of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London transfixed by the gold and jewels on display.
I hope when someone holds one of my designs they can feel the hands of the many artisans that have worked with our metals, enamels and stones to create each piece.
Buying ornaments and bespoke pieces can be a very personal (not to mention expensive) endeavor. How do you design for specific markets, the Middle East in particular?
I find that our collectors in the Middle East have such a strong appreciation for the decorative arts. They have grown up surrounded by colourful tile work, beautifully carved stones and intricate patterned metals. I find that our most sophisticated designs, with layers of enamels, carved metals and hundreds of sparkling crystals are highly coveted in the Middle East market.
What's been your favourite piece to date?
They are all my babies, so it is very hard to select just one !
We recently had a commission from Tanagra to create an exclusive design for them to celebrate their 35th anniversary. We carved a beautiful orchid objet, the graceful petals blossoming in shades of purples and blues against verdant green leaves. I find the porcelain-like finish on the deeply coloured petals quite captivating and arresting.
We imagine that behind the scenes, things can be quite serious because of the nature of the industry. What's been one of the more fun moments working on the design floor?
As you can imagine our designs take a very long time to develop, many over a year! When I have spent so many months working on drawings and clay prototypes, seeing the first metal design finished is very rewarding. But the best day is when we have finalised all the colours of enamel and crystal stones that go into a design and I'm holding a beautiful realised design that literally sparkles!
When you were little, did you think you would end up as a creator of this kind?
Growing up I always seemed to be most interested in creating things — art projects in school, decorating for the holidays, art camp during the summer months. My mother was very creative when it came to decorating our home and the clothes she would wear. I was very much inspired by her style and wanted to design clothes, eventually attending Rhode Island School of Design, majoring in clothing design. But during the summer of 1980 — in between semesters of college — I made a few hand-painted beaded necklaces for my mother. Encouraged by her enthusiasm, I made a few more and stood in line at Bergdorf Goodman in NY City; every few months they would open their doors to any designer who wanted to meet the buyers. I met the Bergdorf Goodman jewellery buyer, and received my first order! A few months later, I left school and self taught myself metal smithing, stone setting and applying enamels. It wouldn't be until fifteen years later that I would take the tools of a jeweller to create my first all-metal jewelled picture frame.
A lot of people know the brand, but not necessarily the man behind it... what's one characteristic that defines you?
My ability to find the beauty in the everyday around us.
Tell us about your home; what pieces or style do you prefer?
Deep purple jewelled tone walls with patterned Persian rugs set the stage for floral upholstered furniture, grouped around tables layered with my collections of our frames, vases and candlesticks.
What's next for Jay Strongwater?
I'm very excited to be putting the finishing touches on our first glass pieces for entertaining: grape goblets, bubble flutes, water pitchers and glass bowls — each one hand painted in an exotic floral pattern in shades of gold, silver and bronze, with delicate tracings of hand-set crystals. I look forward to building upon these first pieces for an even larger presentation of tabletop designs.