I think it’s really important to look at a piece and see the maker’s touch.
Lila Rice put down roots in New York City five years ago and quickly got to work on developing her namesake jewelry line. Every ring, cuff, necklace and earring is a one-of-a-kind artistic creation, the design of which she imagines organically without the use of any special technologies or software. Almost entirely self-taught, Rice relies on her natural intuition and instincts to give shape to her creative process in her Brooklyn home-cum-studio. Against the walls are an office desk, jewelers’ workbenches, fabrication equipment and a curious Redwood Tree stump that has traveled far and wide (more on that later). Sophisticated yet playful, intelligent yet laid-back, her entirely wearable collections basically calls for a pair of binoculars. Scroll through the gallery above for a closer look…
How did you get into jewelry? Do you have formal training of any kind?
I’m 95% self-taught. I took a very basic silversmithing class when I was 20 years old and I did that as a hobby for a couple of years. I just learned by doing. As you can see, nothing I do is super fancy or tech-y. I employ old-fashioned techniques that doesn’t necessarily require years and years of training. It’s very hands-on, intuitive work.
Were you always making rings, cuffs, necklaces and such?
It’s funny because I didn’t realize I was really into making jewelry as a kid until I had been doing this for a few years as an adult. I had forgotten about it for a number of years, but I do have a collection of things that I made as a little kid. I have some hand tools and little pliers that were given to me by my mom when I was younger. It was always there in that sense, but this was never my “plan”. It just unfolded this way. I never made the choice, “I’m going to become a jewelry designer”. It was a very natural thing that happened.
That’s the best thing that can happen to a person. Sometimes people force themselves to pursue a certain field that doesn’t necessarily suit their talents or proficiency, which can lead to a lot of emotional distress.
I agree. It’s like putting a square peg in a circular hole, definitely.
How do you describe your collections to people who’ve never seen it? What are the foundations of your overall aesthetic as a designer?
In the beginning, people sort of described my stuff as being tribal, which I hated at the time. They would use words like “urban warrior”. Truthfully, there’s a primitive aesthetic to it. I think that has to do with the fact that I don’t have a school background in jewelry. I think my designs come out of our human attraction to shapes and geometries that look very modern in certain contexts, but also look like they could be thousands of years old. Somebody recently described my style as being “primitive modern”, which I think is a fairly accurate description. I hope that my pieces look and feel timeless as though they could be from any era.
Shapes, when used in the context of jewelry, are dangerous territory because you don’t have much to work with outside of that minimalist concept. But your pieces have a preciousness to them that’s really attractive.
I don’t like anything too clean. If something is really, really perfect, shiny and doesn’t have any evidence of the hand, it will end up looking tacky. I think it’s really important to look at a piece and see the maker’s touch. That could mean little details in the finish or a little bit of hammering. There has to be something that gives it a little bit of life. If something is too clean, it will fall a little flat.
Could you walk us through the conception of a piece to its final production?
I do sketches periodically. I have notebooks that I sketch in where I can really roughly work out ideas. But usually, I just sit down with metal and see what happens. I don’t usually do a lot of design planning, but I do occasionally. As you know, a lot of the pieces are shape-orientated so I might start with a certain shape and then make a few of them. I might take a shape and see if I can turn that into a few different styles. For example, a really large pendant might also turn into a cuff or if I have a pendant with a cutout, I might take the cutout and turn that into rings.
When you’re set on a particular pendant or a ring, how many of the same pieces do you usually make?
It really varies. I primarily do wholesale to stores, so it’s contingent upon what kind of orders they place. From time to time, I do events like the one where we met and I can go wild and make whatever I feel like as one-off pieces. It’s a real treat for me to make whatever I feel like and not because I have to fill an order.
Do you receive special requests for very specific designs?
I do some custom work, but it’s a lot easier for me if someone’s inspired by one of my pieces and they want to tweak it in terms of the size or something like that. That’s very different work than someone saying, “I designed this piece. Can you fabricate it for me?” Sometimes I’ll do it but I don’t enjoy doing it, partly because I don’t have a lot of training and there’s a lot that I don’t know how to do. There’s a lot that’s annoying to do as well. [Laughs] I have turned down some jobs…
What happens when you’re looking for a specific result in your own pieces and you don’t know how to execute it?
I don’t have a problem telling people I don’t know how to do something or I don’t feel comfortable doing it. I’m a pretty good researcher. I have also learned to network with makers in the jewelry district. For example, I finally have a relationship with somebody that does casting and it’s good to have that option. I made a wedding ring for somebody recently that was meant to be really loose; the shape was flat, but had a weird contour. It was a very specific, difficult shape to nail down. When I had the final product in silver, I had it cast in gold. Instead of having to recreate all those little nuances, I kind of learned to take advantage of the resources that we have here in the city. It’s amazing here. You have everything you could ever need.
Do you ever get entangled with ideas for pieces that deviate from the cohesiveness of your collections?
Not really, but I will say that my tendency is to make really big pieces lately. Big pieces are not the easiest to sell to customers. For example, this pendant right here is something that Martin [Lila’s boyfriend] and I’m working on together right now. It’s kind of a crazy piece, you know? I’m trying to figure out how to follow this path that I’m really interested in—this big, crazy stuff—and still make it accessible. I guess the short answer is that I don’t really deviate from what I make.
Is it challenging to maintain that cohesiveness in your work when you take on rings, pendants, cuffs and earrings?
I don’t really find that challenging. I’ve been doing this for a long time now and I think it’s more of a challenge for me to deviate from this style I work in naturally. I do feel like I have a pretty definitive style and that’s a byproduct of the last 10 years of me doing this.
What are some of your big influences that people wouldn’t be able to gather from seeing one of your pieces? You pointed out this Redwood Tree stump behind me and I love that whole concept of bringing nature inside.
Totally. You can definitely see the influence of the natural environment in my workspace. Also, I’m really obsessed with old, rusted tools and bits of metal that have been dug up from god knows where.
When you consider jewelry, it’s often associated with this idea of collecting. Do you collect a lot of things? It doesn’t have to be jewelry.
Shoes. [Laughs] I do have a pretty big jewelry collection on the wall over here. Most of the pieces are mine, but a lot of them aren’t. That’s just my personal collection and I have more in the bathroom. I guess I don’t have very specific collections, but I do collect a lot of pretty little things.
Who are some of your favorite designers?
In the jewelry world?
Yeah. When you’re not wearing your own stuff, whose stuff do you find yourself wearing most frequently?
There aren’t many, but there are a couple of people I should mention. I think she was only on the scene for a little while in the ‘80s, but I love Pauline Rader’s stuff. I have one of her necklaces in the bathroom that I can show you. It definitely has this ‘80s flash to it, but it’s also very chic. In terms of contemporary designers, I love Pamela Love and she’s a friend of mine. She’s doing some incredible work. It’s fun to see the evolution of her work.
What about the evolution of Lila Rice?
I think there’s a lot of design potential that I haven’t fulfilled yet. I’m trying to figure out how to get to that next phase. There are things that are bigger and more exciting that I want to tackle in the coming years. How’s that for a vague answer? [Laughs]
What about in terms of different materials to serve as the foundation for your pieces?
I don’t do a lot of stonework, but I used to when I first started out. I would like to do more fine jewelry and work with gold, which I do from time to time, but it’s just so wildly expensive. I used to do work with wood. I did a wood and metal line years and years ago, which was really fun. I would like to find a way to bring a little bit of wood back into the collection in a way that’s a little more practical because I find that wood isn’t very durable.
What kind of crowd do you cater to most frequently? Is it predominantly women? Do you appeal to a certain age bracket?
It’s weird because, since I started making jewelry, I’ve found that my stuff is universally appealing. I started making jewelry for women exclusively, but the jewelry I make is very masculine and men were always attracted to it. I sell tons of pendants to men and rings and cuffs occasionally. The age range is really broad. My friend, Mary Meyer, used to joke about my collection when I first started out because all of our girlfriends made pieces that moms loved. All of our friends would buy each other’s pieces for their moms who are in their 50s and 60s.
How did you come to know Mary and all of these local designers? It very much feels like you have a collective going on.
We kind of do have a collective. Mary and I’ve known each other since college in California. I think I had just started making jewelry when we met. She wasn’t producing clothing yet at that point; she was a printmaker and a painter. So we really grew up together in the design world. We both have enormous collections of each other’s pieces because we’ve been trading for the last 12 years. In terms of the general community, I came to New York 5 years ago and a lot of it has to do with the fact that the jewelry world here is very connected. It’s not a huge community, but it’s an exciting and thriving one. If you’re open to it, you’ll meet your jewelry contemporaries very naturally. Mary has a lot to do with me knowing a lot of designers because she’s such a hustler. [Laughs] And she’s right here!
That’s right! She’s right around the corner.
She actually got her space the same day I got my space.
Yeah! We were living in Greenpoint prior to that. We lived together in Oakland for a few years prior to that. We’re design sisters.
Do you miss California at all?
There are things that I miss, but New York is where I’m supposed to be now.