In time for the Valentine’s holiday, we caught up with one of our favorite jewelry artists and super moms, Jane D’Arensbourg, on a recent morning between the scuffle of remote school and a trip to the dentist. We spoke of her new life outside the city, pandemic gardening in a bookcase, how anyone found anything before Instagram, and the way that glass can hold memory and be stronger than you’d think.
M.PATMOS: Hi Jane! Thanks so much for taking the time with all you are juggling these days. Let’s get right into it.
Jane D'Arensbourg: Okay!
M.PATMOS: Your jewelry is so beautiful and unique what drew you to working with glass as your medium?
Jane: It’s funny, I get this question a lot because I know glass is not the usual material used for jewelry. But, I have always loved glass. As a child my mother, who was an artist, actually made stained glass at one point and it was inset into her bathroom window, and it was just really beautiful. I loved the sun coming through, the light was just captivating as a child. When I was a teenager, I was very independent and I ended up moving to Paris when I was seventeen. I had an aunt, uncle, and cousin that lived there on a houseboat. They let me stay with them for a while in the center of Paris on the Seine, which was pretty incredible. And I just spent a lot of time there going to museums and fell in love with the architect Hector Guimard — he designed those very Art Nouveau metro stations that look kind of like swamp monsters. In his work he used blown glass and stained glass and I think that inspired me — I especially wanted to work with metal and glass together. So when I came back to the States, I started taking some jewelry classes because I’d been making jewelry out of beads ever since I was a little girl. And so I started working with metal first and then ended up going to the California College of Arts and Crafts and began working with glass there in their glass department.
M.PATMOS: Is it true that you grew up in New Orleans? Do you think that played a role at all in your early fascination with beads?
Jane: You know, I never even thought about that! That’s hilarious. Yeah, I mean I did grow up in New Orleans. My father’s family is deeply rooted in New Orleans from the 1700s and they used to actually throw Mardi Gras beads that were made of glass — I remember my mom actually had a couple. They probably stopped throwing them in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and then it just all turned into plastic. But yeah that’s so funny I never even thought about that, that could be an influence...
M.PATMOS: Something intrinsic.
Jane: There was one of those bead stores in New Orleans that I used to go to as a little girl and I would just tweak out looking at beads for hours and picking out ones that I liked. It was again that feeling of light coming through the colored glass that I really loved, like with my mom’s stained glass windows. My mom, she was actually a muse for me in a lot of ways.
M.PATMOS: Did her art mainly incorporate glass like your work?
Jane: Well, she was more of a painter, and she was actually a writer too, a poet. She wrote a children’s book. But she also was a graphic designer and a photographer. She did all sorts of stuff, so she only dabbled in glass; I think she just literally wanted to have a stained glass window in her bathroom and so she learned how to do it.
Jane: And she always had really beautiful, interesting jewelry. There was actually this jeweler that she used to buy from in New Orleans and would collaborate on pieces -- she would pick out a beautiful opal and he would custom design a ring. That could be another reason why I ended up making jewelry.
M.PATMOS: It is incredible how visuals from childhood stay so clearly in the mind and influence us unwittingly. It’s true glass isn’t regularly used for jewelry, probably due to its fragility. But you use a specific glass -- isn’t it the same type that is commercially known as Pyrex?
Jane: Yes, the technical name is Borosilicate. I don’t know the exact makeup that differentiates Borosilicate from the glass used for glass blowing, but it melts at a different temperature and it’s just much more shock resistant. It is the same material that is used for scientific glass, like beakers, so that they can be put directly over a Bunsen burner without cracking. If you put any other old glass object on a flame, it’s definitely going to crack. A Baccarat crystal ring or a bangle from India made with blown glass at a furnace is going to break much more easily. I have a ring that I made for my mother in college, twenty-plus years ago and it never broke, and she wore it all the time. I have necklaces that I’ll wear every single day to the beach and swim in the ocean with them on. The glass is strong, a lot stronger than you would expect. But, I started working with Borosilicate, not necessarily because it was stronger, but I just liked the process better.
M.PATMOS: It sounds like your process is different than glass blowing, how are your pieces actually formed?
Jane: Well, I did study glass blowing in college because that’s what was basically available in the glass department and it was really exciting and fun to scoop hot, molten glass out of a furnace. But when it came down to what I wanted to make, I wanted to make more intricate things and glass blowing is just a really fast process — you have to be thinking of your next step a few moments before you’re actually doing it. You’re constantly having to turn the pipe knowing, if you stop, the glass will hold that memory; it’s just very, very fast. So in college, I learned how to do this technique, “flameworking,” or it’s also called lampworking. But flameworking is probably a better way to explain it because you’re literally using a flame, a torch, to form the glass. I figured out pretty early on that if I wanted to continue working with glass it was going to be really difficult if I wanted to blow glass because starting up a hot shop where you need a furnace and all of this insane equipment is really expensive. And to keep it going you have to produce so much work just to break even. I’ve seen a lot of artists blowing glass that become a slave to just being able to keep their studio open. They end up making really commercial work. But with flameworking, all you really need is a torch and the glass and a kiln to anneal the glass. Once I tried it out I realized that the process fit with me better as well because it was much slower and I could make intricate designs. I could work on something, put it down, come back to it the next day. With glass blowing everything just has to happen really quickly in the moment, and you have to get it in the oven and you’re done. Maybe you could do polishing and carving or glueing after the fact but the actual part of forming the glass just happens in that moment, on that day.
M.PATMOS: And the glass, does it come in sheets? What does the raw material look like?
Jane: The actual materials that I buy come in a rod form, so it’s almost like being a painter choosing a tube of paint, selecting warmer shades and cooler ones. The rods in color are similar to the thickness of a pencil, maybe a little bit thicker. The clear comes in basically any thickness that I want, so I can get a specific thickness. The process of working with color is a little more organic, because the rods are slightly varied. If I want to make an earring or a necklace or a ring that is thinner than the thickness of that color rod, I actually heat it and pull it out into a thinner rod — so imagine pulling a piece of taffy. If I want to make links that are perfectly the same thickness, it’s really hard. So, the color designs that I do tend to be a little more organic but I also just like to work with the nature of glass instead of trying to make it do something that it doesn't want to do. For example, I have an earring style that M.PATMOS carries called the ‘Wave’ earring and there’s a straight line on one side that is clear, and on the other side there is a wave of color. So the color wants to do one thing and the clear wants to do something else and I’m bringing that out in that design.
M.PATMOS: It sounds like the glass is very particular about what it feels like doing. Are the colors blendable at all, do they ever mix?
Jane: I have some rings, ‘Orb’ rings, that look like they have a marble on top. With these, I’ll take a drop of the color and encase it in clear and as I’m melting it down to form that ball shape, the color melts into the clear, like a bead of watercolor. But I couldn’t take red glass and blue glass and melt them together to make purple in that respect. I could take red glass, blue glass, and clear and melt them into a swirl of colors.
M.PATMOS: Do you have any artistic influences for the sculptural style that you’ve developed?
Jane: So, I started out making sculpture. Actually one of the first things I made in flameworked glass when I took that class at the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington, was a glass fishnet stocking. It was totally three dimensional and I remember the teacher, when I told her what I wanted to make, had no idea how I would even make it, so I basically started at the toe of the stocking and worked my way up and figured it out. I created my own technique. For my senior show in college I made two sets of glass fishnet stockings and hung them with glass chainlink from the ceiling. I had light shining on the stockings so when you walked through the room the stockings would spin and cast shadows on all the walls so it felt like the whole room had stockings spinning around you. I mention all that because the chainlink — the first time I made chainlink was not for a necklace, it was for a sculpture. But the holidays would come and I always wanted to make my mom something amazing and that’s when I started making her glass chainlink necklaces, that’s really where it started. I began making jewelry for my Mom and for myself. It wasn’t like I had necessarily an influence, it was more like I wasn’t seeing anything out there that I liked. So, I came up with my own thing.
M.PATMOS: Wearable sculpture.
Jane: Yes. I never intended on being a jewelry designer, I wanted to be an artist. I moved to New York to pursue my art career and I have had shows and galleries. I’ve shown with the Museum of Arts and Design and I have some work in their permanent collection. But the jewelry was just this beast, it kind of took over. People started asking me for it and then before I knew it, somebody suggested that I sell it in a store and it snowballed from there. For a long time I had that imposter complex, you know, all these people are asking me for jewelry and when are they going to find out that I’m not really a jewelry designer? I feel like it took me a good ten years to come to terms with the fact that I had a career as a jewelry designer.
M.PATMOS: It’s nice that it happened so organically with something that you love doing.
Jane: I feel really lucky because it wasn’t like I had to sit down and make a business plan and really work at it, it was already happening by the time I decided to make a business plan. Some of the stores in the beginning, I don’t even know how they found me. I started selling to a store in Japan at least fifteen years ago. They would come to my studio and I didn’t have line sheets, I would just literally be making things up until the last second before they walked through the door.
M.PATMOS: How did they find you? How did anyone find anything before Instagram? Ha.
Jane: I don’t even know. They might have found me through Auto, that was the first store that I sold to in the meatpacking district. She used to have a showroom, Renata was the owner, and she’s actually one of the main people that started the trade show, Shoppe Object. I’ve known her since the very beginning and I just did her trade show last February right before the pandemic. I also had, do you remember DailyCandy? DailyCandy was pre-Refinery29, it was a blog that started right when email was kind of a new thing. They found me through Auto and did a little feature on me and after that feature, the next day I had a million emails in my inbox and people were asking me for line sheets, I didn’t know what a line sheet was. This funny little blog really helped launch my career in a lot of ways.
M.PATMOS: Do you find social media useful?
Jane: You know, I go through phases. It’s a total love-hate thing. Sometimes I’m just like ugh, I don’t feel like it. But then other times, I really have fun with it. I enjoy Instagram Stories because it’s just more casual. I did a Live the other day because I kept seeing other designers -- like my friend Christine Alcalay, who has a store in Park Slope called KIWI and she’s also a clothing designer -- and she’s been doing these Stories where they are just trying on different things in the store and then also talking about what she’s going through in her creative process as a designer and how it’s been changing during the pandemic. Looking at her Stories has been like therapy hearing that yeah, she’s totally going through what I’m going through right now. So I thought, you know what? I think I need to come out from underneath the rock that I’ve been under this past year and just show people that I’m alive and connect with my customers. I did a little ring try-on and people really seemed to appreciate it. I think it was nice for them to see how certain rings look when worn together but also a lot of people were like, “Oh, it’s so good to see your face!” So, I’m trying to get more active on social media. I think it can be a great tool. But I’m not worried about how many followers I have. When I started out, there was no social media, and I feel like there’s just so many more things you have to do as a designer these days when before I could go to the studio and just work. And now you have to post photos, send out a newsletter, or blog, or tweet.
M.PATMOS: How is it balancing the actual creative work with the business side along with being a mom? Before the pandemic, that was probably already challenging.
Jane: Before the pandemic, I had this routine: I was living in Clinton Hill and my son was going to school three blocks from our house. My studio was right on the edge of Clinton Hill and the Navy Yard, so my studio was like a fifteen minute walk from my apartment. So every morning, I would get up, feed my kid breakfast, get him out the door, drop him at school, and then walk straight to the studio. Just that walk to the studio was really great to clear my head and think about what I was going to do once I got there. Also having this block of time like school hours, where I had to just like get in and get it done was really good motivation for me to just go there and crush it, versus like pre-kid, I would kind of just noodle around, probably work much longer but make even less work. Right when I got to the studio, I would do my social media. I would sit down, post a photo, say a little something and then okay, done. Maybe if a little piece of sun was coming in and making really beautiful shadows shining off of some jewelry or a sculpture, I might get up from the bench and do a couple of Stories, shoot a couple of photos, it was very natural and authentic, it wasn’t something that I planned out. I think that’s what I liked about Instagram, but it’s become way more commercialized and so many people have other people shooting their photos and managing their accounts now. I try to be authentic and give a little glimpse into my process and my life. So yeah, it was very streamlined, my life in Brooklyn. That was my exercise too, walking to and from the studio. I would be walking easily an hour a day just getting my kid to Taekwondo and back.
M.PATMOS: You’ve since moved from Brooklyn, how has that been?
Jane: Well, my mom actually had a house on Long Island and it had been sitting vacant for almost a year once the pandemic hit because she passed away in May of 2019 — so really the year before the pandemic I was dealing with grieving, losing my dear mother. It was a really hard year for me honestly -- even pulling out all of the jewelry that I had made for her over the years. And so when the pandemic hit, we were already thinking about if we wanted to keep the house. My husband and I were feeling like we wanted to get out of the city. He is a private chef, he used to own a restaurant on the Lower East Side, but luckily he sold it, maybe a year before. It was kind of the perfect side step. Like okay, we’ve got this house available to us, maybe we should just try it out. So, we decided to move here in March and I gave up my apartment in Clinton Hill, but I still have my studio in Brooklyn. My idea is to be able to commute in a couple days a week once the pandemic has calmed down, you know, still have my toe in the city. I ended up moving the production of my studio here to Long Island. We have a really beautiful sunroom that my Mom actually used to do watercolors in, so that’s where I set up my studio. We also have a basement, I have my kiln down there. My studio in Brooklyn will be more like a showroom, so I can still meet with people there. The building that it’s in is full of different designers and I’ve met a lot of people in that building; we used to do open studios a couple times a year, it was a real community. I miss that.
M.PATMOS: It’s also nice to have a space to go to that’s just for work. Is it hard to be productive working from home with all of your life mixed into one place?
Jane: Even before I had a kid, I preferred having a separate work space. I’ve had live/work spaces, like when I lived in California. But when I moved to New York, I decided that, well for one thing, it’s hard to even find a live/work space these days because it’s become such a trendy thing. But in the end, I preferred it because I could just walk out the door and go to the studio and get into the mindset of, now I’m working, and really focus. Now it’s definitely a struggle. The sunroom at the house used to be a screened-in porch that’s been sheetrocked with windows put in, so it feels separate from the house. I think my son is slowly starting to figure out that when Mommy’s in the sunroom, leave her alone. But he definitely will come in and bother me now and then and it can be a little frustrating. And managing homeschooling, like this morning, can be tough because he has online classes that he has to sign into and I’m constantly having to make sure that he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing and not just playing video games.
M.PATMOS: A lot of women during the pandemic have had to lose ground in their career, or leave the workplace all together. Has that been true for you?
Jane: For most of the year I’ve been focusing on my kid and just making sure that he’s taken care of not just academically, but emotionally. I feel for me, my career is important to me but my child really comes first and the career can wait. I’ve actually managed to pick up a couple of new stores over the pandemic, which is just shocking considering how many stores are closing. I’ve had stores reach out to me and since I have a studio here I’ve managed to produce work. Sure, I would love to be hanging out with my friends and meeting people for coffee or whatever. But I think for a nine-year-old, having that connection is really crucial; it’s everything for a kid that age.
M.PATMOS: Do you think you’ll miss the city?
Jane: Well, I’m only an hour away! I might as well be in Queens.
M.PATMOS: That’s true.
Jane: We’re near the beach. We’ve got nature. I have a garden, my quarantine hobby. Right away, we checked all the cliché boxes, like my husband has been baking sourdough. My mother had this gigantic bookcase and I didn’t know what to do with it so, at the spur of the moment, I had an idea to turn it into a raised garden bed. We dragged it into the backyard and my husband just ripped the back off of it and I bought a bunch of dirt and started gardening in that bookcase. When the quarantine first hit, in a way it was perfect timing because it was Spring, the perfect time to throw myself into gardening. It was crazy though, all the seeds that I wanted had sold out because I wasn’t the only one, everyone was gardening this past year, the gardening industry’s really blown up. When we lived in Clinton Hill we had a garden apartment but it was really shady and there were a thousand squirrels that would get every little tomato before it was ripe. But last summer we were drowning in tomatoes in our yard. My husband is Chinese-American so he’s been giving me lists of obscure vegetables that he wants me to grow, like Kohlrabi that I had to get from a distributor that carries Asian-specific varieties. Gardening has definitely been a lifesaver for me.
M.PATMOS: You mentioned that your mother passed away and how difficult it was seeing all the jewelry that you had made for her again. My grandmother passed away a few months ago and she had signature jewelry items that she always wore too. I saw one of the pieces recently and had to hide it away in a drawer because of how sad it made me feel. Jewelry seems to hold that extra sentimentality because it actually lived on a person, it was part of them for a while. I wonder if you have anything more you’d wish to share about that?
Jane: When my mom passed away, pulling out all of the jewelry that I’ve made her throughout the years, it was almost like pulling out a retrospective of my work. All of a sudden I had all of these one-of-a-kind archive pieces that were my mother’s; it was strange to revisit that work in a way. I’m really thankful that I have these pieces that mark different times throughout my career. It’s mixed feelings because, of course, I would love to have my mother back. But after she passed I realized what a muse she was for me, she was my inspiration to make jewelry, trying to one-up myself every year, trying to spoil her. She had really beautiful hands, I always remember looking at her hands as a child. She always had big statement rings, really unique jewelry. Sometimes I look at my hands and I see my mother’s hands. One thing that I went through during the pandemic was thinking that, I’m just making a luxury item and it didn’t feel appropriate to try and push sales of a luxury item during a pandemic. But then I actually started doing more direct to consumer sales and customers reached out to me and told me how much my jewelry brings joy to them and I realized this is something that actually brings positivity into someone’s life. I have followers that have been purchasing my jewelry since the very beginning and I’ll do a repair every now and then and have someone send me a necklace that I made fifteen years ago and it’s like having a child that left your nest coming back for a visit. To see my older work, makes me emotional. But I get reinspired by it.
M.PATMOS: And what brings you joy during this time?
Jane: The garden. Our sunset swims at the beach. Having a little bit more space. Walking to the post office and there’s no line ever. Spending time with family. I think definitely one of the positives of this year is this time that I’m getting to spend with my son — I’m sure he’s getting sick of me, but I’m trying to revel in this time.