Photos courtesy of Janky Jewels, MGN by Megan and Maimoun

Screwing with jewelry: the designers making playful pendants for summer

Brooke Callahan, Emma Pryde, Janky Jewels and MGN by Megan draw on childhood crafts and mall-era talismans to create whimsical jewels that spark joy.

by Zoë Kendall
11 August 2021, 8:00am

Photos courtesy of Janky Jewels, MGN by Megan and Maimoun

Here we are, squarely at the centerpoint of post-vax summer. We’ve (finally) had the chance to flaunt our revenge outfits at our favorite spots. We’ve got the clothes down: ‘going out’ dresses, crochet and sexy knits galore. But how are we accessorizing them? With eye-catching, head-turning jewelry, of course.

Just like this season’s clothing, SS21 jewelry is all about play — with a quarantine-inflected DIY wink. This summer we’re swapping out (and stepping up) our core pieces — the silver hoops, chain necklaces and signet rings of seasons past — for the jewels of our quarantine dreams. Pieces that not only make a statement but elicit a smile or start a conversation. Eschewing the stuffy conventions of traditional fine jewelry, a new generation of designers are drawing upon childhood crafts, mall-era talismans and lockdown hobbyism to create jewels that spark joy. Think tchotchke-esque pendants, oozing silver settings, irregular pearls, massive flowers and crystalline butterflies.

Here, i-D speaks with Brooke Callahan, Emma Pryde, Janky Jewels’ Carol Li and MGN by Megan about how they got their start and the inspirations behind their coveted whimsical pieces.

two models eating a pastry in janky jewels
Photography Rachel Filler for Carrousel Dreams
two models wearing necklaces by janky jewels
Photography Lula Hyers

Janky Jewels

Jeweler Carol Li wears many hats: fine artist, writer, Scorpio. She’s also the founder of Janky Jewels, a Brooklyn-based jewelry label inspired by the essence of “the tchotchke.”

What drew you to jewelry as a fashion category?
I grew up with a heavy influence from my father, who’s a jeweler and works in New York’s Diamond District. When I was a teenager, I worked summer jobs for jewelry companies and, as a young adult, I worked for jewelry designers like Susan Alexandra and Lizz Jardim, who were incredible mentors to me. Technically, I’ve made jewelry my entire life, but I started really honing in on it when I began understanding my visual art practice during undergrad.

What’s the concept behind Janky Jewels?
The label’s concept stems from integrating sculpture, object and costume jewelry together using hardware and precious materials like glass, stone and pearl, all while thinking about tchotchkes. I draw inspiration from toy claw machines and the kitsch appeal of the Coney Island boardwalk. I also like deconstructing the traditional silhouettes of fine jewelry, and paying homage to contemporary cultural symbols like the tramp stamp or the alt adaptation of the cross necklace.

What does jewelry mean to you?
For me, jewelry is and has always been a sacred form of protection via adornment. Across centuries and cultures, jewelry is the ultimate form of functional art. Studies have shown that wearing gold jewelry can actually provide health benefits. And wearing precious stones, like crystals and pearls, is a borrowed medicinal philosophy from ancient cultures. I try to enact that ethos in my practice, thinking about the use of symbolism and historical references in the pieces I create. I also view jewelry as a language in itself. As I observed my immigrant father interact with his fellow immigrant colleagues in the Diamond District, I saw that he understood jewelry better than he understood English.

You describe your jewels as “janky.” What does this mean to you?
Labelling my jewels as “janky” is definitely something I debate with myself. At the beginning, they were, essentially, janky, both in concept and in function. They were repurposed toys, industrial hardware and random findings. Some have lasted throughout the years and some have fallen apart. As the brand grew, I felt myself drifting away from that idea of “janky-ness” and adopting a more conceptualized version of the term. I’m not a formally trained jeweler and I came into jewelry from a fine artist’s perspective. I think what differentiates me from most jewelers — and what is categorically janky about my jewelry — is that I’m not necessarily focused on perfection. 

a hand holding up a beaded necklace by brook callahan
a model wearing a flower charm necklace by brooke callahan

Brooke Callahan

Brooke Callahan became obsessed with beads during a trip to Italy, right before the pandemic hit. After being laid off from her PR job during quarantine, she started creating playful jewels from beads sourced around the world.

How did you start designing jewelry?
Jewelry is definitely something I fell into. On vacation in Italy at the end of 2019, I found these incredible flower beads at a glass blower’s studio. I was obsessed and had never seen anything like them, and I knew I had to bring them home for my friends to wear. I soon started off selling earrings and pendants, but I feel like I really hit my stride when I started making beaded necklaces with big flowers. 

Could you walk me through how you make your pieces?
Sourcing beads from around the world is a big part of my day-to-day. I have so much fun sourcing beads for my jewelry; I always feel like I’m finding little treasures. Since being able to travel again, my favorite part of my trips is getting to visit the cities’ bead stores. It’s a much more sustainable shopping addiction for me! I also spend a lot of time watching YouTube tutorials to learn new wire techniques and looking for inspiration from vintage jewelry in books or on Google Images.

Your chunky flower beads are definitely your signature. What drew you to these pieces?
I’ve always been drawn to the flower motif. I used to make pretty similar necklaces when I took jewelry classes as a kid. I even have photos of myself wearing a beaded necklace with a giant pink mother-of-pearl hibiscus on a childhood vacation in Hawaii!

What does jewelry mean to you?
I want my jewelry to be as expressive as possible. I’ve never really had that core, daily jewelry collection that a lot of people have: simple gold rings, tiny sterling hoops. To me, jewelry is an add-on and not technically necessary, so if I’m making the choice to wear it, I think it should be loud!

side profile of a model wearing knife earrings by emma pryde
a model wearing jewelry and earrings by emma pryde

Emma Pryde

An extension of her artistic practice, which involves sculpting and painting, jeweler Emma Pryde creates ethereal, “astral baroque” jewels from laser-cut acrylic.

How did you start designing jewelry?
I’m an artist, mostly working in sculpture and painting. I fell into jewelry unintentionally. I was working on some laser-cut acrylic sculptures and began cutting little butterflies and lambs out of scrap acrylic pieces I didn’t want to waste. I started wearing the lambs on earrings and it evolved from there. I was drawn to jewelry because of its scale and experimental nature. It can be small but still feel significant, and there are endless possibilities for pieces.

What’s the concept behind your pieces?
I try to create work that implies a certain type of atmosphere. I’m inspired by many things, from figurines to architecture, mystery cults and the reflection of the sky on the water. Jewelry can transform someone’s mood. It also has a protective element. I’d describe my new collection as “astral baroque”.

In addition to being a jewelry designer, you’re also a visual artist. Do you consider jewelry to be a form of art, akin to painting and sculpture?I find that the two practices fulfill different emotional needs. Jewelry moves through the physical world in a way that’s more fluid, where the pieces are given life by the people who wear them. So much of my painting and sculpture work takes place in a mental space that’s more solitary. I like being able to oscillate between the various practices.

Is there a piece of jewelry you’ve made that’s especially meaningful to you?
There are a couple of pieces I’ve made that friends have really turned into their own. The pieces become meaningful when they go beyond their original context and are absorbed into someone’s personal style. I love seeing the jewelry out in the world.

MGN credit Maimoun.png
Photo courtesy of MGN by Megan and Maimoun
a hand holding necklaces and rings beside earrings by MGN by Megan

MGN by Megan

Inspired by the designer’s personal metamorphosis, MGN by Megan’s jewels spark joy with dazzling lab-grown stones and free-flowing metalwork.

How did you start designing jewelry?
I started designing jewelry in search of a different life and to escape my traumatic past as a disgraced advertising executive. My mum worked as a jeweler when I was a kid, so I decided to enroll in a jewelry-making course. I was immediately taken with it: working with my hands was so calming and making pieces that would last for ages was such a rewarding feeling.

What’s the concept behind your label?
I’d been put on anti-depressants and my life transitioned from this self-sabotaging corporate spiral into a state of calm. It was springtime and colors seemed more vivid. I spotted flowers everywhere I went and craved the feeling of sun on my skin. My eyes were drawn to these amazing fluorescent lab-created stones and I started centering my work around them. Unintentionally, I think my work is a reflection of that kind of synthetic joyfulness: the medication that changed my outlook and the intensely vivid stones were both lab-created. I’m grateful for both, but feeling more grounded now.

How would you describe the look and feel of your jewelry?
Strange and fanciful! I draw a lot of inspiration from classical antique jewelry silhouettes and apply more modernist, free-flowing metal work to them, which I think creates an interesting fusion of two opposing styles.

What does jewelry mean to you?
I think jewelry’s a reflection of what we value. Married people wear rings to mark their devotion; the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills wear diamonds to signal wealth and status; people buy pieces as gifts to celebrate life events. I love it; it’s fluid and sentimental, morphing itself to us and our changing values.

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Screwing with Fashion