by Julia Cardi
With our joint trunk show for Unearthen Jewelry and OLO Fragrance happening at Goldyn tomorrow, July 16th, I caught Unearthen’s designer Gia Bahm for a few questions. One of the shop’s newest jewelry additions, the line already looks right at home in Goldyn with the decidedly raw aesthetic of its funky, cool-chick pieces.
With a collection ranging from bestselling bullet-and-crystal pendants to chakra pendulum necklaces filled with essential-oil fragrances, I was eager to pick the brain of the designer behind Unearthen’s visually arresting designs, and Gia did not disappoint. At the heart of her inspirations is a relatable childlike exuberance for the brilliance of the gemstones she uses; during our conversation, she often gushed in superlatives about their moving beauty. I found her enthusiasm, combined with a genuine belief in the energies inherent her materials, infectious. Below she traces her unlikely introduction into making jewelry with no formal training, her favorite stones of the moment, and why getting ripped off needn’t be a designer’s worst nightmare.
On her design process and how it influences her raw, earthy aesthetic…
I think my process of discovering how to make jewelry was a huge part of it. I’m very particular about my designs and I felt as though making everything in wax was the best way for me to have things look the way I wanted them to, rather than making them on a computer and sending them [out] and then seeing them in real life – it’s really hard for me to not have that connection of holding [something] in my hands. I’m definitely a really hands-on person.
I think also my lack of having been taught a certain way by someone really helped me to just be really creative about [the way] I would think about how something would sit in a setting. I mean, a lot of settings that we make – we have a jeweler in our studio that sets all our stones and does all of our production, basically, and she’s really unconventional as well – I’ve worked with several jewelers who just couldn’t even wrap their minds around how the stone would actually stay in the setting, because it just made no sense to them. Which is funny, because it totally works – it’s just a different way of doing [things] that wasn’t put into their minds by their training. So that’s a huge part of my process – just sitting with things and thinking about how they could be different, exciting and new; pushing the envelope in a different direction.
I really like it when things have more than one function; for instance, the pendulum necklaces that hold the perfume, the watches that have crystals on top, even the first thing [I made], the bullet with the crystal. It’s kind of been a theme that I try to think about and invent new ways to carry that idea. I love when a design can function on a number of different planes – like when something is a really cool, say, stepping stool, but it can also be a chair (laughs).
On the conception of the bullet pendant and how it led to the start of Unearthen…
[The bullet pendant] was how I started the company. I had never really gotten into crystals that much or anything; I was a real punk rocker in high school, and then got into fashion a little bit later.
But I had a friend that was in town [in New York], and she wanted to go look at crystals for, I don’t know, her hormone balance or something. At Madison and 34th there was this little crystal store that was very fancy and really well-organized; it didn’t have that hippie-crunchie-patchouli feeling. I remember thinking it was like being in a museum, kind of. It was just totally intriguing to me…it became this really fun library that I could go to all the time. So I got really into it and would learn about things – the way the structures of the crystals formed, the different categories of barrels, ways they all can grow differently, why they’re colored certain ways because of rust or whatever sediment.
So I just started collecting [crystals]. At the store there was one set in a tube, and I thought, That could be a bullet casing. That would be trippy! [It was] exactly what I’m talking about – this duality of taking something and making it function in a different way. So I went to the army-navy surplus store and got one of those keychains I had in high school when I was a punk (laughs), and pulled out the fake bullet and put some of my crystals in there. I thought, I have to make these, so I started making them for my friends, and people really liked them.
I was at the age where I thought it was the time to start something for myself. I had two goals; I wanted to be in Barneys and I wanted Opening Ceremony to be my showroom, and both those things happened right away.
[The bullet pendant] has definitely been our biggest-selling jewelry piece still to this day, which is great considering how much it’s been knocked off and how it’s now just considered a style rather than one of my [unique] designs. At first, it was really upsetting to me because it was the only thing I had ever designed, and I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to make anything else, but then it really pushed me to think of other things, which is so important. So the watches were next, then the Prism Rings, and it just really blew up from there and expanded.
I’d love to know more about the pendulum necklaces which correspond to different chakras. Can you talk a little bit about the concept of chakras, and then also about how the different necklaces and their fragrances embody them?
I worked with another company when we made those, and she really specialized in knowing about what different essential oils went with certain chakras. So I kind of left it up to her to do that part of it.
I picked the stones based on my research – a lot of it is color-based. Your crown is a bright white color; your third eye is a purple; your throat is a soothing blue, so you could use turquoise or lapis – we’ve done both. We have amethyst as the third eye. We had selenite for a little while as the crown, but selenite’s very fragile, and now we have it as howlite. The heart one can be green, but we also like the idea of it being rose quartz, because it’s such a heart-healing stone. Then there’s your solar plexus, which is kind of a bright orangey color, and your sacral, which is red, and then your root, which is black. I think it can maybe be brown or something too – it’s just your base; your rooted chakra.
I love the throat one – I think that one’s really cool because a lot of people have a hard time communicating, and so that’s a nice one to carry with you to help you through that. Your heart [chakra] is obviously really good; people always are feeling heartbreak or trying to work on their relationships, and that’s a really nice reminder.
They’re all reminders, kind of in the same way as astrology – life is going to be what you make it, ultimately. And things can always change…So you can carry this thing with you that will remind you of that, and help you set your intention and manifest whatever it is you want in your life. So I hope the things I make help people do that. I believe that crystals are really magical things; how they’re just made in the Earth.
To clarify, the chakras have to do with balancing different energies within the body, so to speak?
Yeah, ways to strengthen them. It’s not like at all times, every chakra is having a problem. Usually you’re going through something with one of them. If you ever have anyone do work on your chakras, they’ll usually pick one, or maybe a couple; when I’ve had people do that for me it’s just been one. So it’s good to have something that will help with that one thing.
Speaking to the properties of different stones, do you have any favorite ones you like to put in your designs because of their qualities or history?
I love clear quartz. I think it’s so pretty; it catches light in this really beautiful way, and can look really fancy. And the way that it forms – all the little shapes of it are so cool. We have names for all [the stones], and we call [quartz] the “Mental Massage”, just because it’s for all-purpose healing. It helps you focus, or interpret your dreams; it’s just a very soothing stone.
I really love malachite. It’s really beautiful…it’s a marble-y green with white in it, that you don’t really see in any other stone.
Amethyst is so beautiful, especially Veracruz amethyst…that one is this really bright, clear purple. It has a quality of quartz, because it’s in the same family. It kind of grows in the same way. The stones that I’m most obsessed with right now, and also seem like they’re the most popular with everyone else, are the really sparkly ones which are so fun and gorgeously mind-blowing.
We also started making a lot of stuff with little tiny geodes that are sliced in half – it’s like a little pod, almost. It just looks like a rock on the outside, and then you slice it open and there’s tons of little sparkly crystals and all these layers of color. They remind me of being a kid and getting one from a rock store…and [discovering] a whole little world in there. Pretty much our whole new holiday collection is [things like] geodes and opals.
We [also] used this quartz that is enhanced with platinum. They put it into a vacuum and inject platinum into it, and it sticks to the quartz permanently and turns this really opalescent, beautiful rainbow-y white color. It’s really wild. People seem really attracted to it; it’s so sparkly and light-feeling. It’s definitely more light stones I’ve been attracted to lately, rather than the darker side of things. (chuckles)
Are there any origin stories behind specific pieces you’d like to share?
The first time I carved anything in wax was when I made the prism rings, and I had this idea that I wanted it to look like it was braided hair. I had just moved to LA and didn’t have that many good casters or contacts yet here, so I was trying to figure out how I could take some sort of reed or horsehair or [other] natural thing and braid it and have it turn out exactly the way it was in my mind. And I had to cast so many things – I even went to Jo-Ann Fabrics and went through their fake-flower aisle and picked out whatever grasses and tried to braid those. Everything just wasn’t working.
So that’s when I thought I needed to just carve it in wax. It seemed crazy and intricate and like it would take me forever. But I got wax and I sat at the kitchen table and started carving it, and it was just the coolest feeling. I’ve never been so happy in my life…It just was there all of a sudden – exactly what I wanted it to look like in my brain, but better because it was in my hand and I was able to really see it. It was a really cool moment for me that changed everything. It’s so interesting how life is when you think something’s really hard and you’re trying all these ways around it that seem easier, but really the easiest thing is just to do it. And then to have such a great result was just such a nice affirmation.
Can you describe the type of customer who you imagine to wear your jewelry?
It’s hard for me to pinpoint age, because I have a lot of older-lady clients who are just the coolest chicks who wear Unearthen, and younger people too. But maybe 25-55 is the range we typically see.
I think it’s the kind of person that whether she might want to be married, or want to have kids, or she already has those things, she’s doing things in her own way…just someone that’s really open and artistic and doing things a little bit differently, and appreciating that – having a really savvy, refined cultural identity; well-read and well-traveled. She’s probably in a creative professional field.
Overall, she has a happy, healthy lifestyle – interested in food; if she drinks, she loves wine. Maybe she’s into gardening. I see her as not necessarily religious, but spiritual – she believes in the powers of the universe.
I think her lifestyle is also a little bit about juxtaposition. She’s affluent, but not materialistic. She’s in tune with trends, but likes to pick and choose to create her own style and resists categorization. She’ll follow the rules when they seem relevant, but when she doesn’t she does it gracefully and not just for the sake of breaking rules. She may be focused on building her nest at home, but hankers to travel. She’s mildly rebellious.
It’s fun to dream of who that person is; it’s important. It’s something we just started doing recently – I would just design things for myself, basically, or things that I just thought were interesting. It’s fun to look at it in a different way. Paloma Picasso is one of our icons, and ‘70s Cher (laughs). It’s fun to pick out those ladies that you want to embody and translate their style into the designs.
How did you first cross paths with Goldyn?
Vanessa found me, actually. We were doing the Capsule trade show and she stopped by the booth. She was already aware of the brand…and just this last season when we had private appointments, she came and was able to really look through the collection and figure out exactly what she wanted for the store. [Vanessa] seems very thoughtful and definitely has a vision for things, and it’s important to be really focused on what you think you can sell.
Stop by Goldyn tomorrow, July 16th, from 5-8PM to shop Unearthen’s stunning collection (or at least for the free champagne).
Click here to learn about the properties of different stones used in the collection.
All photos property of Unearthen.