cultural importance of jewlery

Talking Shop with Jewelry Designers Katy Lee and Tatsuya Otake

What does the term ‘art’ really mean?

It’s far from being a new question. This is something human beings have been asking themselves for hundreds of years.

The objective definition commonly found online (“the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”) is a bit lackluster. Yes, it still works for the most part, but it leaves out the meaning and value that art has for many different people.

Up until about 40 years ago, art had to exist in a very specific place, most commonly a museum or gallery. Nowadays, these cultural institutions are perhaps most well-known for placing unnecessary limits on what can be considered “art: in the traditional sense

The graffiti and street art movement, which saw its rise in the 1980s, was an outright attempt to expand the definition of art in a very useful way. You no longer had to pay money to see ‘real art’ and the work no longer had to be vetted by curators and a selection team.

It was one of the first popular art forms that existed out in the real world, where real people could encounter it, interact with it, or even add to it, all without context or introduction, without gatekeepers of any kind.

The real purpose of art – to enhance lives by offering beauty and emotional weight – started to become more widely accepted.

But the work didn’t stop there. We still need to work toward a definition that allows for many different forms and contexts.

This brings us to the matter of jewelry.

The Cultural Importance of Jewelry

Jewelry has served many different functions throughout the course of history. And, depending on your definition of “jewelry” (is mammoth bone considered a gemstone?), humans have had jewelry arguably as long as they’ve had clothes. It has been a symbol of status, a form of currency, and simply a decorative item worn by both men and women.

Each culture has developed its own take on jewelry, and that development continues today.

Just ask yourself this question: why do you wear jewelry, if at all?

Personally, jewelry is a means of communication, a very subtle means of communication. It’s a way for me to say something about the way I see myself. It needs to adhere to what I see as my personal style. For the most part, my foray into this sort of communication extends no further than the watch I decide to wear for the day before I head into the office.

Maybe you wear jewelry to grab attention, or maybe it simply makes you feel more confident.

But how many of us see jewelry as a true art form, one just as important and worthy of attention as movies, paintings, and music?

An editor at Artvoice recently put me in touch with two NYC-based jewelers, Katy Lee and Tats Otake. Both Lee and Otake are independent jewelry designers who also head up their own brands. Lee created Gold Philosophy and Otake founded the 8.6.4 label.

Gold Philosophy8.6.4

(Otake is also currently overseeing a pop-up shop in Tribeca. He will also be hosting workshops through the summer. If you happen to live in NYC and you’d like to check it out in-person, more info can be found here.)

I recently traveled to Manhattan to speak with Otake and Lee about their work and the artistry behind their craft.  While their styles are different, both Gold Philosophy and 8.6.4 share specialized boutique sensibilities.

As we’ll discuss in more detail a bit later, these creators work only with local manufacturers and artisans to form their finished products.  This smaller scale may be what allow their respective brands to cross over into

More Than Just a Passion

As a starting point, I asked Lee and Otake about what jewelry means to them on a personal level.

For Lee, jewelry and precious stones were a major aspect of family life while growing up. Being surrounded by beautiful pieces only sparked further interest in the industry.

“I found myself gravitating towards jewelry growing up. I loved going to jade and jewelry markets with my father to find precious stones. When my first job put me in further contact with the jewelry and accessories industry, I decided to expand my knowledge at the Gemological Institute of America and Jewelry Design.”

The GIA is based in Carlsbad, California and has existed for nearly 100 years. First and foremost, the GIA works to set and maintain standards by which gemstones can be assessed. It was the perfect place for Lee to expand her knowledge of jewelry and precious gems, and the resulting expertise can be seen in her work.

Otake described his relationship with jewelry and creative design from a highly artistic standpoint.

“I love making jewelry. It is very similar to making sculptures. My goal is to make one-of-a-kind handcrafted pieces.”

The connection of sculpture to high struck me as compelling. After all, is the process of whittling down a bust from a marble slab really that different from creating an engraved ring of gold or silver?

Art As Inspiration

Both Otake and Lee share an interesting viewpoint on the intersection of art and jewelry.

I asked them how they create their collections, and what they look to for inspiration when starting a new piece. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both cited established art forms.

As Otake told us, “Architecture and sculptures are a good inspiration for forms and lines when working on a new piece.”

Lee echoed that sentiment, “I definitely look to architecture as well, or even patterns found in tiles, wallpapers, and prints.”

When looking at jewelry as a vital art form, it helps to remember that those who create it find inspiration and guidance in other artistic mediums that the public has probably already accepted as art.

This multimedia outlook has a noticeable effect on Lee’s and Otake’s collections. Flash and flare are balanced by a grounded, organic element. It’s a pairing that we’ve seen before in oil painting techniques, sculpture, and, of course, architecture.

Following the interview, the Artvoice team even got together to try and find an architect whose work is reflected in Lee and Otake’s creations.

After a few friendly arguments, we settled on Friedensreich Hundertwasser. For those unfamiliar with his work, this Austrian-born New Zealand artist was both a painter and an architect.


Grüne Zitadelle in Magdeburg (Source)

In a way, he was a one-man movement. He had a vision of the future that he refused to compromise throughout the course of his lifetime.

A brief look at his work makes a few things quite clear: he loved organic forms and he had a fair amount of whimsy that fed directly into his work.

His designs are drastically innovative, but they still pay homage to shapes, forms, and ideas that already existed in art and nature.

In a similar way, Lee’s and Otake’s designs take simple shapes and forms and elevate them to the point where they’re dripping with glamor and class.

It’s just another case where art informs art. Ideas and styles can ripple through the decades, across multiple mediums.   

Collaboration Station

But of course, finding inspiration for a new piece is just the very first step.

If, for example, I have an idea for a movie, I’m still a very long way from actually getting something made.

For Lee and Otake, the crucial next step is to share the idea with others, either craftspeople who will make the pieces or with other designers, opening the piece to the possibility of collaboration.

Otake told us about his method of working directly with local artisans. They provide vital insights into a product that no one else in the world has seen and even make informed predictions of how a piece will be perceived out in the wild.   

“At first I design and make all the molds and samples. Then I work with skilled craftspeople from the manufacturers.  They give me some advice and inspirations when I’m creating the pieces with new technique or materials. It is very easy to communicate since they are local. We are committed to make all the pieces in NYC.”

He makes a serious effort to guarantee that production takes place through local means, using only local manufacturers and artisans.

Lee spoke to us about collaborating with other established designers to create pieces. There are moments of calm but there’s also friction.

While certain artists would see minor disagreements or challenges as negative factors, Lee thrives in this environment. She remains intrigued by the psychological intimacy of working closely with someone else on an artistic project.

gold philosophy

“The process of collaborating with different designers fascinates me. Every designer has their own thought process and means of drawing inspiration. Working with them is like getting a private tour of their brain.  You get to understand them as a brand and also get to know their customers.

When we’re able to combine ideas and create pieces that make us proud and satisfied, that’s the most amazing feeling.”

It’s designers’ differences that allow for real creative progress. Collaboration feeds artistic sensibilities, nourishes them.

This method of collaboration and criticism has historically been very popular with writers in particular. In fact, many of the expatriate writers of the early 20th century (Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald) went out of their way to seek honest and heartfelt opinions of their work.

Even the great J.D.Salinger’s magnum opus, The Catcher in the Rye, required a major rewrite after it was initially rejected by a major publishing house.

Katy’s Style Themes

So what about the question of style? How can jewelry balance form and function simultaneously?

Well, for one thing, jewelry shouldn’t be inconvenient for the wearer, at least in most cases. It needs to feel natural, like second-nature.

But when it comes to the look of a certain piece, there’s much more room for experimentation and bold design elements.

Lee summarized that her general style sits at a crossroads of many different established tones.

“I would say my work is whimsical, edgy but also chic, classic but innovative at the same time. I try to make pieces that work on their own or in layers. We also apply minimum architectural structure to create enticing settings for distinctive style.”

That minimal structure serves as a solid basis for the more adventurous designs from Gold Philosophy. In turn, those designs communicate a holistic brand style that needs no introduction or context. The pieces just work, and as far as customers are concerned, that’s always the most important factor.

Photographing The Work

Having founded their own design brands, both Otake and Lee are also heavily involved in the operations of their companies.

More specifically, this often involves coordinating photography shoots for promotional materials.

This is simply the age we live in: regardless of how impressive the product itself is, it also needs to be presented in a way that appeals to potential customers.

Otake has found that he very much enjoys photographing his work. It gives him the opportunity to translate the essence of a piece (or multiple pieces) into a photograph.

“I take all the images for 8.6.4. I think it’s better this way because I design the jewelry, so it stands to reason that I would know the best angle of each piece. I also try to use natural light as much as possible. I think it gives the images more energy and often creates lots of surprises.”

Lee likes to consider product images long before the collection has even been designed. This is a technique that helps her keep a cohesive vision of her work and how different pieces work with each other.

In fact, Lee typically starts her design process by creating a mood board, a variance of a vision board, which is meant to be a way of organizing abstract thoughts and ideas.

“It really starts when I am making mood boards for new designs. I can pretty much picture what our photoshoot would look like already. From backdrop, theme, lighting, makeup, and hair to models. We try to keep each photoshoot cohesive, with a little twist here and there.”

The actual process of photography for Lee is yet another area where she seeks collaboration.

“My photographer plays a huge part in creating our materials as well. We bounce ideas off each other on how to create the ideal shoot.”

Understanding the Market

Just like any other art form, jewelry requires a great deal of business sense and savvy marketing.

It takes real work to find your customers. Or maybe it would be more appropriate to refer to them as an audience.

The people who purchase unique jewelry can certainly help spread the word simply by wearing it.

But the contemporary accessories market is heavily populated, and it takes more than natural word-of-mouth to find success.  

Lee “Yes, it is a very competitive and saturated market. There are talented designers from all over the world. Creating unique pieces is important, of course, but building your own community and loyal customers are essential to a successful brand.”

This chance at forming an artistic community is one that other art forms have largely failed to achieve. But when it comes to jewelry, people are already accustomed to sharing pieces they like, talking about them, or even loaning pieces out to friends and family members.

Most importantly, Gold Philosophy and 8.6.4 allow these communities to inform their work. Their thoughts and opinions are just as important as the pieces themselves.

Coexisting With Fashion

If we accept fashion as a form of creative expression (perhaps the most popular and widely used form of creative expression in use today), then it certainly stands to reason that jewelry is an extension of that expression of self.

From an artistic standpoint, this creates a compelling challenge. Think of it this way:

Imagine you were asked to create a painting, one that will hang in a certain art gallery for years and years to come. Then you are told that the painting needs to work with every other painting that will be hung in that gallery, presumably hundreds of different paintings.

How can you create something that will remain flexible, able to adapt to different surroundings and contexts?

This is essentially the challenge of creating versatile jewelry. People want jewelry that they’ll be able to wear with many different outfits, in many different settings.

Otake explained that his goal is always to create work that complements the outfits they are worn with.  

“I prefer for jewelry to compliment an outfit. I also make bags and other accessories, so complementing the clothes a customer might wear is key.”

Lee has done her best to strike a balance in this area. She enjoys pieces that serve as accents to an outfit, but the best work also has to blend in with its surroundings.

“I believe it should both attract attention and compliment your outfit at the same time. It’s definitely difficult to achieve, but I think it defines the kind jewelry I would wear myself.”

From what we’ve seen of their collections, both designers have achieved these goals in spades.

What to Keep in Mind While Creating

Through all the fine details, the revisions, and feedback, solving problems in jewelry design comes down to creativity.

That was my most significant take away from my conversation with Otake and Lee. Creative thinking and open-mindedness can solve more problems than you might think.

I sought to end the conversation on the subject of creativity and what goals these designers tend to keep in mind during the creative process.

Otake led with his big-picture goals, namely that jewelry should have a real presence in the wearer’s life, both physically and mentally.

“I think it is important to create a piece that reflects the buyer’s lifestyle and personality, something that people will want to look at all the time. It needs to mean something to them.”

I certainly have these kinds of items in my life, items that I would never part with because they add something to my life, allow me to reach a more positive outlook.

Lee agreed that jewelry should reflect a lifestyle, and perhaps even a state of mind. Gold Philosophy has aspirations in the realm of lifestyle branding.

As a final thought, Lee talked about what stays in her mind through every stage of creation. Vision and instinct remain crucial, and keeping sight of these feelings has helped her make some of her best work.

“It’s so important to trust your instincts. In the early stages of creating pieces, I’ve found myself easily influenced by other designers or people’s opinions, whether it’s my publicist, friends, or family. There have been times when I lost sight of my core design aesthetics. Listening and taking others’ opinions into consideration is of course important, but you also have to trust and believe in yourself. This is your brand, your aesthetics. This is you, ultimately.”

For as much as collaboration can help develop an initial idea, it can also muddy the waters, making it more difficult to see the forest through the trees.

In Conclusion, Creativity

For some, creativity can be a source of frustration and ego. Relying on a passive “muse” can often be unpredictable. For successful artists such as Lee and Otake, creativity is instead a source of inspiration and a way to share their vision with the world around them. And for all its intangibles, after finishing my conversation with this jewelry duo, I realized that we actually did quite a bit

It’s important for us to recognize the importance of creativity in its many forms. The term art should never be limited to exclusivity and affluence.

Jewelry is art, and one of the most accessible art forms at that. It lives where you live. The world itself is the Museum of Contemporary Jewelry. Best of all, it’s a form of art that encourages conversation and the sharing of ideas.

These days, we may not say the same about movies or contemporary visual art. So when you see someone on the street wearing a necklace or ring that you find interesting and beautiful, take the time to appreciate it, and maybe even ask the wearer about it.

Let this singular art form help you connect with other human beings. Let it be a doorway to more enthusiastic participation in the human experience.

About the author


News and art, national and local. Began as alternative weekly in 1990 in Buffalo, NY. Publishing content online since 1996.

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