Tipplergoods Exclusive: Bourbon & Bijoux
A Discussion with Fine Jewelry Designer Shahla Karimi
By Mr. Reed, Tipplergoods contributer, August 25, 2021
Profile: Shahla Karimi
Profession: Fine Jewelry Designer
Origin: Kentucky/New York
Favorite Cocktail: Bourbon on the rocks 1792
Shahla Karimi is a New York City-based Jewelry designer hailing from Kentucky, the home of “America’s Native Spirit,” Bourbon; which shows in her call drink preferences as well as her drawl after a few pours. Shahla’s wide range of experiences working with major names in music, fashion, and politics, along with her travels abroad have translated to a creative perspective as unique as her shining personality. She has worked diligently on honing her design craft since her entrance into the market in 2015, has become a celebrated name in the world of Fine Jewelry, as both designer and upstart businesswoman. Her stunning creations are heralded as both sentimental momentos and as forward, forged wearable works of art. Her keepsakes are cherished by an impressive list of celebrities and discerning clients wanting to make life’s precious moments tangible and wearable. Her understated and classic designs are inspired by her influences as vast as turn-of-the-century architecture, the Bauhaus movement, Art Deco, and Americana which can all be seen within her Mid-Century collection. She is a self-proclaimed home bar design enthusiast and cocktail connoisseur.
I want to start by asking you about your personal experiences during this challenging time of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was hard at first. For the first few months our production completely shut down. We still had demand, and needed to find a way to deliver. We were able to take orders, but had to let our customers know that instead of two to three weeks it was going to take up to two months. So for the first time in six years, we started reaching out to manufacturing outside of New York. We started working with casters in Montana, West Virginia, Philly, Los Angeles, New Jersey, and even tried doing some pieces Internationally. We were really grateful to be able to continue creating pieces remotely during lockdown. But I’m happy to say we’re now back to production in NYC 100%!
I live in Brooklyn, and at the time had about a thirty-minute commute to my showroom in Manhattan. Once lockdown began, my commute time was shortened to the 10 seconds it took me to get from my bed to my desk. I have a two-year-old son, Mads. In the midst of everything going on in the world, I got to slow down and spend a lot more time with him. And I was super appreciative of that. Ultimately, I decided to move our showroom from Manhattan to a space in Brooklyn close to my home once restrictions began to lift. So now I get to spend a little extra time with my family every day, where I would’ve been commuting before. Every minute counts at that age, ya know?
Around the same time that we moved, couples started coming out of the woodwork, getting married and getting engaged; needing to host more intimate events. Big weddings are still not as doable as before, so they were and still are highly focused on design. In that same way, my husband and I realized we needed to focus more on our own home interior, including a home bar at the top of the list, since we would likely be stuck inside all winter. So we did some shopping for bar stools, glassware, and some new design elements.
Can you tell us where you see the crossover when it comes to designing a home bar and a piece of jewelry? The elements are a reflection of personality and lifestyle that are to be shared with others, and ultimately must satisfy the owner's own tastes.
I tend to think of hollow-wear, furniture, and jewelry all in terms of sculpture, just on different scales. Georg Jenson and Tom Dixon are two of my favorite designers - they focus on high material, playing with proportion and pared-down forms. I often see a pendant, light, chair, or vase that I think could be a great ring or earring and visa versa. I see jewelry everywhere!
How much should one consider fashion and function when making design choices?
It depends on your budget, really. You don’t have to choose one over the other, but I have found it typically costs more to get both in one piece. Function in bar/home design AND jewelry design means comfort and durability. When fine material intersects form, it costs more for the thought behind the design, craftsmanship in production and raw materials.
Photo by Chloé Pitterson
Looking at your bar, I see you’re a big fan of Bourbon Whiskey.
Well, my drink of choice is bourbon on the rocks for sure. My favorite bourbon is 1792. So that’s usually my go-to. I would say, “it pairs with everything.” I’m big on pairing. I’ve found myself back in the kitchen, cooking more, so that my whiskey doesn’t get lonely. [laughing] We’ve all been eating more comfort food I think since the pandemic started. It’s the stuff I grew up eating. I call it “Persian Fusion”. I’m part Persian but I grew up in Kentucky. So it’s like, how can we make Persian food more unhealthy? Like adding fried chicken with rice, and like adding yogurt with anything.
Okay, now I can hear your Kentucky drawl coming out. Are there any Persian and/or Kentuckian influences that can be found in the design language in your work or in your home?
I’ve been to Iran a couple of times. But I wouldn't say my designs are heavily influenced by my visits or heritage. Persian designs are more ornate than any of my jewelry or personal housewares and decor. It's all about mosaics with Persian designs. They do things with tiny pieces of stone placed in wood, whereas both my jewelry and anything in my home is much more streamlined and kind of mod; a little Bauhaus. In my jewelry I tend to do a lot of solitaires, paring it down to the metal and the stone. These pieces are more so inspired by architecture in Kentucky. We have buildings by Phillip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Speaking to my Persian influence, I use a lot of Persian stone shapes. Pears, baguettes, and marquise are all shapes that are largely used in Persian jewelry. I pair and refashion those shapes into more comfortable designs. And I suppose this aesthetic carries over into my living space quite a bit.
What was it like moving to New York City from Down South?
I moved here right after college. My mom drove me to New York and dropped me off with a laundry basket in Times Square, and said, “Call me when you’re ready to come home”. No, Seriously! It was 2004, so it was pretty easy to get a job and hard to find an apartment. So I got a job right away and ended up couch-surfing for a month. I ended up moving into an apartment on Wall Street...the cheapest place to live in the city at that time, post 9/11. So I ended up going back to school at NYU, for design, and I knew right away I was never leaving. I did try to go to San Francisco knowing I was going to come back. I lasted six months and knew my home was New York. There is no other city like it. It definitely influences design. You’re around creatives all of the time that just don’t stop creating. There is definitely more of a work-work culture here. So it’s really nice when you can actually get a moment to relax at home in more of a live-work environment. [laughs]
After studying at NYU did you immediately begin to work in corporate America? How did you find yourself working within the field of jewelry?
I’ve always worked in product, for the most part. I started working in the music industry doing digital product design & merchandising. I worked on all things that were not the album itself. We did jewelry and softgoods. We started to integrate technology when I was with Warner Music Group. Then I got drafted to go to the Obama campaign where I became the head of merchandise.
I went from only working on product and production to working the entire life cycle of a product. From ideation to producing the product in the U.S., to then having to market that product, and work with the warehouse to fulfill it; and then do pop-ups. What I did there is exactly what I do here, it’s just a different product.
Alongside all of this, I had been taking technical jewelry classes while working in product. After the campaign, I started consulting, and shortly after that, I started doing what became my jewelry business. I thought it was going to be three months full-time but once I started, I dedicated myself to it. I’ve done that for the last six years and that is all I ever plan to do.
Where did your love for architecture and design come from?
I think it started with my Dad. He does work in landscape architecture, but growing up it was something he did as a hobby. In Kentucky a lot of people have land. We had a 1,000 square foot house, he took it to 5,000 square feet with his own bare hands. That was something he would usually have me involved with. He said I had perfect grout fingers, so he would make me lay tile. I loved doing stuff with my hands, he taught me about different types of wood, different types of tiling, and stones. That is definitely where I started to learn about stones, even where my jewelry came from. This has nothing to do with architecture, but Persian children are covered in gold jewelry…gold wasn’t expensive in the 80’s, so I grew up wearing a ton of jewelry. My ears were pierced at two weeks old.
Your studio is based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and you studied at the famed 3rd Ward, which was a major influencer on the craft and DIY art & business scene of the early 2000’s-2010’s. Several French movements in art have influenced American art movements both in jewelry design and architectural design. I'm a collector of vintage Bulova watches particularly from the 1920’s through the 1960’s. Some of these pieces reference Art-Nouveau, Surrealism, Expressionism, but in particular, a reference seen in your work is Art Deco. How has the Art Deco movement influenced your jewelry design?
Who are some of your influences on the design front?
My favorite designers are KatKim (Katherine Kim), Mociun (Caitlin Mociun), and Selin Kent, check out her stuff. It's amazing. Selin and I became friends, we ended up starting a showroom together, called AU Showroom, which I only just left after the pandemic because we can’t be in a shared setting anymore. But definitely, Selin was a huge influence, her stuff is super architectural, and sophisticated. She pays attention to every detail. So if you look at Selin, KatKim, Mociun, you’ll see common lines of geometry. I think the three of them are just the most talented people in the space.
If you were speaking to someone at the beginning of this entire process of pursuing their dream of becoming a designer of jewelry or fashion or anything, what kind words would you share to encourage them?
A lot of people that work in jewelry are either coming from a family in the business or they’re coming from money, and I came from neither. This was completely bootstrapped. I never had a business class in my life. I joke that my first year I paid for a Harvard education because that is how much money I lost. I was lucky enough to have saved money from being a consultant to start my business. I started my business later in life when I was 32 and was lucky enough to have saved money from being a consultant to start my business now. 100 percent, if I can do it, anybody can do it. I made a lot of mistakes. I learned from everything. I made huge mistakes going into a showroom, paying people to do things before I tried doing it myself. Fashion is really scary; I didn’t come from that world. It was intimidating. People were making me cry, and I don’t cry. Within the first couple months, I had several people bring me to my knees crying. I was making good money at my previous job. It was like, “What am I doing?” It was little wins as I went that kept me going. I didn’t start with fine jewelry, I started with silver and vermeil. Now I feel great and confident about it. It took years to get there. It’s typical for people to feel like they’re not good enough. To feel like, “I just want to give up.” It is just a game to stay in it as long as you can. The people who don’t give up are the people who make it. And umm… I had a lot of help from my old friend, bourbon. [wink]
Shahla Karimi Jewelry designs can be purchased online at ShahlaKarimi.com and Instagram @shahlakarimijewelry. The unique collections mentioned may also be purchased directly via the links within this article.
Interview conducted by guest contributor, Mr. Reed
Mr. Reed is an internationally touring musician and writer based in Brooklyn, NY.