Designer Profile: Katrina LaPenne

Katrina LaPenne

Katrina LaPenne

by Julia Cardi

Katrina LaPenne has an artist’s eye for jewelry, which means that her designs transcend trends and expendability. Her penchant for tangible luxury gives Katrina’s fine-jewelry line a staying power that will keep the pieces in your jewelry box long after you’ve disposed of the Lucite bangles and wannabe-Tiffany necklaces.

This Artist Profile takes me to Brooklyn again, this time to a decidedly industrial section of Greenpoint, on the first sunny day that really breaks free from winter’s stubborn grip. Katrina meets me outside her studio, red hair clamped on top of her head and spilling curls in every direction.

During our chat, she speaks with animated passion about her work, jumping from her seat often to show me different details of her process. She’s incredibly personable and has the quintessential down-to-earth manner of a small designer.

Katrina hails from Brooklyn and is a Big Apple lifer, having returned to the city after studying at the Rhode Island School of Design. Like so many college kids, she had no idea what she wanted to do at first. “You get to school and you’re like, ‘Oh, I need to get a job…I don’t know how I’m going to pay off my student loans with this,” Katrina reminisces about her fine-arts education, with an on-point bemused lilt to her voice.

She ended up taking a jewelry-making class. “I had a little bit of experience in steel sculpture and metal smithing, but not in small-scale jewelry stuff. So I took a class and it was fantastic; I loved it. I loved the scale of it and working with a blow torch and all that kind of stuff. So I just changed my major almost immediately, and I’ve been making jewelry ever since.”

For someone who claims she had no idea which direction to take at the beginning of school, Katrina has forged an arguably focused path for herself. She worked as a goldsmith for swanky Reinstein/Ross, a jewelry store in Manhattan’s Upper East Side that makes all its pieces in-house, for five years after college. Katrina started her own line two years into that gig.

She gives me a quick overview of the impressively labor-intensive process of making each piece by hand: “I make all the pieces myself, either directly in metal or I carve them in wax. So the latest collection I did, I carved all the pieces in wax first. And then I get them cast and make multiples from the mold.”

Carved wax models

Carved wax models

“I can show you,” Katrina replies readily when I inquire about the consistency of the wax she works with, hopping from her chair to retrieve a few impossibly fragile-looking carvings, a ring and a model cat. “It seems really delicate, but it’s really hard wax, and I use really sharp little tools. It’s a reduction process; you just take away the wax. Once it’s done, I get a mold made and then I can make it in different materials.” She demonstrates shaving away the wax (incredibly) tiny bits at a time with her precise tools, a process so painstaking it’s a wonder she can sit still long enough.

The conversation turns to Katrina’s inspirations, often pulled from architectural details or patterns in nature. “I guess people say that a lot,” she concedes. Maybe, but I point out that everyone has their own way of relating to their subject and seeing something different in it. For her “Twist” collection, she looked to ancient Viking and Nordic jewelry. “To make it” – she motions to a few bangles and rings on the table – “I forged the silver by hand here in the studio. I tapered it – you start out with a wire, hammer out the edges and then twist them, heat it all up and twist them again.”

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I ask whether she separates her work into distinct seasonal collections. No, she explains with a sigh, because it’s too fast-paced, with too many costs involved. “It takes me a while to decide what I want to make and then do it…It’s a lot of production work. I like to make everything by hand. Even when I get stuff cast, I bring it back [to the studio] and finish it myself.”

“Talon” pendant

For much the same reason, Katrina isn’t one for trendy jewelry either; I point out that we’ve seen a lot of edgy fine jewelry lately. She’s much happier doing what interests her rather than trying to follow trends. “When I love what I’m doing, [it’s because] I’m just making stuff that I want to make,” Katrina explains matter-of-factly. Because of the longevity a piece of precious jewelry has and the craft it requires, she brings up an interesting point of dichotomy between it and fashion trends. “I also came to it through the art aspect, so the whole idea of seasons was a new thing to me. It didn’t even occur to me to follow trends and make disposable stuff, [because] I didn’t come into making jewelry through the fashion aspect of it, so I had to learn all that. And really high-end fine jewelry doesn’t really do seasons.”

“I do a lot of engagement rings and custom work too, so for me it doesn’t seem to make sense to do it that way. I think a lot of jewelry designers, if they’re not doing just seasonal fashions, do a lot of engagement rings and things like that.” Katrina likes doing such custom pieces – it’s a steady way to sustain her business, because as she puts it, “everyone gets married.”

In fact, Katrina just tied the knot herself last summer, flushing a happy pink when she tells me. I ask (only half-jokingly) whether she made her own ring. She didn’t – not the engagement ring, at least – but rather chose an exquisite antique art-deco-style sparkler and made a delicate band to complement it. She generously hands me both rings, and I reach for them greedily, examining them in envious awe before snapping back to reality.

Deco-style rings inspired by her own vintage engagement ring, from left to right:

Deco-style rings inspired by her own vintage engagement ring, from left to right: “Gatsby”, “Ella”, “Sunrise”, “Flapper”

The pairing inspired her to design her own collection of art-deco-inspired rings. “I made all of these so you can wear a ring flush next to it,” she explains, referring again to her engagement and wedding bands. “I recognize that a lot of people really want to wear their band right next to their ring.”

Katrina says she really likes working with rose-cut diamonds, using them for clients who want more unusual engagement rings, because of their variety of colors, shapes and sizes. She shows me a few rings set with the stones, flat on the bottom and faceted on top, in an array of subtle hues.

“Old World” rings using rose-cut diamonds

Like so many modern entrepreneurs, Katrina makes sure her materials come from ethical sources, and mainly uses stone dealers in the city. “Most of the rose-cut diamonds come from India, and you can buy the regular diamonds from conflict-free sources too. The metal for stuff that’s custom I buy from Hoover and Strong, an environmentally-friendly refiner. So almost all the metal I use is recycled, and the caster I use uses recycled metal too, so they aren’t being mined.” These types of possibilities in a fine-jewelry line further the emerging revelation that socially-conscious manufacturing isn’t merely a trend, limited in scope to unwieldy hemp textiles and impactful but unglamorous recyclable plastic bottles.

Interestingly, Katrina doesn’t wear a lot of jewelry herself, a common thread I’ve noticed among jewelry designers as of late. “I like doing a lot of outdoor stuff,” she explains. “So I end up not wearing jewelry a lot of the time, like when I’m hiking. I have a small backyard and a garden, so I’m out there a lot in my free time.”

Showing just how much I have to learn about New York yet, I’m admittedly a little surprised at this tidbit – such interests seem more characteristic of those in my native Colorado. Speaking of which, I finally get around to asking Katrina how she got connected to Goldyn. “Vanessa had contacted me when she was doing the drop-ship before the store opened. I’m not sure how she found me, but it seemed like an awesome opportunity, and I really liked everything she had picked out otherwise in terms of stuff in the store. She’s great to work with – everyone at Goldyn is really nice. Which I value.”

“Snake” ring

“Snake” bangle

I ask the inevitable question about her business’s future growth. “I think I’m always trying to take it as it comes,” she says with a laugh, but overall she prefers small, independently-owned boutiques. “I find that it’s a much more pleasant experience than trying to deal with bigger retailers. Not to say that if that opportunity came along I wouldn’t do it, but right now, this is working for me.”

Click here to shop Goldyn’s collection of Katrina LaPenne jewelry, including styles featured in this piece.

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