What you’ll learn in this episode:
- How Jessica built her accessories business, and when she knew it was time to step away from it
- What it was like growing up in a creative household with Vladimir Kagan, a leading mid-century furniture designer, and Erica Wilson, the “Crewel Queen of Needlework”
- How to build a #neckmess that tells a story
- How to make the most of Instagram, Etsy and other selling platforms
- Why a Victorian jewelry padlock inspired Jessica’s most recent work
About Jessica Kagan Cushman
Jessica Kagan Cushman is an independent jewelry and accessories designer who launched her career in 2004 with a line of hand-engraved ivory bracelets. Her line later expanded to necklaces, rings, earrings, and other accessories that were sold at Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, and other high-end retailers.
Today, Jessica is known as the creator of #neckmess, a jewelry trend combining multiple necklaces, charms, and chains to tell a story. Jessica’s latest endeavor is a line of antique-inspired padlocks and connectors that serve as the building blocks of #neckmess.
“schwing!! i got some #nauticalbling ? i just finished this conversion #cuff with an #anchor that was sold to me as vintage but turns out to be made by @gaetano_chiavetta!! i added a chunky #minecutdiamond to the top of it and attached it to a bracelet i made. im so happy to finally have a piece of his work ?”
Jessica Kagan Cushman is a jewelry and accessories designer who struck gold not once, but twice: first with her hand-engraved ivory bracelets decorated with sassy slogans, and then with #neckmess, a style of jewelry wearing that layers multiple necklaces, charms and chains. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about what it was like growing up in her exceptionally creative household; how Instagram and Etsy have helped her business thrive; and how to build the perfect #neckmess. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. This is a two-part Jewelry Journey Podcast. Please make sure you subscribe so you can hear part two as soon as it comes out later this week.
Today, my guest is Jessica Kagan Cushman. She’s a well-known jewelry and accessories designer who today may be most well-known for her development of “#neckmess.” We’ll hear all about that and the rest of her jewelry journey today. Jessica, welcome to the program.
Jessica: Thank you so much. It’s delightful to be here.
Sharon: It’s so great to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. It sounds like it started early and you stayed on course for the most part.
Jessica: Sort of; it was a little bit circuitous. For most of my adult life, professionally I was a management consultant, but I always had jewelry running parallel. It wasn’t until about 2007 that I was able to stop doing the horrible corporate stuff and start making jewelry and make that into my business.
Sharon: Were you always making jewelry? Were you artistic as a child?
Jessica: Yes, and I always loved it. I loved jewelry from an early age. Both of my grandmothers had fabulous jewelry collections and loved it. My mother never wore jewelry. She wore a wedding ring and occasionally she’d wear earrings if she was going out. It skipped a generation.
Sharon: Do you consider yourself artistic in other ways? Were people are always saying, “Oh, you’re going to be an artist”?
Jessica: Yes, I think so. I think partially that was an assumption people made because of my parents and what they did, but there was always that sense. My whole family is artistic for the most part. Yes, I was always creating things. That was the thing I loved to do.
Sharon: I thought there was a break with jewelry in terms of your professional career, but it sounds like the professional aspect came in the last 10 or 15 years.
Jessica: Yeah, 2007. I can’t do that kind of math in my head, but around 15 years. That’s when I started doing it full time.
Sharon: That’s about as high as I can go when it comes to math without a calculator. I was doing something yesterday and I didn’t have a calculator. It was very simple, but I thought, “Oh my God, what’s going on.” Tell us about your family. You had an interesting childhood.
Jessica: Both of my parents were designers. My father was Vladimir Kagan, who was a mid-century modern furniture designer. My mother was Erica Wilson, who we used to call the “Crewel Queen of Needlework.” They both had very successful businesses, and we grew up in that environment.
Sharon: Did they ever try and influence you or say, “Forget the management consulting”?
Jessica: Not really, no. I think they were hoping I would continue. I think they would have liked us all to have gone off and become corporate workers. There’s a little bit of, “Oh, God, don’t do this. Don’t be a designer. Do something real.”
Sharon: Oh really? That’s interesting. I’m surprised to hear that because they were so prominent and well-known.
Jessica: Yes, because they had no idea what the corporate world was like, they probably had this romanticized vision that it might not be quite as hard if you’re working for somebody else. If you have your own business, you’ve got to keep producing new stuff all the time. But they were always super supportive, and when my business started taking off, they were completely delighted and very supportive.
Sharon: I know you designed bags. Did it take off with the bags or the bracelets?
Jessica: It was the bracelets. I started with bracelets. I had a son whom we sadly lost when he was 21 in 2003. He was home; he had had an accident. He and I came up with the bracelet concept together. He was studying filmmaking at New York Film Academy but living at home, and we would stay up late at night and watch old movies and collect quotes that we loved. There were lots of what I call “yoga jewelry,” stuff that says “breathe” and “dream,” but I always felt that sassier women were under-served by the jewelry market. My father had taught me scrimshaw in Nantucket years ago when I was a kid, and I had a collection of old ivory bracelets my aunt had given me years ago. I just started engraving on them and wore them, and people loved them and wanted them. I started making them and I made more and more, and then Barneys got them and the rest is history. It grew from there.
Sharon: You developed that into a production line, right?
Jessica: I did. I was hand-engraving all of them myself using fossilized wooly mammoth ivory, which is amazing. It’s 10,000 years old, and obviously no elephants are harmed in the gathering of that ivory. You can’t use it anymore. That was when I was at Barneys. I decided I should rip myself off before someone else did, so I started making them in resin. I first started making them domestically, but the manufacturers here couldn’t keep up, so I had to go overseas. Then we started making them by the thousands.
Sharon: Wow! Wooly mammoth, you can’t use it anymore because?
Jessica: There has been an appropriate reaction to ivory. I think the reason it’s banned now is because when you have newly processed wooly mammoth, unless you know what you’re looking at—I happen to know ivory in all the different forms because I work with it so much—it’s probably pretty easy to pass off elephant ivory as woolly mammoth ivory, even though they are very distinct differences between them. It’s gone on a state-by-state basis, I think. At least a few years ago, it was state-by-state. You can sell it and have it in some states, but not in others. I just stay away from all of it now.
Sharon: When you were doing stuff for Barneys, did you find that your creativity for expanding was being usurped by all the stuff you had to think of to develop a production line?
Jessica: No, not really, because I was just doing one thing. I was engraving these bracelets myself. Then when I went to Bergdorf’s, I was able to expand into much more than engraved bracelets. It started with that at Bergdorf’s, but then expanded into a much larger line.
Sharon: To your bags or other jewelry or both?
Jessica: That expanded to other jewelry. The tote bags and other accessories, that business all grew concurrently with the Bergdorf’s business. I really had two separate lines. I had a fine jewelry line at Bergdorf Goodman and a few other locations, and then I had costume jewelry and resin bracelets and bags and all sorts of other accessories that ran side by side. Eventually I had a licensing deal with a company based in California, and we did barware and all kinds of things.
Sharon: Wow! I’m so curious about your upbringing. It sounds peripatetic. It’s so unusual an upbringing. Tell us about that.
Jessica: Well, it was amazing. It was a very creative household. We were never allowed as children to say, “I’m bored.” That was the one thing we couldn’t say. Our parents would say, “Well, go make something,” so that’s what we did. My brother is a professional artist, now a painter, and has been doing that in Nantucket for years. My sister took over my mother’s business. She always claims to not be very creative, but I think everybody is creative if we know how to dig into it. Then my aunt and cousins were all artists and painters.
Sharon: Did you travel a lot during your childhood?
Jessica: Yes. Both sets of grandparents lived overseas. My mother’s parents were English, and my father’s parents were German and Russian. They ended up in the U.K. for a while and then in Switzerland.
Sharon: Where did your parents meet?
Jessica: They met in New York. My mother had been sent over to the Embroiderers’ Guild in Millbrook, New York, to teach the ladies needlework. She went to the Royal School of Needlework in London, and the Embroiderers’ Guild reached out to the Royal School and said, “We need an instructor,” and they sent my mother. She was living in Millbrook, and she ended up at a costume ball in New York that was run by the Architect’s League or something like that. That was where they met. My mother was dressed as a French poodle and my father was dressed as the devil, appropriately.
Sharon: I’m sorry, he was dressed as what?
Jessica: As the devil. It was very appropriate.
Sharon: That’s an interesting way to begin.
Jessica: Yeah, exactly.
Sharon: As you said, you think everybody is creative if they dig deep enough. Do you think that’s true about jewelry designers or fabricators? Is everybody creative?
Jessica: I do think everybody’s creative. They’re not necessarily going to be creative at making jewelry. You have to love it. My daughter, for instance, hates jewelry. While she is creative at certain things, jewelry would not ever be it for her. I’m going to have to leave my collection to a museum. She’s got no interest.
Sharon: That’s interesting. I have to think about that; whether it’s jewelry or not, is everybody creative if you dig deep enough?
Jessica: I think so. I think it’s a primal instinct. If you think about it, creativity is problem solving in a way. You just have to know how to access it.
Sharon: Do you have any particular tricks for accessing it?
Jessica: I don’t. It does come very naturally to me. My problem is I have way too many ideas and not nearly enough time and hands to get everything done that I’d like to do.
Sharon: Tell us about what you’re doing today. Tell us about your business and how you segued into it. You were on Instagram.
Jessica: Really that’s it, Instagram. When I was doing all these things, licensing and the accessories and the bags and so on and so forth, I had about 10 people working for me in a studio in my house in Connecticut. We have since moved, but I had a separate building. I had all these people there, and it stopped being fun. There was such a demand. Every season, I kept having to come up with new stuff, new stuff, new stuff. That was taxing, and it stopped being fun.
I was able to step away from that. It’s always constantly evolving, but my goal going forward is to just make stuff that I like and put it out there, and if somebody wants it, great, if not, whatever. Over last few years, especially during the lockdown and Covid, I would put stuff out there and people would want it. It was a bit of a struggle to keep up with making things. I found I was being very reactive instead of being able to focus on doing what I wanted.
Sharon: Reactive because were they placing orders?
Jessica: Yes, exactly. Basically, I have the attention span of a flea. If I sit down to make a pair of earrings, I get one earring done and I’m like, “O.K., I did that. Now, I’m moving on.” While obviously I love everything I do, I tend to want to move on to the next thing after a day and a half.
Sharon: Tell us about the business. Do you make everything now or buy things?
Jessica: Yes, the answer is yes. I love antique jewelry. I really have a passion for it. Each piece is a little piece of art, a little sculpture you can wear and have with you. Probably about five or six years ago, I started making padlocks and connectors that enabled my antique jewelry passion to meld with the modern stuff I was making as well.
Sharon: How did it connect to antique jewelry?
Jessica: The connectors, they’re essentially miniature padlocks. I’m constantly evolving the design, but the most popular ones have multiple points of attachment, so you can attach a few chains. You can attach a bunch of charms. They’re basically the building blocks of #neckmess. Obviously, #neckmess has become much bigger than just my padlocks, and you can build a #neckmess with anything, but to really make it look great, I think, it’s good to have connectors and little pieces of chain so you can actually build a story without everything getting clumped up and mushed together.
Sharon: When you’re putting things together, are you thinking about #neckmess and how it’s going to work together?
Jessica: Yes, definitely. To have a #neckmess come out right, you have to put some thought into it and build it, I think. That’s just my opinion. People wear all sorts of things, but I like mine to be a certain way. Even though it looks like it’s just a pile of stuff that’s all been thrown together, I usually have some sort of thematic or color thing that runs through it to make it a cohesive story.
Sharon: What do people tell you about #neckmess? When they see somebody wearing your stuff or you’re wearing it, what do they say? What are their comments?
Jessica: People always want to touch it, which is good or bad when they’re grabbing for your chest. They want to see it and hear about it and look at it and see what story it tells. In my case, I like stuff to be interesting and different and unusual, not just charms. It’s got to have some interesting tale to tell.
Sharon: So, your #neckmess pieces or groups are thematic. You want them to tell a story.
Jessica: Yeah, I like them to tell a story. When you put a bunch of charms together on a bracelet or a necklace, those things are telling a story already regardless of whether it’s an official #neckmess or not. They’re very personal. I like to group them for a reason. I like them to have a reason to be hanging out together.
Sharon: I’m interested in the way you collect. It seems like little bits and pieces you have in your jewelry box or in your studio. That’s the sense I got, that you hold onto things until you need them.
Jessica: That is true. I’m always looking for good design and interesting, different stuff. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something that was intended for jewelry. If something catches my eye, I buy it. For my creative process, I’ll sit down and start fiddling around and I’ll go, “Oh, I remember. I’ve got that porcelain mask I can add to this piece.” I love having stuff on hand so I can grab it whenever I want.
Sharon: Today, are you making everything yourself for your designs?
Jessica: I make some stuff myself, but I don’t do my own casting, for instance. I do some stone setting, but very limited. My bench skills are not great. I wish they were better. That’s another goal I have this year, to improve my bench skills. In the interim, I work with people all over the country who do different aspects of production for me.
Sharon: So, you might tell them, “I want a fish with three eyes,” or whatever?
Jessica: For the pieces I create from scratch, I will draw them up and either carve the waxes myself or I’ll work with a CAD designer and have them created, CAD being computer assisted design. We’ll work on a design, and then I have those pieces cast through the lost wax casting process, and then I embellish them from there.
Sharon: Looking at your Instagram, what percentage of your work is one-of-a-kind stuff you pulled from your own supply and what is cast?
Jessica: All the antique pieces are one of a kind, for the most part. You can find duplication in antiques, but for the most part, all antique things are one of a kind. For the padlock line, I have basic padlock shapes and designs—they have various configurations—and then I embellish those with stones, or on some of them I’ll take antique charms and have them attached permanently to the pieces. So, even those are somewhat one of a kind as well. It’s hard to identify percentage because it varies. Things are very cyclical. I’ll create something and sell tons of them and then the demand drops. I’m not very good at all the stuff you’re supposed to do within an antique store or an online shop. Then I’ll move onto the next thing. As I said, it’s cyclical. Sometimes what I’m selling is 100% stuff I’m making and sometimes it’s 25% and the other 75% is antique, one-of-a-kind stuff.