With swashbuckling explorers for grandparents; a family tree that includes fine art collectors, Barons, a famous ornithologist & dealers in high-end Chinoiserie; and a background himself in Anthropology & Art History - it's really no surprise that jewelry crafted by J. Rudy Lewis displays the depth of Byzantine artifacts and the soul of Victorian heirlooms.
His work has already appeared in Vogue Germany plus he's been getting a lot of love from a number of ma-jah glossies; he was recently asked to submit a rendering for an upcoming shoot with a certain Italian Vogue cover photographer (it's still molto hush hush, though, so shhhhhhh!).
And while all of his work is highly covetable, we especially loved how he took a drawing that his 8-year recently did of a "Pterandon" - part Dodo, part chicken, part seagull (& 100% imagination) - and turned it into a pin rendered in sterling silver & 22k gold, complete with a cognac diamond for the eye. "I gave it to my wife, his mother, who loves it," he notes - & he's happy to do the same for you. "I know I'm not alone in this desire to preserve the expressions of children's free unfettered imagination." (HINT: what a FANTASTIC gift for any moms on your list).
Marcy Clark, Women's Mafia Editor-in-Chief, recently had the opportunity to interview this rising star...so kick back, make some tea, and enjoy learning about this fascinating designer whose story & design descriptions - like his hand-hammered sterling & leather "Victoria's Cuff" which is "drawn from images of 19th century women's shoes and corseting" and "creates a wrapping ritual to allow for the ownership of women's past restrictive clothing" - read like a really good book.
MC: How long have you been a professional jeweler?
JRL: 10 years, but I’ve making art since childhood. In most ways, I find it surprising that I am in the industry. I have always made work in different media: photography first, then handmade books, then mosaics, and finally jewelry. The jewelry I have made for the last 10 years has been almost entirely one of a kind, specific to an individual’s desires. Truly custom, almost entirely forged. Designing to answer a unique question put before you is a great way to learn design; the more unique the question posed the more interested I am in it.
MC: What else inspires your jewelry designs?
JRL: I have been a student of art my entire life. I grew up around it. Not the making of it so much as living with Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings, bronzes, sculptures, ceramics, and fine French silver and furniture.; Paintings by Van Gogh, Gaugin, Picasso, David, Renoir, Marie Laurencin, Benjamin West, Eakins, etc. From this knowledge has come my interest in all arts especially more “tribal” or ancient ones: Masai, Aztec, Mayan, Tlingit, Maori, Aboriginal, etc…
Then there's the natural world. I love to think about how nature continually repeats itself; I like to think about the repetition of patterns in nature like a Mandelbrot set. Most of that work draws from the symmetry I see in nature, and also my personality, however none of the symmetrical work is absolutely perfect, like any face or body.
MC: How does your family inspire your life & work?
JRL: My family history is interesting and a great knowledge base to draw from. I grew up on the main line of Philadelphia. Father: a Lawyer; Mother: a mother. Both very well educated and very involved in the arts and institutions of Philadelphia including the Philadelphia Museum of Art; my mother is on the board of Trustees, as was my Grandmother.
My mother, Maxine, has volunteered at the Museum in the east Asian section since the late 50’s and has a vast knowledge of Asian art that goes along with my parents collection of Asian Art, both ancient and contemporary.
My maternal Grandfather, Baron Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee, was grandson of the head of the Swiss Guard for the Vatican and had a family castle in Switzerland, which the Swiss Government now owns. The Meyer de Schauensee family headed the Swiss Guard for nearly 1000 years. He was an ornithologist, and wrote several definitive books on birds. He collected specimens for the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, including in Brazil, and has an anaconda named after him: DeSchauensee’s Anaconda. He and my grandmother, the Baroness, went on fantastic expeditions in the 30’s to Africa and Asia. They also collected art: Picasso, Gauguin, Cezanne, French silver and furniture etc…
My Grandmother was the first white woman to cross the Kalahari desert.
My father, Howard, has an encyclopedic knowledge of basically all history; name a culture he can reel off a basic timeline with dates and names. He has been and still is a successful lawyer who comes from a long line of Philadelphia lawyers; in the early 80s, he settled the bankruptcy of the Reading Railroad against a raft of government lawyers by himself. His eldest ancestor, named Ludwig, originally arrived here as a Hessian soldier, who my father describes as being “shot in the ass running away from General Washington and then marrying his nurse” and going on to start and import business for Chinese ceramics.
As for myself, I did not always know I wanted to work in jewelry. I went to Cornell and got a BA in Anthropology and Archaeology, and a minor in Photography. I’ve rowed internationally as part of US teams. I coached rowing at Williams College and worked at the Museum there; I still go to museums all the time. I’ve taken many courses in bookbinding and photography while working many jobs. I shingled houses for awhile in Maine. I worked making mosaics for a while; tables, floors, backsplashes. I worked at a high-end gallery in Philadelphia, The Locks Gallery, for 3 years as preparator. We showed artists like Jennifer Bartlett, Lynda Benglis, Miro, Motherwell, Tom Chimes, Louise Nevelson. I did several ADAA shows at the 67th street armory. Stressful but fun. I moved art with Gannotta Fine Arts for a few years. But whatever I was doing, I was always making things before arriving at my career in jewelry; then I started working for Caleb Meyer and learned how to make jewelry.
It’s an oddball family history. Not oriented towards the physical making of art, but a great history to pull from; can’t really say I fully recommend it, but I do have a different view of the world. I feel most like an outsider when it comes to the “design industry.”
MC: How would you describe your design personality?
JRL: I love to design and make work, and I like to work alone. In fact I have barely left my house for the last 10 months as I have been redefining myself. Making work that shapes to the body, that comes alive as someone wears it, I find more exciting than any other form of art at the moment.
I prefer to work from the design in than from the stone out; I feel that a piece has to need a stone and not the other way around. I've recently added aged leather to my metal work and I love how it accentuates the age, history and story I am bringing into my work, now.
Every piece I work on seems to lead to five or six other pieces. I tend to work on up to 6 new designs at a time with as many 1/2 started pieces. I design by sitting at my bench and playing. Meaningful play, of course, it’s only easy if you let it be. I might have a question in mind to start with; I might pick up a part left over from another piece. I like to surround myself with a variety of images and I am always Googling something as questions arise or I try to clarify an image of some cultural artifact I can’t quite picture. The pieces tend to become layered because of my starting from a past piece and then adding a new image or thought or material until it drifts into another culture or art form. I work until I feel an object reminds me of many ideas so there is enough room for everyone to bring something to it. The pieces I feel are going to become reproducible I then further draw out to fit into a more production-ready mode.
JRL: If I could I would work in 22k gold all the time - I’d be wrapping it around leather, pushing it into iron or wood, who knows. At the moment, though, I am primarily using Sterling silver; 14k, 18k, 22k gold in different colors; hand-dyed and aged leathers, rough diamonds, baroque pearls, chalcedony, blue moonstone, sleepy aquamarine cabochons, imperial topaz, grossular garnet, dinosaur bones and opal. Any material with life in it, a story to tell. If I look at a material and it doesn't give me something better than "I'm shiny, use me" back, I don't want it.
MC: What metalsmithing techniques do you use to create your work & where did you learn them?
JRL: I apprenticed with Caleb Meyer, who learned from his father, James Meyer. I use basic forging and chasing techniques, such as lost wax casting and wax carving. I am adding techniques as I go, but only as they fit within my aesthetic. I enjoy keeping the techniques simple and pushing the ideas, like limiting myself to 12 bar blues.
JRL: I know I’ll never give up doing custom one-on-one pieces but I want to have that process become more selective as I go deeper into answering my own personal design questions. In the last 10 months I have been posing and answering these questions, which I’m finding incredibly exciting. I consider this to be the design industry for me, and what I see for my future.
To purchase pieces from the new collection, find a store near you carrying J. Rudy Lewis Designs, or place a custom order visit JRudyLewis.com.
- Marcy Clark
The Women’s Mafia is working with J.Rudy and planning some upcoming events where you can meet the mysterious and dynamic designer. Why not plan on joining them!
(Note: a different version of this article originally appeared on WomensMafia.com)