LUXURYCULTURE.COM - Jessica Kagan: Talking Beauties


New York's new jewelry diva Jessica Kagan Cushman mixes traditional craft with modern prose for a beauty that's bad to the bone.

Daughter of design icon Vladimir Kagan, jewelry diva Jessica Kagan Cushman mixes traditional craft with modern prose for a beauty that's bad to the bone.

If you're tired of wearing your heart on your sleeves, turn to the power-statement bracelets of Jessica Kagan Cushman and start talking with your wrists instead. Daughter of renowned avant-garde furniture designer Vladimir Kagan and needlework queen Erica Wilson, it was only a matter of time before Cushman spoke up artistically. It came as no surprise then that when she did, she did so with the family's pitch-perfect taste for artisan craftsmanship mixed with wry, modern wit.

Famously practiced by sailors to pass their time at sea, Jessica learned scrimshaw — the ancient art of engraving intricate designs onto whale ivory — from her father as a child. Unlike the traditional wistful scenes of baleens breaching the deep blue sea, however, Jessica's artful scrawls take their cue from pop-culture vernacular common to dry-land denizens. Sampling everything from movie adages to NYC graffiti, Jessica delicately inscribes them all via scrimshaw onto pre-ban vintage ivory. Committed to finding "new ways to present old things," her latest project gives second lives to antique chessmen by turning the figurines into one-of-a-kind gem-studded charms. Darling indeed!

Definition of Luxury:

What is your definition of luxury?
Unlimited time is the greatest luxury.

If luxury were a person, who would it be?
Nancy Cunard and her collection of antique ivory bracelets.

If luxury were an object, what would it be?
A pair of pearl earrings from a Vermeer painting.

If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
Georgian England.

If luxury were a place, where would it be?
Paris is the very soul of luxury. Next to New York, it's my favorite city.

When did you first begin designing jewelry?
On the beach as a little girl...I used to make necklaces out of shells and seaweed.

What inspired your collection of scrimshaw bracelets?
A set of Fornasetti curtains in my grandmother's house in London. They were printed all over with pages from newspapers and I just loved the look of the text. It's a memory from my childhood that I was able to bring to life on the bracelets.

What are some of your designs that mean the most to you personally? Why?
I think I like my ivory bracelets best right now — when you take the movie, song and literature quotes out of their context and put them on bracelets they are so funny and so unexpected. I love to think of new ways to present old things, and I like things that don't look as though they came out of a mold.

Many contemporary female artists such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer incorporate words into their works. As a woman, what would you like your 'talking' accessories to convey?
I think my bracelets allow the wearer to express her or himself in ways they might not ordinarily. Many of the bracelets are a little saucy — they contain words that some of the people who wear them would never utter — yet they love to wear them! They are really part tattoo and part bumper sticker, but at the end of the day you can take them off or put on a different one. People have really strong reactions to my bracelets...most people love them, but a few people become quite exorcised over their content — which is just what they are designed to do: provoke a response. They are not passive pieces of jewelry that just sit about and look good!

Your father is renowned for his handcrafted, modern furniture designs. How did his artistic tutelage influence you creatively?
I think that growing up around my parents trained my "eye" — I developed an innate sense of good design — proportion, color, and scale — without any formal education in design. Also, my father taught me how to do scrimshaw, which is the technique that I use to engrave the bracelets.

What was your first jewelry design and how did it come to be?
One of the first things I designed and made were bracelets made from climbing rope. I was doing a lot of climbing and I loved all the different colors and textures that the rope came in — it seemed to be such a waste to use it only for climbing. I made bracelets for all my friends in college — they were very popular.

Who are your greatest jewelry design icons? Why?
I absolutely adore Fulco di Verdura's work — his designs are timeless. They're magnificent and grand and witty at the same time. I also love the work of the Swiss jeweler, Bernhard Schobinger. His work is utterly irreverent — it challenges you to wear it.

What are you currently working on?
I am taking antique ivory chess pieces, dressing them up in diamonds, pearls, gold, and semi-precious stones, and making them into charms and brooches. Each one is completely unique and has its own personality. Wearing one is like having a little sprite on your lapel!

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