Copper in the Arts

November 2014

Erica Weiner Jewelry: Handcrafted in New York

By Paul David

NecklacesErica Weiner Necklaces.

Erica Weiner is a pioneer in the jewelry world. Unlike many large companies, every piece of Erica Weiner Jewelry is sustainably sourced in the US, and handcrafted by local artists.

Tucked away in New York City’s vibrant Nolita neighborhood, her charming store resembles a 1920s curio shop, filled with antique displays and vintage signs. Much like her store, Erica Weiner Jewelry pays homage to the past, but adds a contemporary, eclectic flair.

Inspired by her travels to Morocco, London and throughout the U.S., Weiner  searches for vintage objects which are then reimagined through copper and brass.  Large retro cases house cast relics from a New York City of years gone by, including copper subway tokens on delicate brass chains, and hand cast brass reproductions of an authentic Waldorf Astoria cocktail pin dating back to the 1930s.

“I’ve always been a hunter and a collector, and like many people, I’m obsessed with the past,” says Weiner,“We use a lot of found objects in our designs, and we’re inspired by the imagined story behind these objects.  We try to further that story as we design.” Brooklyn-born, Weiner studied Art History at Vassar College, and after graduation she took on various jobs including a stint in the fashion world and as a costume designer before serendipitously turning her career to jewelry. Completely self taught, Weiner began making jewelry as a way to relieve stress after work, but before long, she had a steady following, and within a year she decided it was time to turn her hobby into her new career.

Erica WeinerErica Weiner in her shop.

One of her most popular found object items is a necklace using a vintage NY City subway token.

She started the company eight years ago with her business partner Lindsey Salmon, making charm-based necklaces and earrings at Weiner’s kitchen table. One of the first pieces Weiner ever designed was a necklace that combined different brass charms.  Every weekend the duo would attend a different area craft fair or flea market—Renegade, Artists and Fleas, the Brooklyn Flea---and they soon started gaining a loyal following in the New York-area and beyond.

“People still come into our stores and tell our employees that they shopped with us way back when,” says Weiner. “It’s incredible.  We’re so grateful.”

Today, Erica Weiner Jewelry has grown into a thriving, sustainable jewelry brand redefining the next generation of designers.

She has two flagship stores located in the Nolita neighborhood of Manhattan, and one in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, as well as a studio in Greenpoint.

Most of their work is designed around found objects.  

“We go shopping for findings and components in New England a few times a year, which was a hub for costume jewelry production up until pretty recently.  Now that most of that manufacturing has moved overseas, there is a lot of ‘dead’ factory stock sitting in storage.  If you hunt hard enough, you can find some astonishing old stuff from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. And 90s, which I guess we’re now adding to the vintage canon.”

“I get a lot of inspiration from everyday ephemera, and the defunct New York City subway tokens that we use for those necklaces are a classic example of an object’s beauty being obscured by its functionality,” says Weiner.  “Tokens used to be so common, but now that they’re no longer in use---they’re fascinating to me.  People have been using coins and currency as jewelry since the beginning of time.  They represent some sort of monetary value, but are also rooted in the place and time that created them.  These subway tokens—which we buy from the MTA!—are like little time capsules from the early 90s, when Times Square was still an open-air smut market, and living in Brooklyn was much less cool than it is now.”

Hand Cast Brass Cocktail Pick JewelryWaldorf Astoria hand cast brass cocktail pick jewelry.

Weiner loves the nostalgic look copper and brass bring to her work.

“We  don’t want our designs to look brand-new—we’re always trying to cultivate a vintage feel, and brass has that aged, slightly worn look,” says Weiner. “These metals are just so warm, and so utilitarian. We also want to offer our designs at accessible prices, and brass enables us to do that.”

Since opening their first retail location in 2012, they’ve introduced intaglio pieces alongside their regular collection. A form of printmaking, Intaglio is the process of creating a reverse image by carving a design on a flat surface.

“Intaglios were usually carved from glass or some sort of chalcedony (agate, sardonyx, carnelian, and the like), and you almost always see them embedded in rings and pendant or fobs,” says Weiner. In ancient Rome, intaglios were functional.  You’d have one carved with your initials or your family crest, which you’d impress into a tiny puddle of wax affixed to letters and important documents.  The need for intaglios decreased as writing implements improved over time, and by the Victorian era, the style was more decorative.  But the Victorians produced some jaw-droppingly cool versions. The messages are often cryptic, and usually employ some sort of symbolic image that plays off the meaning of the text.”

Weiner became so obsessed with collecting antique intaglios that they decided to make their own original version of the Victorian-style intaglio—in brass, of course.  

Earring DisplayEarring display at Erica Weiner.

“It is delightfully simple to make things out of brass, and I would encourage anyone with the time and resources to try it themselves,” says Weiner. “There is some high-tech machinery involved, and we, like almost all jewelers, create sample models which we carve by hand out of wax, or build using a found component (like the cocktail pick that we used to create our Waldorf-Astoria Necklace).”  

The models are then cast in multiples at small, family-run factories in the jewelry district in NYC.  The multiples are returned to Weiner’s Greenpoint studio in their rough, unfinished form, and her team polishes, patinas and assembles the components into the rings and necklaces at the shop.

At a time when many large jewelry companies turn overseas, Weiner intends to keeps it local.

“This is my business, and I like to be hands-on all the time,” says Weiner. “It just wouldn’t be fun or interesting for me to outsource production to a factory overseas where I have no idea what’s going on, and communicate with the manufacturers only over email.  I want to see everything being made, and be as involved as possible at every juncture.  Plus, there are so many resources here.  So many of the vintage components that we use were made domestically, and I’d like to continue that tradition if I can.

NecklacesErica Weiner necklaces.

The future looks bright for Weiner and her crew. There have been talks of expanding their retail presence outside of New York---Los Angeles, Portland, and Chicago have all been thrown around as options.

“When we do make the decision, it will probably be lightning-quick, and come out of some opportunity that we weren’t anticipating.  That’s how we ended up opening our Brooklyn store in 2013—an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up just fell into our laps,” says Weiner. “We also want to expand 1909, which is our fine jewelry line.  It’s inspired by some of our favorite antiques, and it’s all made here in NYC.  And we want to keep offering as much affordable, beautiful jewelry as we possibly can.  

Resources:

Two artisans demonstrate working with brass at Erica Weiner Jewelry

Erica Weiner Jewelry, 173 Elizabeth St, New York, NY, (212) 334-6383

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