Copper in the Arts

February 2013

Where Beauty Meets Eco-Chic: Wearable Works of Art by Natalie Frigo

By Courtney H. Diener-Stokes

Copper Bracelet Recycled brass triangle cuff bracelet.

Photograph courtesy of Natalie Frigo

Eco-minded and fashion focused, the work of sustainable jewelry artist Natalie Frigo has been gaining the attention of collectors and high end consumers across the globe since she began her line of handcrafted wearable art in 2009. Using recycled metals and ethically claimed gemstones, each piece is handmade and created in her Lower East side studio in New York City.

Her frequent visits to the city's museums have been a great influence on her work.

"Sometimes when I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I think the old jewelry and artifacts you see are so beautiful and I think, why is this not sold at Neiman Marcus?," Frigo says. "It's perfect just the way it is."

Frigo finds inspiration in the past, which adds a classic twist to her modern style of wearable art.

"It is a modern interpretation of something ancient," she says of her work. "What seems to happen to me is two or three times a year I'll see something randomly and it will really move me. Mycenaean or something - Native American - Art Deco. One piece and it starts my research into things similar to that."

She describes the origin of her sphinx-inspired designs she launched for the holiday season.

"I found a pottery shard of an Etruscan sphinx on it. That launched into an investigation about pottery and pattern," Frigo says.

Natalie in her studio Natalie at work in her studio.

Photograph courtesy of Natalie Frigo

The next part of her creative process involves sketches, but they aren't set in stone.

"It is free form and it is a creative process," she says. "When it is in 3-D I can see if it will happen in a different way and I might be inspired to do something different."

Despite different objects or patterns that have influenced her line, Frigo says they all end up having a similar aesthetic.

This February marks the third year of Natalie Frigo's line by the same name, now carried in 38 stores including the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and the clothing boutiques Albertine, located in New York City and A Squared, located in West Palm Beach, Florida. Her work has also been featured in Vogue, Marie Claire, Elle and Glamour, among other publications in the U.S. and abroad.

Frigo navigated her way to jewelry design indirectly by getting a Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago which led her to specializing in interdisciplinary installations and the making of short films.

After graduation, when she was working for a graphic designer and continuing short film projects on the side, she started incorporating another passion project into her life.

"I started making jewelry for fun because I love it," she says. "People responded to it."

Her husband, Eric Werner, 44, convinced her to focus on jewelry making full-time.

copper ring Ring made with 18kt gold over brass with an African garnet and white sapphires.

Photograph courtesy of Natalie Frigo

In 2010, she launched her own line that was comprised of 45 to 50 pieces.

"I made them in six months," Frigo says, of her ambitious deadline to launch her line at the JA New York National Jeweler wholesale show. "If you told me I had to do that today, I'm not sure I could I could do it."

To create each piece in her line, Frigo carves her jewelry out of wax at her studio located in New York's Lower East Side, a process known as lost-wax casting or cire perdue.

"I have it hand cast by a caster in New York City who uses recycled metals," Frigo says of the next step.

The end assembly involves finishers who help bring the rest of the components together to complete each piece.

"I have some very talented finishers who do my metalsmithing," she says. "They do the polishing, stone setting and completing metal work - soldering."

Frigo obtains her "ethically sourced" stones through three gem dealers, two located in New York City and the other in Vancouver, Washington.

She shares the pleasure she finds in coming across unusual stones.

Copper necklace Necklace made with recycled brass with white sapphire and fresh water pearls.

Photograph courtesy of Natalie Frigo

"It's exciting when you see one that you've never seen before," Frigo says. "A color or a certain cut."

Rock crystal, pyrite "fool's gold", green stones and pearls are among her favorite stones with which to work.

"People respond to a particular type of stone for a particular reason in a very emotional way," she says.

In some cases there is a bigger demand than some of Frigo's pieces can support.

"Because I'm a smaller jewelry company, some of the stones I use you wouldn't be able to find thousands of them," she says, which limits the number of jewels she can create with the stones.The gem dealers Frigo uses know how the stones are mined.

In addition, "They know what the conditions are in the stone cutting factory," she says.

Frigo learned many harsh realizations when she started designing jewelry.

"Someone will not be treated fairly for something that is beautiful and that is just not right," Frigo says. "I realized the way jewelry is made can be toxic. I didn't want to be a part of that."

Research led her to the use of recycled metals to enable her to have a more sustainable approach to how she creates her jewelry.

"If you use recycled metal you create almost zero footprint," Frigo says.

When Frigo first launched her line she was working in almost all silver, gold and vermeil until a year and a half ago.

"I cast something in brass to make a model of it. When I got the casting back in brass I loved it. To me it looked like 10K or 14K gold. I have really fallen in love with the color of brass."

Now, half of her line is made using brass. A matt finish is her signature look.

"That makes it look really ancient," she says.

Each piece Frigo creates can stand on its own as a true work of art.

"My favorite piece is the triangle cuff -- to me it feels like a sculpture when you wear it."

Resources:

Natalie Frigo, New York, NY, (347) 249-4601

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