Over a century ago prospectors travelled to California in their droves in search of gold and a slice of the American dream, and today the West Coast is once again a dazzling source of inspiration as a critical mass of jewellery designers migrate from New York to Los Angeles, seduced by the latter’s laid-back lifestyle, informal design scene, and the freedom, space and time it offers to experiment in a community of like-minded creatives. Vogue talks to five designers who are making their dreams a reality in the golden state.
After nearly a decade in New York working as a designer for all-American brands like J. Crew and Calvin Klein, Leigh Miller retreated from the high-octane fashion industry and returned to California. “I had begun to feel like a cog in a wheel,” says the Santa Monica native. She found the “healthier” creative outlet she was looking for in jewellery making, a craft that allows her to work at a slower pace (she releases a maximum of two collections per year), while comfortably walking the line between fine art and fashion.
Miller’s “wearable mini sculptures” have an instantly recognisable aesthetic that draws from topographical patterns and the West Coast’s natural landscape – think leaves, pebbles and whirlpools – as much as from the work of mid-century sculptors, including Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Jean Arp. Predominantly made in silver, with the occasional addition of semi-precious stones, her organic, abstract pieces wouldn’t look out of place among Peggy Guggenheim’s personal collection of artist-designed jewellery.
Legier Biederman uses gemstones to create images of the California landscape. “[I see] the face of signet rings almost like the screen of a TV or a white screen,” says the designer of her signature unisex reinterpretations of the classic gentleman’s ring. Biederman – who holds a PhD in art history – uses veined stones and rocks sourced from California and the south-west, setting them in round, rectangular or square bezels to create miniature paintings. Under her spell, a fragment of blue chrysocolla becomes a piece of cloud-streaked Californian sky and an earthy-coloured wonderstone rhyolite is transformed into an aerial representation of the desert.
Biederman took the leap from teaching to jewellery design in 2015. Her visual references are rooted in the land art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and post-minimalism, but her creations can easily be appreciated as simple aesthetic delights. Still, her connection with the art world remains strong. “In LA there is a dynamic relationship between the fashion and art world that creates a magical [working] space,” says the designer, who has found a strong support network in the close-knit community of artisans, designers, artists and retailers in the city.
In 2014, after closing her fashion line Vena Cava, Sophie Buhai left New York for her home town of Los Angeles, determined to fine-tune her creativity and find a new, independent project to focus on. “There is something about LA that allows people to retreat; there is a freedom here that’s less tied in traditions and formalities than in other places,” says Buhai, who credits the city as the catalyst that helped her launch her brand 12 months later. With a jewellery line at its centre, the label is an expression of Buhai’s lifestyle vision, encompassing a vast selection of objects personally curated by the designer – from a 1950s lounge chair designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret to designer napkin rings.
Buhai’s signature creations – such as her best-selling sleek Egg pendant and her range of Everyday hoops – are modernist-inspired minimal pieces in silver or gold vermeil, real showstoppers in their simple but intriguing shapes and clever play of contrasting weights. Her most experimental designs are in her limited-edition seasonal collections, where she employs different materials, including pearls and black onyx. Whether she is creating the perfect conversation piece, alternating faux and real baroque nuggets on the same strand, or going figurative with her Leaf barrette and Black Cherry earrings, Buhai’s designs always stem from a very personal place. “I’m always thinking, is this something that I want? And if it’s not, I don’t make it,” she says.
When Kathleen Whitaker landed in Los Angeles in 2002 from New York, she was quickly embraced by the city’s positive energy and entrepreneurial vibe. “[Los Angeles] offers a real liberation – space and time and optimism,” says the designer, who banked on her experience in management and finance to transform her jewellery design hobby into a fully fledged business. The brand was launched in 2003 with the Classic Collection, a line of geometric designs in 14 carat gold designed to be worn every day. “People talk about putting them in their ears and never thinking about them again,” says Whitaker of her Classic studs. Versatile and accessible (prices start from $40), they come in all shapes and sizes – from the circular Sequin to the slender Stick – and are still among her best sellers.
Recently Whitaker has expanded on her signature minimalist style, adding slices of colourful stones to her classic studs and crafting rings out of rock nuggets. The resulting Stone and Rock collections are inspired by three-dimensional design – from ceramics to furniture and lighting. “[What interests me is] how do you make something that has to serve a purpose, but also is, aesthetically, a fine piece of art,” says Whitaker.
Sophie Monet grew up steeped in the creative energy of LA’s bohemian Venice neighbourhood, riding her bike to the beach where she’d watch her father, sculptor John Okulick, accumulate piles of wood scraps in his local studio. Years later, while studying Fine Arts at The New School, New York, Monet was drawn to experiment with his signature material, crafting it to create contemporary jewellery. “I wanted to learn about my dad and how he worked; I didn’t know that eventually I would want to work with wood full time,” explains Monet who, nine years after the launch of her eponymous brand, still uses it as the basis for her designs.
With collections inspired by everything from a trip to sun-drenched Puglia to the energy of the cosmos, Monet’s artistic flair has found its best expression in Fragments, a collection of wearable reinterpretations of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miróand Alexander Calder artworks. Playing with curvatures, surfaces and thickness, Monet has bent wood into sinuous, S-shaped earrings, smooth oval pendants and undulating ear pieces, creating a shapely and bold collection that encapsulates Venice’s explosive atmosphere and her own artistic background.