Episode 140: Part 2 – 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: 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?
Cynthia: I have an eye for shapes. My jewelry designing is classical and lyrical. I’m not doing post-modern shapes like the wearable art exhibit we saw. I think of my designs as more refined. I love to design jewelry for women. When I’m designing for them, I see what their style is and I want to design around their style, which is not necessarily the normal thing to do. When I design a piece of jewelry, I usually design something I want to wear. Having worked with Nieman Marcus for 25 years, after starting my collection with them, there was always fashion. Every season, I would follow the fashions that so that even though my designs are very classical, they would also be very now. What are the girls wearing now? What are the trends now? But I still wanted it to be timeless and able to be worn a hundred years from today.
Sharon: Have you ever found yourself altering your designs or pieces because you’ve sketched something out and you say, “Oh, that’s too small or too large for what people want today. That’s not what people want”?
Cynthia: I kind of design what I want to design, but because I’ve worked so hands-on doing trunk shows across the country and working with women, I know everyone has a different size earlobe and a different shape face. I will take a design and I’ll make a smaller version and a medium and a bigger to go with the woman’s style. Not every woman can wear a big earring. In that sense, I just take my design and make it more adaptable for different people. I usually design what I want to design because I figure if I want to wear it, other women want to wear it, too.
Sharon: It sounds like that’s been successful for you for decades. You said that you design around a woman’s style. I guess what I want to know is if you saw a woman wearing jewelry that’s very different from yours. Let’s say modernist, angular, large. What do you mean you design around that?
Cynthia: To clarify that a little bit more, I would say the last 25 years where I’ve really been a designer, I’ve worked with a lot of stylists for red carpet dressing. We would work with clothing designers, like when I did Cate Blanchett in the beautiful Gautier. I made the body jewelry—they’re Indian-inspired—and she did the big chain down her back. I remember a lot of beautiful gowns coming in, and even though I would use my jewelry, I always wanted the jewelry to make a statement. To me, it wasn’t all about the dress, but also to make a statement for the wearer. So, when I say I like to design around a woman’s style, a lot of that came from working with stylists and doing red carpet things.
It also comes from working hands-on with women at the Nieman Marcus stores. They would come in and have a dress they were wearing to the ball, and they needed jewelry to go with it. You can’t just throw anything on them. It’s got to go with the dress; it’s got to go with them. I find the way I wear jewelry is I like very big jewelry. I like big rings, big earrings, lots of chains. I layer everything. There are women out there that are much more—they love an exquisite piece of jewelry, but they’ll wear one exquisite earring and one necklace.
Sharon: What’s wrong with them?
Cynthia: You’re another person who’s very theatrical in your jewelry.
Sharon: I understand what you’re saying, but I’m surprised to hear you say that because your jewelry seems very feminine and dainty. I can see how you can stack the rings and everything, but I’m surprised to hear you say you like larger jewelry. That’s all.
Cynthia: I mean when I’m dressing for myself. This is where I’m making pieces for other people. My collection I’m working on now is a lot of flowers with beautiful fall colors, orange and yellow, sapphires and reds and purples, all these colors together. I will take all those chains and wear like seven of them together, whereas if I were selling them in a store, maybe a woman would buy one chain. Ultimately, we have to make a living, but for me, selling my jewelry is my living. To some extent, you have to keep in mind who your audience is as well. Again, I can’t always dictate the way I want them to look.
Sharon: I was just thinking how impressive it is that you’ve been selling to Nieman Marcus for so long. That’s a long run, and hopefully it continues for another 20 years. There are so many people who sell for one season and never see it there again.
Cynthia: Like I told you, Sharon, I made up my mind at the age of 12 that this is what I wanted to do. My determination came from—it was very difficult being a woman. When I sold my collection to Nieman Marcus in 1991, we were brought out to Beverly Hills with Van Cleef & Arpels. The family-owned business went off to sell their company, so we were basically without a job. That was my window for, “O.K., you have nothing to lose. You’re out of a job. If you want to be a jewelry designer, you’re going to do it now.” Well, that was on Monday. On Friday, I called Nieman Marcus in Dallas and flew out there.
I had been making a little crown collection, because I had made a crown for a client for an anniversary present back in 1982. It was a design of a Trifari crown pin that he gave to his wife. He said, “I bought this for my bride in 1955, and now I can afford it in emeralds, rubies and diamonds.” It was a little Trifari crown pin, and I made her this little crown and she wore it every day on a chain. I just thought it was the neatest thing. This was in 1982, and I said, “This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to make crowns.” So, I started researching them at the library, all the different heraldic imagery and all the crowns throughout the world that kings and queens wore, and I brought them to everyone, to the masses. I had presented them to Van Cleef & Arpels, and they were like, “We would never do a crown,” but I made them anyway.
After we lost our job at Van Cleef & Arpels, five days later, I flew to Nieman Marcus. I had 13 crown brooches. Some were fantasies; some were actual miniature crowns from Saudi Arabia or Persia, the English crown. I talked to the buyer, who was actually the president of the jewelry department at that time. In 1991, they did not have a developed jewelry department. There were jewelry designers; there were fashion designers, but jewelry was very generic, so they didn’t have creatives in jewelry that stood out. I said to them, “You need a stable of jewelry designers like you have in fashion.” The same thing I did with my husband, “I want to make jewelry. Here are my crowns.” I was all enthusiastic about it, and he was like, “I’ll give you $6,000,” and I said, “I’ll take it.”
That launched my career, but it was in 1991 when, like I said, there weren’t really any established jewelry designers at the time. I think Nieman’s had Jean Mahie and Henry Dunay was there, but that was it. So, they grandfathered me at that time, and it just took off. The 90s and the 2000s was a wonderful time to be in the jewelry business. It was a wonderful time to be in business in anything in 2000, before 2006. So, that is how I got into it. I don’t know that I could do something like that in 2021. It’s always timing.
Sharon: That’s true. Do you think you couldn’t do that because it’s not possible to call Nieman Marcus today and say, “I want an appointment with the buyer”?
Cynthia: With 13 pieces? No, I think because the competition now is steep. Women are more independent now. In 1991, it was still hard as a woman to head a company and to be taken seriously as being able to run a company. Even though I worked with my husband, I called the collection Cynthia Bach because it was a time for women when if they did not stick up for themselves and be a little more aggressive and persistent, they would disappear. I guess I’m a feminist, I don’t know. But at that time, I had to fight really hard. I worked with a lot of men and good old boys. The jewelry industry was made up of men. It was a whole different time, and Nieman Marcus, at that time, was still family-owned as well. It was small. Now, it’s become much bigger, more investors, owners, more corporate, so I don’t think you can start with 13 pieces. I think you have to have a pretty big collection to move forward, and a business plan.
Sharon: Right, it sounds you started the seeds of—
Cynthia: A revolution, a jewelry revolution!
Sharon: Really. Because when you think about Nieman’s today, the jewelry department is so well-developed in terms of all the different designers.
Sharon: I was just going to ask you. We both attended a panel at Bonhams on wearable art jewelry. I was asking what attracted you, because your jewelry is so different.
Cynthia: I am very much interested in jewelry history, jewelers throughout history, and the whole evolution of jewelry in any form. I love the silver jewelry that came out of Mexico. I love the period of the 30s and 40s. Like I said before, that is when casting was developed, and that is when jewelry was in a more industrial period, the shapes and the forms, the industrial revolution. Jewelry parallels music and history and art and fashion, so all of that interests me, and it doesn’t just have to be my type of jewelry. I was very fascinated with the jewelry of the particular artists that I learned about through the Bonhams exhibit, the wearable art, the Crawford Collection. I learned about these artists I really didn’t know about, and that was exciting.
Sharon: Was there something in particular that called out to you, a designer or something a panelist said?
Cynthia: I really loved the work of Art Smith. I think he worked in New York, and it was sculpture. His jewelry was sculpture, body sculpture. There were also some Native American Indian jewelers from the 30s and 40s that did lapidary work, the interesting turquoise with wood and the bracelets that were so colorful and beautiful. Some of the lapidary work they did was very now, like that guy that did the space travel bangle. There was one necklace I just fell in love with, and it’s from William Spratling. It was a big necklace with little beads, and I thought to myself, “What a fabulous design! That design would look so good with my filigree beads that I do.” I’ve always loved bib-style necklaces. A lot of times when I look at jewelry, I’ll see my piece of jewelry incorporated in some of the shapes or designs. It’s all very visual to me, the bibs.
Sharon: Those are fabulous pieces, and a broad spectrum too. Go on.
Cynthia: I was just going to say relatively unknown artists. It was so refreshing to have Bonhams bring these out to the public awareness.
Sharon: Yes, I hope we see a lot of more of it. It was nice.
Cynthia: Me, too.
Sharon: Since you’ve been designing for so long, what do you think motivates you today that’s different than what motivated you decades ago, when you first started?
Cynthia: Right now, I’m working with more color. I love colors mixed together. Like I told you, I’m working a lot with flowers. I think because history and fashion play such an important part in my designing, I look at the kids, what they wear now, harkening back to the 1980s. I feel myself very influenced right now by 80s jewelry. I feel like it’s also intertwined, like I said, with music and art and fashion and jewelry. They work together. During the Blue Rider period, the abstract expressionism with Kandinsky and Klee, you had music of that time that reflected it.
Creativity is what makes changes in the world, even though we repeat a lot of fashion. Some of what the kids are wearing is very unique. They wear a lot of body jewelry with tattoos and earrings that climb all the way up their ears. That is really new and fresh. Every generation is evolving into a new creative style. I think the depth of a designer is to keep coming out with new designs and to keep being creative. It’s paramount and important to me to constantly be coming out with new designs, and I get that influence from what’s going on in the world around me.
Sharon: You sound very open to seeing new things as opposed to, “Oh my God, look at that person with all those tattoos.”
Cynthia: It’s basically body art. Yeah, it fascinates me; purple hair, green hair.
Sharon: You can be very creative with hair and body art and all that.
Cynthia: Absolutely. It’s the time of personal style and expression now.
Sharon: Do you think it’s different now? People think of the 60s as being a time of personal art and expression. Do you think the 70s had less of that or the 80s had less of that?
Cynthia: I think every decade, every era has that. Even if you look at the Rococo and Baroque periods in France, where they had their powdered wigs and their beautiful couture, they were out of the box. The music was out of the box, and that’s how change happens in the world.
Sharon: I like that change happens through creativity. You can look at different ways of saying that. Is it through creativity in tech or is it creativity in fashion? I guess it’s everything.
Sharon: You mentioned that enjoy studying jewelry history. Do you think it’s important for jewelers and jewelry designers to be steeped in that, to know the history of jewelry, to see the trends through the ages? How important do you think that is?
Cynthia: I think it helps. It certainly helps me to visually look at a lot of different styles and see what’s been around for hundreds of years, but I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone. Some people are just creative, and they come out with their own unique style. I don’t know if you’ve looked at what Boucheron is doing now with this kind of glasswork. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It really is wearable art. They’re pushing the envelope as to jewelry and wearable art.
A lot of the young designers coming up now are especially working with the fashion houses, and the fashion houses are saying, “Hey, we need to incorporate some important jewelry with our fashion.” It’s unique. So, the answer to your question is I don’t know if it’s important to know jewelry history. I think the most important thing is to be forward and to come up with something creative that is unique and your own.
Sharon: What do you when you find your creativity has stalled? If you have writer’s block in terms of jewelry, what do you do?
Cynthia: In the past, I can say that when someone commissions me to do a piece of a jewelry or I have a new collection I want to come out with and I just don’t know what to do, sometimes I just put it in the back of my head and go around my business. It is haunting me in my head, and then all of a sudden, I’ll be sitting there and I’ll look at a chair or something. I’ll see a shape and a light goes off in my head, and that’s it; that’s the concept. It’s almost a subconscious process. This has happened with me time and time again. I’ll be sleeping and somehow something will hit me, “This is it.” Sometimes it takes a week or two. I don’t think it’s taken over once I make my mind up that I need something new over two weeks. It usually goes into my subconscious brain, and I guess my conscious brain is looking for ideas.
Sharon: That is the way it works. You’re meditating and something comes, or you’re in the shower. Exactly, it’s when you’re not looking. Cynthia, thank you so much for taking the time today to talk with us. This has been really enjoyable and fascinating. It’s great to talk with somebody who’s been through decades of jewelry design.
Cynthia: Does that make me old?
Sharon: No, it doesn’t.
Cynthia: The creative mind is never old. Creativity is always young.
Sharon: Yes, that’s definitely it. Thank you so much.
Cynthia: Thank you for having me. I enjoyed this very much, and I look forward to next time.
We will have images posted on the website. You can find us wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. Please join us next time, when our guest will be another jewelry industry professional who will share their experience and expertise. Thank you so much for listening.
Thank you again for listening. Please leave us a rating and review so we can help others start their own jewelry journey.