Episode 137: Part 1 – Tess Sholom: From the Runways of Paris to the Goldsmith’s Studio with Goldsmith Tess Sholom
What you’ll learn in this episode:
- What it was like to design jewelry for high-fashion runways in the 70s and 80s
- How the right piece of jewelry can transform the wearer
- Why creative problem solving is the best skill you can have as a goldsmith
- How Tess’ work wound up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and other museums
- How the jewelry field has changed with the popularization of social media
Blue Sky Chalcedony
Circes Circle Necklace
Its A Wrap Necklace
About Tess Sholom
Warm and malleable but also strong and enduring, gold shines with the spirit of life itself. For designer and jeweler Tess Sholom, gold is both medium and muse. Tess Sholom began her jewelry career in fashion jewelry in 1976, designing pieces that appeared on the runways of Karl Lagerfeld, Oscar de la Renta and James Galanos, and the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
Her fashion work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, Museum of the City of New York, the Racine Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Fashion Institute of Technology, and other museums.
After two successful decades in fashion jewelry, she trained as a goldsmith and fell under the spell of high-karat gold. She decided to stop designing high-volume fashion jewelry and begin again as a hands-on studio artist, creating one-of-a-kind 22k gold jewelry in the workshop.
Tess Sholom always had an eye for accessorizing, but she didn’t realize it would lead her to a long and fruitful career as a jewelry designer. While working as a cancer researcher, a long-shot pitch to Vogue opened the door to a 30-year career as a jewelry designer for fashion runways. Her latest career move was opening Tess Sholom Designs, where she creates one-of-a-kind, high-karat gold pieces. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how she designed jewelry for Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass and Karl Lagerfeld; why problem solving is the thread that runs through all her careers; and how she plays on gold’s timeless, mystical quality in her work. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Tess Sholom. Many of you may have been aware of her fabulous statement pieces she designed for the runway, or you may have drooled over the pieces without knowing who the designer was. Today, she has taken a different path and is now both a designer and a jeweler in high-karat gold. She operates Tess Sholom Designs. We’ll hear all about that today, her whole jewelry journey and about what she’s doing. Tess, welcome to the program.
Tess: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. It must be an interesting one, because you’ve covered a lot of different areas.
Tess: It has covered a lot of different areas, and it’s been on for a long time. When I graduated college, I actually went into cancer research. I was working in a laboratory and found that I didn’t like the isolation, so I went to Physicians and Surgeons Medical Center for a year to become a physical therapist. That I liked; solving problems, helping people.
Then, the year I married my husband in 1976, we were invited to a wedding in the woods. We were told to wear jeans because we were going to be in the woods and rolling around in the woods, and I thought, “This is awful. A wedding? This is when I try to get all dressed up in my best, and I’m wearing jeans?” But I complied. I bought a pretty gauze top; they were in style in the 70s. I made a necklace of beads and seeds and ribbons, and I made a belt to go with it. At the wedding, people kept saying, “That’s beautiful. Where did you get it?” Every time I said I made it, they would say, “Well, you should be doing this professionally.” It’s crazy. It put a bug in my ear, and I’ve always been like that. When a path presents itself, I say, “O.K., let’s try this. Let’s try it. Let’s see what’ll happen.”
Sharon: I love that.
Tess: And so, I did. I started walking around looking in stores to see how necklaces were finished. What were the clasps like? Within a month, I took a couple of things to Vogue Magazine. They gave me an instant credit; they gave me an editorial credit right away. Saks Fifth Avenue bought that necklace, and it was featured as an editorial credit in the magazine. That’s how I started. Within a very short time, Vogue Magazine called me and said, “Oscar de la Renta is looking for a jeweler to make jewelry for his runway.” After that, it just kept growing and growing. One designer, Bill Blass, saw my work in Women’s Wear Daily and he got in touch with me; Giorgio di Sant’Angelo and on and on. Karl Lagerfeld sent his secretary to meet me in New York, and then I went to Paris and collaborated with him on one of his shows. I designed jewelry for that show.
Sharon: Did you turn around and go, “Oh my god! Look what I’m doing now”?
Tess: It was like having the tiger by the tail, seriously. I hadn’t planned it. Adornment is old. It’s probably the first attempt at art that man ever made, to separate his body with berry dyes, with beads, with leaves. It’s a very old idea, adornment, and I’ve always felt the picture was not quite finished unless you were accessorizing. It ultimately was natural for me to think about making jewelry to complement a look, an action look, a closing look.
Sharon: I can imagine the peasant blouse you had in that era, but you actually said, “Oh, I need something,” and you made it yourself. I would have just said, “Oh, it needs something,” and gone through my closet or gone without anything.
Tess: That’s interesting. I guess what makes me a maker—from the time I was little, my mother brought me up with the housewifely arts. One of them was embroidery. I learned to use my hands early, and I was always changing things around. If I had a garment and I didn’t like the way it looked, I just changed it. I would put a stitch here, a stitch there. I broke apart some costume jewelry beads of pearls at Claire’s and sewed them on a sweater because I wanted that look. I’ve always done that. I’ve always done things with my hands making things.
Sharon: Would you say you were artistic from a young age? Besides knowing how to do this, were you creative? It sounds like you were.
Tess: I was creative, but my family was focused on medicine, lawyers, doctors, that kind of thing. They did not think I was artistic. They thought I was a little fussy because I wanted things to look the way I wanted them to look. They didn’t really think of me as an artist.
Sharon: You studied what, biology in college?
Tess: I went to Barnard and I had a bachelor’s degree. My major was in science. It was botany, but I had just as many credits in fine arts, actually. That should have given me a hint, but I was focused on science. That’s where I wanted to be, but it turned out no, I did not like the isolation of a lab.
Sharon: I can understand that. Were you going full time? It seems like there was quite a swath of your career where you were doing jewelry for the runway. Did you do that full time for different designers for a while?
Tess: While I was doing that, I was also supplying boutiques and department stores. I started this in 1976 and very soon, I realized once again that I was alone. I looked in Vogue Magazine to see who else was doing this kind of jewelry, because it was different. High-fashion costume jewelry was very different from the prestigious houses, Monet, Coraux, Trifari. They made beautiful costume jewelry that to this day lasts, but our expression was quite different.
I found a number of other designers in the city who were doing the same thing more or less that I was. We got together and formed an association called the Fashion Accessories Designers Association, called FADA. My husband used to tease me and say, “You’re the mada of FADA,” but we were all entrepreneurs from some other place. One was a court stenographer; one was a potter; one was a knitter, but we all made accessories. So, we formed this organization and sold to the same places, so that we had an ability to protect ourselves a little. Sometimes the big stores would try to take advantage, and because we were all selling to the same people, we were able to defend ourselves.
Sharon: That’s very smart. How did you ferret the people out? How did you find these other people?
Tess: I looked in the back of Vogue Magazine. Wherever I saw a credit that looked more or less like the expression that I was doing, I would look them up and get in touch with them.
Sharon: I want to talk to you more about this, but I want to hear how you got into—now you make things in high-karat gold and precious, not diamonds and stuff, but nice gems, colorful gems. How did you get into making and goldsmithing?
Tess: I had a desire. I always had this desire to have my collection in a museum and to be recognized by a museum. It was a goal of mine somehow, but I never knew what to do about it. However, quite accidentally, the business began to change. The designers were not using accessories so much, so I began to shift my focus towards making sterling silver tea sets and boxes, because I was trying to make sure that if in fact the jewelry did begin to lessen, I would have some other outlet. At that time, someone came to my house for tea and saw a silver tea set. She was a curator from the Museum of the City of New York, and it was fascinating to see her expression. If you remember the scene in Julius Caesar where he’s offered the crown, he wants it; he refuses it, but he’s reaching for it. I saw that same kind of reaction from this lady who was looking at my tea set. Finally, she asked me for it for the museum. It was their first sterling silver acquisition of the 20th century.
Sharon: Did you make it or did you design it?
Tess: I designed it and it was made in my factory by my head metalworker. By this point, I had 20 employees. I literally had a tiger by the tail, because as an entrepreneur, I started out on my tabletop and eventually had to keep moving because I kept increasing. So, that was the first acquisition. I don’t quite remember how the Metropolitan Museum of Art got to me, but they came to me. The Brooklyn Museum of Art came to me, the Museum at FIT. There were a couple of museums in the Midwest that some clients donated to.
That got me thinking about my jewelry as art. I took a couple of courses at Jewelry Arts Institute, and I was fascinated by working with gold. There’s nothing like 22-karat gold. It is beautiful. It’s very malleable; you can do so much with it. There’s something a little mysterious, a little mystical about 22-karat gold, because gold is eternal; nothing can happen to it. It doesn’t rust; it doesn’t turn to ash. The only thing that happens is that you can melt it down and reuse it. So, any piece you have, it could have been a nose ring for a peasant girl; it could have been part of a tiara of queen or a pope. It could be anything, and because it doesn’t really disappear, it has this timelessness, this eternal quality about it. So, that’s how I got into fine jewelry. The gold is the main piece. The main thing about jewelry for me is the gold and the stones. I love color, so of course I’m drawn to stones, but the gold is a means of showing the stones off.
Sharon: Interesting. We will have to link to your website when we post this, and I’m encouraging everybody to look at your website and see the color in the jewelry. It’s just amazing. It’s really striking. It’s beautiful. Were these curators at the museums interested in your things because they thought, “Oh, that’s the most fantastic design?” I think of a museum as saying, “If Paul Revere made that, I’d like to put in a museum.”
Tess: It’s also a history because they wanted a provenance. They wanted to know for whom it was made, who wore it, what season. It was also a means of collecting and annotating history.
Sharon: The same thing with the tea pots?
Tess: No, the tea pot, she just loved the design. That was a different story. That wasn’t jewelry. That was something else and she just loved it. I wasn’t going to argue.
Sharon: I can think of, “Oh, I love it. I want it for my living room,” as opposed to “Oh, I love it. I want to put it in a museum.” I’m not sure I understand the connection between putting these in museums. It’s fabulous to do.
Tess: Why do we collect things in museums then? Museums have changed a lot, but museums essentially are treasure houses. They house treasures; they house things that are deemed to be beautiful. Also, they may spark your imagination or make you think about something differently. So no, I’m not surprised. I was thrilled and surprised that the museums wanted my work, but I’m not surprised that when they think something is beautiful, they want it for the museum.
Sharon: I have to say, I think my whole concept of what a museum is has been changing. I used to think that museums were all history. As I looked at museums in the west, anything over 50 years old is old. I used to think that when I went to a museum, “That’s not ancient,” or “It’s not 500 years old. It’s just from a decade or two ago.” Because I see so many things that are current in museums, or current within the last 25 years, I’m realizing that my concept of what a museum is is outdated.
Tess: Museums are having a difficult time also. In order to survive, they are switching gears. They’re trying many different things so they don’t only look to the past. They’re trying to stay current and be relevant to what’s going on in the world, which is part of what fashion does. Fashion does indicate, mirror and explain an era, always.
Sharon: You fell in love with metalsmithing and silver and gold. Your accessory business where you were designing for the runway, was that still going on?
Tess: No, that began to change, and I decided to stop doing that kind of work. As I said, I foresaw that it was going to begin to change, so I stopped that. I devoted myself more to learning the ancient goldsmithing techniques so I could make everything myself, and then I started selling. First, I stared with semiprecious and silver, and then I moved on to gold. Now I work exclusively in gold and precious and semiprecious stones.
Sharon: And you’re making everything yourself too.
Tess: I’m making everything myself.
Tess: I’m still learning things, and I still also use the jewelry arts as a studio. It’s fascinating. We all feel so privileged to be able to work in gold. It’s such a wonderful medium. We all have that same attitude of awe about this wonderful metal.
Sharon: It’s really true. I was at a conference several years ago, and someone pointed out that once you take the gold out of the ground, that’s it. It never goes back in, and I thought, “Yeah, that’s really true.” What are the differences you find, besides the fact that everything is a one-off, in terms of what you’re doing? How are you finding the audiences you’re doing this for compared to what you were doing before?
Tess: I started the costume jewelry business in 1976 and for a while, I essentially retired. Now, I find that social media is a very, very different world. I need a lot of help with that. I need help with social media. The younger people understand social media and are good at it, so I need help in that area to perfect everything. I have found that it has been very successful, especially Instagram. Instagram and my website, all of that, has been helpful. Before, I went to an editor, she liked my work and then the rest just fell in step, but now it’s different. For example, in October I’m going to California to do a luxury event. My work is gold; it’s heavy; it’s expensive. That is not something that is sold easily all the time. So, I go to these targeted events where people who are willing to spend the money attend.
Sharon: It is such a different world with social media. I entered the digital world in the mid-90s and the changes since then—it’s a different world. It’s amazing, and it keeps changing every two days.
Tess: I was in a restaurant the other day and this little, two-year-old girl was using her phone. I thought about how it took me many, many years to start using my phone.
Sharon: Yes, when I see kids on their phones, I’m like, “Oh my god!” When you see kids who speak a language you’re trying to learn, it’s amazing. Do you find that you get a response from Instagram and other social media?