Sometimes a change in career can be serendipitous for an artist. That’s what happened to Jay Strongwater. After initially studying fashion, he fell into jewelry design when he created a necklace for his mother. When jewelry trends became more subdued in the ’90s, though, he made the switch to home decorations, and has created a loyal following for his delicate, handmade pieces. Strongwater is excited to visit with his St. Louis collectors at Neiman Marcus from 1 to 4 p.m. on Dec. 9, where he will be showing his holiday collection.
LN: Was it easy to move from jewelry into home ornaments?
JS: Back in the early ’80s and all through the ’90s, I was really learning about the art and craft of making jewelry. It started around 1980, when my mom was shopping, and she saw some necklaces she liked and I said, Don’t bother buying them. I can make something like that. So I got some wooden beads and sprayed them black and put designs on them, covered them with enamel and made some necklaces for her. A local store noticed them, and I had my first sale. I dropped out of school and focused full-time on making jewelry, and was fortunate to work with Oscar de la Renta, designing jewelry for his collections, and my little company started to grow. During the ’90s, fashion jewelry went out of style, and things were much more minimal and cleaner. That’s when I started to take some of the components from jewelry and make a picture frame, using crystals from Swarovski. I was introduced to home merchants, and they were intrigued by what we were trying to do and we got great reactions from our customers.
LN: Does it require a different mindset than jewelry?
JS: There are some different rhythms to designing for a home department, but sometimes it’s best that you don’t know about the rules! I have a fashion background and I think a lot of times in the home department, people have collections that have been around for many years and they don’t change that much. I’m more stimulated and excited when we bring out new things and the collections evolve, and I like to think about the seasons.
LN: Where do you get your inspiration?
JS: The beautiful flowers and foliage in nature are always inspiring, and we’re always looking for how we can interpret it each season in different ways. Our Woodland collection was certainly a challenge of how to do flowers in the fall season, but not have it become too dark or autumn in feeling. While I like to do seasonal looks, the reality is someone doesn’t really change their home twice a year, so you want to make something that will fit into someone’s home and lifestyle.
LN: Isn’t most of your manufacturing process done by hand?
JS: Everything is done by hand, from the sketches and design and colorations, to picking out the stones and carving a model. I was just finishing working with one of our model makers, and it’s amazing how we can take a flat drawing and bring it to life in three dimensions. We make a model, which we use to make molds, then pour the metal. The metal has to be finished and plated, usually with 18k gold or sterling silver or antique brass. Then there are layers and layers of transparent enamels. All the stones are from Swarovski, and one by one each stone has to be set into the fitting. A picture frame might have 300 to 400 stones and it will take three to four hours to set those stones. Some wall mirrors and fireplace screens have 3,000 to 4,000 stones, and it takes weeks! I love what the hand can do and I try to make it as personal as possible.