Natalie Frigo, a local NYC jewelry designer, is putting the glamor back into gems through her mindful sourcing and production methods. The elegance of jewelry is everlasting, but often so is the exploitative practices of mining. Natalie creates stunning pieces, both edgy and elegant, from ethically sourced gem stones, and reclaimed metals. We are clamoring over her timeless pieces + progressive production methods!
We recently spoke with Natalie Frigo about where she mines the inspiration for her gorgeous jewelry, how she jumps the hurdle + sources ethically and what sustainability means to her.
You’re jewelry is extraordinarily beautiful! Tell us about your journey into creating your own jewelry line.
I have always had a serious love for jewelry. I am most drawn to small antiquities, jewelry and otherwise – I feel a real connection to them because it shows our collective human desire to be adorned and surrounded with beautiful objects. I have many memories of being a child in an art museum searching out these tiny metal treasures and being fascinated by the intricate detail. I especially love the presence of a craftsperson’s hand in ancient jewelry. I try to have that aesthetic in my work today – I think it’s very powerful to see that “a person made this”.
You use a lot of reclaimed materials in your pieces, and they look new + fresh! What was the inspiration for creating with reclaimed materials?
I wanted to make jewelry, but I wanted to make as little negative effect as possible. In the beginning, I didn’t know what that meant for jewelry production. My “eureka” moment that made me search out reclaimed metals is when I learned that mining one ounce of new gold creates 20 tons of waste, which seems insane. Especially considering there is enough ore already mined for current jewelry production. To me, things like this, along with unfair labor practices, were unreasonable so I searched out like-minded people for my supplies and production.
I didn’t. I knew a little bit about diamond production and how that had led to some horrible labor conditions. Once I saw that those exploitative conditions (child labor, unsafe working conditions, unreasonable wages…) were used in all types of gemstones, I made an effort to find ethically sourced stones.
People say it’s often too difficult to source ethically. Where do you source your materials from?
My casted metal is 100% recycled. The metal is the same quality as newly mined, so this is an easy choice. My stone dealers know the people they are buying the rough material from and have lapidaries they know and ensure that they are paid a living wage, have proper ventilation and never employ children (a common practice in gemstone production is to have children cut the stones, because their eye sight is exceptional). Also, all of my production is done here in New York City. I particularly love being able to deal directly with everyone.
How does your creative process of making a new piece evolve throughout the process?
When I start a new piece of jewelry, I begin by drawing a rough sketch, just a few lines to make sure I don’t forget the idea. Then I will either shop for the stones for the piece or start something in wax, depending on what’s going to be the dominant material.
Stone shopping is incredibly inspiring. I had a jewel dealer tell me he thought he was a carrier for ADD, because none of his customers could focus on any one thing, they were so excited to look and touch all of the gemstones. There are many varieties of gems, with a great spectrum of colors in each category. Also, there are different cuts, a range of sizes and beads… It’s terrifically endless.
When I begin in wax, I draw my idea on the wax with a marker or a pick, just to get the spatial orientation down. Then I begin filing, carving and adding, until I see the shape of the piece. Once the general idea is there, I stop referring to the sketch and start letting myself improvise. If I already have the gems I’m going to use, I keep them by my side so I can place them on the wax carving as I work and make sure they are still advancing the design. Sometimes I remember a stone from the past and I design a piece around the memory of that gem.
After something is cast, the stones are set and the metal is polished. I love when I am in the final stages of assembly on a piece. I feel it’s only at this time that I really know what it’s going to look like. Sometimes, things don’t work out – they don’t lay right, the weight is not ideal (too light or too heavy), the gems aren’t integral enough to the design. Then I start the whole process over. But the more I design, the closer I get to knowing how something will look when it’s completed. And when the design works out, it’s heaven.
In your eyes, what makes a quality piece of jewelry?
Quality is something that has been thoughtfully made, from the design phase to the craftsmanship that completes the piece. It’s something that you can see and feel. When I see anything of top quality (food, clothing, jewelry, art, music), I can feel my heart slow down, because it is so calming. It makes your life better to be surrounded by it. With jewelry especially, it is important that the design is timeless and not something trendy with a short lifespan.
What is sustainability to you?
Sustainability to me is a 2-fold process. First, it’s about making sure the fashion we buy is well-made – the raw materials are cared for, the labor practices are fair and the end result is thoughtful. The second component is recognizing that we can treasure these well-made objects for a long time, not just a season or two. Hopefully, we can have them for years and even repurpose them when their original use value has worn out.
Where can customers find your jewelry?
My jewelry is available on my site and in 50 boutiques and jewelry stores throughout the US. In NYC, I am in three amazing stores – Albertine in Manhattan, and Bhoomki and Kaight in Brooklyn. In the San Francisco area, I am in the de Young Museum shop and I will be in Philippa Roberts in Oakland starting in June.