Episode 140: Part 1 – Creating Modern Jewels with an Old-World Feel with Multiple Award-Winning Jewelry Designer, Cynthia Bach
What you’ll learn in this episode:
- Why much of Cynthia’s jewelry has an old-world, Renaissance feel
- Cynthia’s advice for aspiring jewelry designers
- How Cynthia designs her pieces around her customers’ style
- Why creativity is the driving force behind change
- How understanding jewelry history can help designers find new forms of expression
About Cynthia Bach
Cynthia Bach has been a jewelry designer for more than four decades. After studying art in Munich, Germany, Cynthia received her BFA degree in art and jewelry making from McMurry University in Abilene, Texas, where she met and apprenticed bench jewelry making with master jeweler Jim Matthews. In 1989 Jim and Cynthia were recruited by Van Cleef & Arpels in Beverly Hills to run design and fabrication of the jewelry department. In 1991 Cynthia launched her own collection with Neiman Marcus nationwide.
She has been the recipient of numerous awards from the jewelry industry including the coveted International Platinum Guild Award, the Spectrum Award, and the Couture Award. Her designs have been recognized and awarded by the American Gem Trade Association.
She is internationally known and respected and in 2014 was invited to Idar-Oberstein, Germany to judge the New Designer Contest. In 2015 her work was part of the international traveling exhibition “The Nature of Diamonds” organized by the American Museum of Natural History and sponsored by DeBeers. An important piece of her work resides in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
In 2019 Cynthia’s jewelry was featured in Juliet de la Rochefoucauld’s “Women Jewellery Designers”, a magnum opus book of women jewelry designers throughout history.
18 karat yellow gold Crown Collection maltese cross crown ring with rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and diamonds
18 karat yellow gold Flower Bouquet Collection flower hoop earrings with multi-colored gemstones
18 karat yellow gold Gitan Collection, filigree paisley’s with diamonds and rubies
18 karat yellow gold Royal Charm Bracelet
Cynthia Bach has loved jewelry for as long as she can remember. That enthusiasm is what helped her land an apprenticeship with master jeweler (and later, her husband) Jim Matthews, scored her a 25-year partnership with Nieman Marcus, and continues to fuel her desire to create timeless yet innovative designs today. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about the old-world techniques that inspire her designs; her experience working with Van Cleef & Arpels, Neiman Marcus, and red-carpet stylists; and her advice for budding jewelry designers. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. This is a two-part Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, our guest is multiple award-winning jewelry designer Cynthia Bach, who has been designing jewelry for 40 years. Her designs are in demand by celebrities and high-end jewelry showcases. She’s recognized for jewels that harken back to yesterday with a nod to the Renaissance. She is also included among an extraordinarily talented group of jewelry designers in the beautiful book “Women Jewelry Designers.” We’ll hear all about her jewelry journey today. Cynthia, welcome to the program.
Cynthia: Thank you, Sharon, for having me today. I’m very excited to be here.
Sharon: I’m so glad to have you, and I’m looking forward to hearing about your jewelry journey. Tell us a little about that. Did you play with jewelry when you were young, or were you creative when you were young? Go ahead.
Cynthia: Sharon, since I was a little girl, I was very attracted to my mother’s jewelry and all the sparkly stones and the colors. I would take her costume jewelry apart and redesign it. I don’t know how old I was, very young, maybe six, seven, eight years old, and I always had this fascination with sparkly jewels. I can remember back in the day when W Magazine had the paper magazine that was like a newspaper, probably before a lot of people were born. We’re looking at probably the 80s. I remember looking at pictures of Paloma Picasso and Tiffany and Elsa Peretti and thinking, “I want to be a jewelry designer. I love jewelry.” Maybe I was 12, 13. That was in the back of my head.
Sharon: So, it was early on.
Cynthia: Early on. When I went to college, my grandmother, who was living in New York in a retirement home, wrote me a letter that said, “Cindy, make up your mind what you want to do because you have opportunities that I did not have as a woman.” She was born, I think, in the late 1800s, turn of the century. She said, “Decide what it is you want to do and do it.” I was taking art classes at the university, and I said, “I’m going to be a jewelry designer.”
We didn’t have a jewelry department, but I was determined. I went to the sculpture teacher and said, “I want to learn how to make jewelry,” and he said, “I’ve never taught jewelry, but if you get six students together, we’ll form a class.” I recruited six students and we made a class and learned together. We would do casting behind the art building in the sand, like the old, ancient art of sand casting, where we would put our wax in a coffee can and dig a hole in the dirt and then pour. At that time, I worked in brass and copper because silver was like what working in platinum would be to me today. That was the start of a passion for me that I pursued.
Sharon: You went to college in Texas if I recall.
Cynthia: Yes. My father was in the military. He married a war bride. He was in World War II, and he met my mother in Berlin during the bombing of Berlin and he brought her back. She was a war bride, but she loved living in Europe, so my father always asked to be stationed in Europe. I spent 13 years growing up in Germany. I did a year of college in Munich, Germany, before I went to Texas to finish my degree. My father was stationed in Texas then.
Sharon: How did growing up abroad in Germany influence you as a jewelry designer?
Cynthia: My mother really focused on culture more than anything. I don’t know why. She wanted us to be very cultured and well-rounded and to experience good food. She would take me to the Stuttgart Ballet, and she’d take me to Berlin and say, “You’re going to see the Berlin Opera. It’s the best opera in the world.” Living in Germany, we would travel every summer and go to Greece or Italy and go to museums and concerts. In Europe, it’s much easier for everyone to enjoy the culture, the opera, the ballets because it’s affordable to everyone. For $30, you can go to the opera. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to become a member. Everyone is more a part of culture there, and of course Europe is so cultured because it’s so old. It’s hundreds and hundreds of years old, so you have that sense of history and architecture and the castles. It was a very creatively fertile place for me to grow up. I do equate that with a lot of my jewelry designs and my love of art and culture.
Sharon: I can see the influence in your jewelry when you say that, because your jewelry has a lot that appears Renaissance-like, let’s say, and it has a granulation.
Cynthia: Yes, I think it has a very European look to it. In 1991, when I officially became my own jewelry designer, creating my own vision and designs, it was based on medieval history and Gothic and Renaissance and crowns and all the symbolism I researched at the library. It really did harken back to a lot of what I saw growing up in Europe.
Sharon: What is it that still attracts you decades later? You still have that sense in your jewelry, which is so elegant in many ways, in terms of having that European feel. What is it that still attracts you today?
Cynthia: I think there are several things. One is that I look at a lot of jewelry books. One of my other passions is jewelry history and all the different designs throughout history: the 30s and 40s that were so industrial, when casting was invented back in the 40s, and the 50s, where jewelry could be made en masse, as opposed to when it was all hand-fabricated by the French and the Italians and the Russians. That was a turning point in jewelry.
What was the question? You were asking why it is still European. There are two reasons. One is I study art jewelry history. Art history, jewelry history, they’re all related. The other is my husband who is my partner, Jim Matthews, who I met during college because I needed someone to help me set a stone. It was an amethyst, and I didn’t have the equipment in college. I heard about this amazing jeweler downtown in Abilene, Texas. I went from Munich, Germany, to Abilene to Beverly Hills.
Anyway, he is just a genius. He started whittling wood when he was five years old. He ended up owning this jewelry store, and he would hand-carve the waxes making his own tools, which is very old-school and a dying art. I think it’s the combination of my love of jewelry history and my influences of being in Europe, and then his old-school jewelry carving and filigree and this amazing, intricate carving he could do. To me, it’s like Castellani or some of the Italian handwork that was done in the 18th century. I think it’s the combination of that that gives it that old-world Renaissance feeling.
Sharon: Can you tell us about the division of labor you have now? You work together, so how does that work? Do you design and then he takes the designs?
Cynthia: Yes, we have been working together since I was in college, so for over 40 years we’ve worked together. We were brought out here with Van Cleef & Arpels. He ran the design and fabrication of Van Cleef in Beverly Hills. He had 13 jewelers there on Rodeo Drive when it was still family owned. We were hired by Phillipe Arpels, and they brought us out here from Abilene, Texas, which to me was like, “Wow, we’ve been discovered. Now, we get to make jewelry for kings and queens in Hollywood.”
We’ve worked together so long that we kind of read each other’s minds. It’s like we have ideas, and he has ideas. We have all these ideas on paper I’m sketching. I’m constantly sketching; I’m constantly thinking, and then he will take that and carve it in a three-dimensional space. Sometimes it changes a bit from two dimensions to three dimensions, but it’s almost like we have one mind. Like if you cut us in half, maybe neither one of us could function. I hope not.
Sharon: You sort of touched on this, because you describe your career over and over. When I was reading about you and reading different biographies, you say that your career was a fairy tale. Can you tell me more about why you say that?
Cynthia: Yes, I often say that it was a fairytale for me. First of all, I’ve wanted to make jewelry since I was a very little girl, and then I had the opportunity to start jewelry in college. They actually have an official department now, and I feel like the six of us instigated that. At that time, I just wanted to be a bench jeweler. I wanted to sit down and hand-make pieces. That’s what I loved. I loved fabricating with metal, not so much casting.
Then I had the opportunity to start designing and working with Jim, and to have Van Cleef & Arpels call us and bring us out to Beverly Hills and start making jewelry for that milieu of clients. It was very Cinderella-like. My whole collection is about Cinderella. I even have a chain called the Cinderella necklace. It’s making everyone princesses and kings and queens and adorning your court, bedecking them with jewels. I don’t know if it’s because I’m creative and an artist, but I go into a fantasy when I’m designing. It’s a fantastical world. It doesn’t have anything to do with the day to day, but that is what creativity and art is all about.
Sharon: Wow! It sounds like a dream.
Cynthia: Well, it’s not always a dream. I call it a fairytale journey. I didn’t think when I was a young girl, and even when we owned our own store in Abilene and then went to Van Cleef & Arpels, I didn’t think I would actually be my own jewelry designer, Cynthia Bach, with my own vision, making my own jewelry. To me, that was like, “Wow!” That’s what I always wanted to do and now I’m doing it. But it wasn’t always easy because it’s hard. It’s a hard business. When Nieman Marcus bought my collection, it’s very demanding and competitive. There were many times where I wanted to throw in the towel, but I kept pursing, persistent, persistent. You get your obstacles in life. I think the most important thing, if you really want something, is to be persistent about it and never give up. It is a fairytale, but there are a lot of hard knocks.
Sharon: It sounds like that’s what you would tell somebody starting out in the field, that they have to overcome the obstacles.
Cynthia: Yes, because anytime you’re starting something, any vision you have, the beginning especially is going to be one obstacle after another. You need to break through it.
Sharon: When you graduated, did you work with your husband-to-be before you married him and then the two of you had a store?
Cynthia: Yeah, when I met him—Jim’s about 13 years older than I was, so I think I met him when I was in my mid-20s going to college studying jewelry. I went to his shop, and I was very enthusiastic about how much I loved jewelry and wanted to be a jeweler and make jewelry. Two weeks later, he called me and asked if I would like to work in his trade shop. He also had a trade shop that was doing repairs and sizings and setting stones and casting jewelry, which was probably my best education because it was all basic, hands-on making jewelry. One of the things I am really proud of is that I started out making jewelry from the basic beginning onto now making fine jewelry. He had opened a jewelry store with some other investors, and I was apprenticing with him. After college, all the investors left. I don’t know why. Maybe it was me; I ran them all off.
Sharon: Probably not.
Cynthia: We were the only two people left owning the jewelry business, but we were really the jewelers in it anyway. They were all businesspeople, and we were creative people. So yes, he opened the store before I finished college, and then after I finished college we worked together for three or four years before we married.
Sharon: It’s impressive that you say you were a bench jeweler before you were a designer because there are not many designers that can say that.
Cynthia: That’s very true. Jewelry’s one of the fields in art that you can actually sit and hand-make the pieces yourself and call yourself an artist, or you can just be a designer and have a collection made by a shop somewhere. Back in the old days, to be a jeweler or a designer, you had to actually make jewelry; you had to actually be a jeweler. But what also sets jewelry apart is the creative. You look at Fabergé, he had a whole shop of artisans working for him, and he just had this vivid, fabulous imagination making some of the most brilliant jewelry in the world. The creative is, to me, one of the most essential parts to a great piece of jewelry.
Schlumberger had the creative. He didn’t sit down and make jewelry himself, but he knew the shape of a woman’s ear, and he would make this earring that would set his jewelry apart because of the shapes. He had such an eye for shapes. I always thought to myself, “Ultimately, what is jewelry? It is a beautiful shape to make a woman look beautiful.” That’s not necessarily true, but that’s how I look at jewelry when I’m designing it. How the wearer going to look in this piece of jewelry? How is it going to make her feel beautiful and look beautiful and enhance her beauty?
Sharon: That’s interesting. I’m thinking about a few things. First of all, that Fabergé and Schlumberger had an eye, whether it was for a shape or they were just extremely creative. What do you feel you have an eye for?