Episode 137: Part 2 – 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: 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?
Tess: I do, yeah. It’s amazing. Especially the past year, when everyone was pretty much isolated, it made a big difference. People are now getting accustomed to Amazon; everybody buys things through Amazon. When you want to find something, people say, “Oh, why don’t you look on Amazon?” We have become this very immediate culture. We want things immediately so you don’t have to go out of your house. You just click the computer and get what you want.
Sharon: Very true. The Metropolitan Museum has what looks like a large collection of your designs for the runway and fashion jewelry. How did that come about?
Tess: I’m trying to remember. It was after the curator had taken my work for the Museum of the City of New York. I don’t remember, but I do remember spending an entire summer with my assistant giving everything a provenance. It took a long time to document everything because it had to be very specific. I think part of the reason why they have such a large collection is when the Brooklyn Museum of Art was renovating, they transferred some of their collection to the Met, I believe, and they just kept it in their archives.
Sharon: If you’re researching online, there’s a lot there. It’s interesting to see the designers that the pieces were done for. As I was surfing and trying to get some background, how do you feel when you come across a piece of yours on eBay that you made in the 80s? How do you feel about that?
Tess: I love the fact that it still there. It’s wonderful. I’m very pleased, and of course I’m amazed to see how much it’s increased in value. On eBay, it goes for a lot more than I sold it 30 years ago. To go back and see that something that I made 30, 40 years ago is still relevant means so much. One of the worries of becoming an older person is if I am going to stay relevant, and it’s very gratifying to see people are still purchasing something I made many years ago. It’s interesting because it makes it timeless, even though it was made for a particular season; it was made either for a fall collection or a spring collection. 40 years later, somebody still wants it and it’s still relevant. It’s in a way timeless, and that’s very gratifying to me.
Sharon: I can see how that would be validating.
Tess: It’s excellent.
Sharon: Is that something you think about when you’re making your current pieces, about whether somebody’s going to be looking?
Tess: That’s interesting. No, it never occurred to me because jewelry is problem solving. It’s like a meditation because you must think about what you’re doing, especially if you’re using an acetylene torch. One second of inattention and it’s gone. You have a lump of gold, which is very beautiful in itself, but not quite what you wanted. I’m thinking about what problems are presenting themselves while I’m making the piece, and they do. It’s your vision coming to light. That’s one thing, but it’s a lot of overcoming obstacles. I’m working with a metal; I’m working with a flame, and they each have their own characteristics and their own minds, and I have to cooperate with all that. So, that’s very interesting. I don’t think about that. I just think about the piece I’m making and how I’m going to do the best I can. I have a lot of reverence for the material I’m using and I want to do it justice, so my focus is on trying to do the best I can while I’m working. I never thought about that before.
Sharon: Do you design your pieces? I think of a pencil and paper. Do you sketch out a design before you start?
Tess: Often I do that, but sometimes if I’m sculpting with gold, I have an idea of what I want and I just try to coax the metal to melt in the way I want it to. That’s a lot of fun because you never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes it’s just that lucky accident that happens.
My inspirations have come from everywhere. I remember once Bill Blass called me into his office and said, “I’m going to do roses for my spring collection and I’d like you to do something to go along with that.” I thought, “Roses, oh my, I don’t want to do anything representational.” I was leaving for a ski trip with husband. While I was skiing and I was on the slopes, this Greek song came to mind about roses. The word in Greek for rose is “30 petals” and I thought, “Oh, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll do a distillation of the rose. I’ll do three petals,” and I did. I did a bracelet that had three petals that were fanned out but connected at the base, and a necklace and earrings that way. I showed it to Bill who said, “Well, it doesn’t look a rose, but I love it,” and he ordered 60 pieces of it in brass, nickel, copper and also in Lucite.
Often my inspiration is from nature. I never walk through the park—I walk through the park a lot—without seeing something that I want to translate into gold. The idea is flowers and leaves are ephemeral. That’s it. They give us lots of joy when they’re here, but then to capture them in gold is wonderful because that makes them last longer. So, my inspiration comes from nature as well, but it can be a thought; it can be a song; it can be the way a banister curves. I don’t know.
Sharon: As you’re working, is the vision in your head? Are you saying, “That’s not the way I drew it out or did it on the computer”?
Tess: Yes, that happens a lot. It happens a lot that it doesn’t translate. Paper and pencil are very different from three-dimensional things. So, it happens a lot, and if I don’t like it then I start again. But often I do like it.
Sharon: Are people ordering commissions from you, or are they ordering straight from your website or Instagram? How is that working?
Tess: They do both. They either buy what they see or—and this is very gratifying—people will bring me their old pieces that have sentimental value. They don’t want to get rid of them, but they are not their style; they’re not attractive. I usually remake them. I redesign them. I like that because there’s something about the energy of someone else having worn this. It becomes a legacy, but it’s still my expression.
Sharon: That must be a lot of fun.
Tess: It is. I had an aunt when I was a young child who would send me jewelry from Greece. She would say to me, “I wore it before giving it to you because I want my energy to go with it,” and I’ve never forgotten that.
Sharon: There is that energy. It’s also a testament to you because you walk down the street and so many jewelry stores say, “Bring us your old pieces and remake them.” They’re looking for something they know only you can deliver on that remake.
Tess: Yes, they want me to do it in my expression. The jewelry stores do very beautiful work, obviously, but they’re not always very customized or individual or taking you into consideration.
Sharon: And that was exactly the question I was going to ask. Are you working side-by-side in a sense with the person who asks you for something?
Tess: Absolutely. Of course it’s my expression because that’s why they came to me, but I never impose something. It has to be something we mutually agree on and is going to work.
Sharon: Have you ever made something that somebody said, “Oh, that’s not what I had in mind at all”?
Sharon: Well, that’s a pretty good track record. When you were working on the runway, like you were talking about the rose theme, did each model on the runway have a Lucite rose and one had a silver rose?
Tess: Yeah, it was like that. The trick also was that I was working with a number of designers for the same season. I had to be very careful not to have one look like the other, which wasn’t difficult because they were all different looks. When I was doing Galanos and Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo all in the same season, that all had to look different, and it did because they had different personalities and their clothes were different.
Sharon: Did you ever have anybody say—no names, but “If you’re doing work for John Smith, then I really—”
Tess: No, no one ever said that to me.
Sharon: Are you selling now to stores? Tell us about your business today, Tess Sholom Designs.
Tess: I have been approached by a former buyer at Bergdorf’s who would like to introduce me to the buyer now. So, we’ll see. I haven’t tried to do retail yet because it’s different, but they’re willing to do one-of-a-kind. As long as someone is willing to do one-of-a-kind, it’s different. In the past, retail wanted the whole story; they wanted multiples, but retail has changed. That’s one thing, but the other thing is I mostly do private sales like events.
Sharon: Is it mostly word of mouth? Besides social media, let’s say if you’re doing a private event in New York, how are they hearing about you?
Tess: Right. I have a salesperson and a media person who scouts out these things for me.
Sharon: Wow! That’s great. That must be very gratifying to meet people and talk to them about your pieces, give them your take on them.
Tess: That’s one of the best parts of this, aside from the joy of making the jewelry: dealing with a customer who loves the jewelry and who loves how it makes them feel. Jewelry can really be transformative. It enhances your essence. It’s beautiful so it reflects your beauty. People respond to that, and that’s extremely gratifying. I had a customer once who said to me that normally when she goes to a restaurant, she gets up to go the powder room and she walks through the space with her head down. One night she was wearing my necklace, and she said she put her head up and walked to the bathroom, the walkway she had to go through, and she felt wonderful. That made me feel good because it did something for her. It’s not superficial. Jewelry is not superficial. As I said before, it can be transformative. It can be commemorative. It can make you happy; it can enhance you, make you feel good about yourself.
Sharon: Yes, it can definitely make you happy.
Tess: I remember once I was selling to a banker and his wife in Luxembourg. He’s looking at me and he’s looking at his wife wearing her earrings, looking back and forth, and I said to him, “I understand your dilemma. You know a lot about finance. You don’t know anything about pearls. What you need to know at this point is does your wife feel beautiful wearing the pearls?”
Sharon: And that was a sale.
Tess: That was a sale because that was all it needed to be. He wasn’t buying an estate, and he wasn’t putting down his mortgage for the earrings. Obviously, they were good quality; that’s not the issue, but I gave him permission to look at what the reality is. The reality is does jewelry make you feel good? It did, and it was reasonable. His wife liked it, and he was happy that he could make his wife happy.
Sharon: That’s a great way to look at it. Does your wife feel beautiful or does the person feel good in it?
Sharon: At one of these trunk shows, did you ever have a prospect or somebody looking at your jewelry and as they put it on, you just said, “No, that doesn’t work”?
Tess: Yes, because part of my job is to pair the right piece of jewelry with the customer. That’s more important. Even if they walk away with nothing, it’s more important to get something that’s right for them than not. I do remember an instance when I was at a trunk show years ago in Texas. A woman walked in with her daughter, a long, beautiful, slim girl, and her mother said, “Do you have anything for this strange, long body?” And I said, “Half of the world wants to look like this. Yes.” I saw the girl looking at these thin belts, and I said, “Why don’t you try this on?” It was a big, bold brass belt. I watched her as she put it on and looked at herself in the mirror, and you could see the changeover. She was so surprised. She was amazed, but it was the right thing for her. It was totally different from anything she had worn or chosen before. It was right for her and it made me feel good.
Sharon: It sounds like you have a natural eye for that. I have interior designer friends who can walk into a room and say, “If you remove that table over there,” whereas I would never think about it.
Tess: Right, I guess it helps to have that eye. I love what I do, so I want it to be shown off to its best. The person and the jewelry enhance each other. It’s the right thing.
Sharon: Well, it sounds like the buyer has the right person, the right advice, the right eye with you looking at them.
Tess: We share an interest. Obviously, we both love jewelry. The customer comes in because she loves jewelry and I love it, so we’ve already got a good meeting ground.
Sharon: I’m curious; this is an off-the-wall question perhaps, but do you see any similarities between what you were doing with cancer research early on, or botany and biology, and what you do now? Does any of this reflect in terms of your personality?
Tess: I’m trying to think about your question. It always comes down to problem solving. There’s always something; it’s either a puzzle that needs to be fitted or an obstacle that needs to be overcome. Those are skills that are transferrable from one line of work to another, being able to find the answer. There’s always a question. There’s an obstacle, sometimes, for the aura of gold to be achieved. So, the ability to think around something and to think out of the box, that’s the thread that runs through all of my careers.
Sharon: That was the key word I was thinking of, the thread. That was exactly the word that came to mind. Tess, thank you very much. This is very interesting, and you have an interesting journey. Thank you for sharing with us. We really appreciate it.
Tess: My pleasure.
Sharon: So glad to have you.