Although she’s now known for her playful, elegant jewelry, Sonia Boyajian didn’t always consider herself a professional jeweler. Sonia started her career in Antwerp, working with high-fashion designers to blend fashion and jewelry together. She’s made another career pivot during the pandemic, recently opening a new retail space and offering jewelry making classes for kids. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about her career path, her inspirations, and why her new mission is to pass her skills onto people through teaching. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is jeweler and maker Sonia Boyajian. Sonia’s work encompasses a variety of media. She is recognized not only for the elegance of her jewelry, but also the creativity and whimsy. Today, she’ll tell us about her jewelry journey and how the pandemic has impacted it. Sonia, welcome to the program.
Sonia: Hello. Thanks for having me.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. Did you make jewelry when you were young? When did you start becoming attracted to it?
Sonia: I’ve always made things, whether it was for my dolls or for myself. My grandmother, who was really into collecting jewelry, would take me to flea markets and we would buy broken bits of jewelry and put them together. I knew a little bit about that, and then when I was in college in fashion school, I started taking it more seriously.
Sharon: You went to Otis to study fashion design, right?
Sonia: Yes, I did.
Sharon: So, you started making jewelry when you were young, and you became interested in going to the flea markets with your grandmother.
Sonia: Yes. Then, when I was in college, I started dabbling and making more jewelry with some of the materials I would use for school projects. After I graduated from Otis, I moved to Antwerp, Belgium and started studying at the Kunst Academy and making more jewelry.
Sharon: That must have been so exciting, because that was when the—what do they call them? The Fashion Six? With Dries and—
Sonia: Yes, one of the reasons why I wanted to move to Antwerp was because I was interested in the creativity that was coming out of there. There was an Antwerp Six with Dries Van Noten and Walter Van Beirendonck and Martin Margiela, and I wanted to go and be in that environment and see if I could learn from them or get a job working for them. As I was looking to work in the world of fashion, I was also interested in blending the two worlds together.
Sharon: When you were studying at Otis, did it increase your interest in jewelry, like how you could accessorize things? What happened for you?
Sonia: To be honest, I never really thought of myself as a jeweler at first. It wasn’t until I actually worked as a jeweler that I thought of myself as a jeweler. For me, the process of putting jewelry together is no different than the process of styling yourself with your clothes. It was about putting parts that I thought looked good together, and you could wear it. It’s creative pieces that are wearable, and that was what my main focus was. When I started working as a jeweler in Antwerp, then it was different. Then I really knew how to be a jeweler because I worked as one.
Sharon: When do you think you started considering yourself a jeweler?
Sonia: It’s been about 20 years since I’ve been making jewelry and selling it professionally. I think I would say 10 years ago was when I was confident about how the process worked. I think you develop this confidence of skill. Because I make the jewelry with my own hands—I don’t draw it and send it out—you learn new skills. I think the more skills I learned, the more confident I became calling myself a jeweler.
Sharon: To me, it’s such a huge step to be a professional jeweler, no matter what you’re working in. What made you decide, “O.K., this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to make and sell my work”? How did you transition from fashion to fine jewelry?
Sonia: I never gave up on fashion. In fact, I was lucky enough to get into the world of fashion because of the kind of jewelry I was making. It really was fashion jewelry. I took my skills as a fine jeweler and the technical things I learned from it and applied it to my own style of jewelry, which is more fashion or costume jewelry, and that became my signature. I was able to make refined pieces, even though the parts I was using were from broken pieces of jewelry, or made from over-size crystals, which I had started to make as well. It’s taking one technique and applying it to another world, and that’s how I was able to blend it. I was working in fashion and I started making jewelry for other designers for their shows, Wilhelm being one of them, and I started selling in Europe in boutiques.
Sharon: Your jewelry has such whimsy. If you look on your website, you have these faces, pins and brooches and things with faces. Where do you get your ideas from?
Sonia: It could be from traveling somewhere and being inspired by the art there. Oftentimes it’s from art, from nature, from whatever I experienced. Maybe I read a book. In past collections, I dressed a particular woman in history who I found made a difference in fashion or style—for example Millicent Rogers or Edith Head, Peggy Guggenheim—and I try to recreate them as if they were here now.
Sharon: Wow, that’s interesting!
Sonia: I read about these kinds of women and I get inspired by them and their life and their style. I make these “ode to the woman” collections.
Sharon: Do you feel like you’re channeling them in a sense?
Sonia: Yes, absolutely.
Sharon: That’s interesting, because those are women—who wouldn’t want to channel some of them?
Sonia: They were also very accomplished women who did things in the world and were successful in a time when women didn’t really have that opportunity.
Sharon: Yes, they were role models.
Sharon: I can see why. At first when you said women in history, I thought you meant Marie Antoinette or something like that.
Sonia: Oh, no. It’s not history or in the last century.
Sharon: Well, it’s history, but there’s history and there’s further back history.
Sharon: With Covid, everybody has had to reinvent themselves or come up with a different perspective.
Sharon: You talked about the fact that you found making clay pots was very calming to you.
Sonia: Yes, it was. I think that when the pandemic first hit and we didn’t know what was going on or what it was. I had a lot of anxiety, especially with my kids, all sorts of anxieties. I found that when I was in my studio and just making pots, not for any purpose other than just to make them, I found it to be very calming. It’s like a meditation, really. That’s the best way I can refer to it.
Sharon: As the pandemic has gone on and on, are you making more of your jewelry again?
Sonia: Yes, I’ve never stopped making jewelry. That is the big part of my business. I always made jewelry, and it’s something I will never stop making, but I would say it’s a little more balanced now. I do want to do new things, and even though I’m making ceramic, when you look at some of the pieces I’ve made, whether it be dishes or objects, they still very much look like jewelry objects, even if the material is not necessarily your ordinary jewelry materials.
Sharon: I was going to ask you about your enameling, because that’s not what you studied originally. Is it enamel?
Sonia: I don’t do enamel. It’s all ceramic.
Sharon: It looks like enamel to me.
Sonia: Yes, it does. That’s the thing. The ceramic looks like pieces of jewelry, and that’s the idea. What makes the jewelry unique is that you don’t realize it’s actually clay you’re looking at.
Sharon: That’s interesting. It has such a sheen to it.
Sonia: It does.
Sharon: Just before the pandemic hit, you opened your own retail store, I believe.
Sonia: Yes, I did.
Sharon: Was that your first one?
Sonia: No, I’ve always had studios or shops. For 20 years, I had spaces that were like little shops. This is definitely my biggest shop, and it combined my jewelry and my ceramic studios together.
Sharon: From the pictures I’ve seen, it’s very homey and very different. It doesn’t look like what you think of as a jewelry shop or ceramic shop. It looks very different.
Sonia: Yes, it was created in hopes that people would come and enjoy it and spend time as my clients usually do. That obviously has not happened, but I think it will eventually. It’s a very open space. It’s comfortable. The color is a very soothing color, I’m told. It’s a very calming place, actually. That was the idea. I didn’t want any glitz or anything like that, but I wanted a place where people felt good.
Sharon: From the photos I’ve seen, it does look like it would be very soothing and homey, the kind of place where you can come and sit down, plop down and look around.
Sharon: I think you accomplished that. Sonia, where do you want to hopefully take your business from here? I say “hopefully” because the world, hopefully, will go back to whatever the new normal is going to be at some point.
Sonia: Oh gosh, I’m happy with where my business is. I don’t intend on having many stores. It’s not about growth; I have everything I need. I have so many people that support me in what I make, and if I can sustain that, that would make me the happiest.
Sharon: Is there something you’d like to learn in terms of making jewelry? Is there a new technique or something where you thought, “Gee, I’d like to explore that”?
Sonia: Well, to be honest—let me answer your question this way. One thing I learned during the pandemic was, I started teaching very small groups in the studio—because I have a large studio—socially distant classes with kids and their parents or people who are taking private classes with me. They all were doing incredible work, and I was enjoying teaching so much that I realized the next step is going to be to teach. So, when this pandemic calms down, my goal is to teach more often and to pass my skills to other people.
Sharon: To teach in your studio?
Sonia: Yeah, to teach in my studio.
Sharon: Wow! I know you did classes, but I thought perhaps you couldn’t do them right now because of being in a room together.
Sonia: I’m not doing them right now, but in the summer when the cases were low, the classes were about six people. My studio space is about 5,000 square feet and it’s all one big, open space.
Sharon: That’s big.
Sonia: Yes, so it was no problem to be on opposite sides of the room.
Sharon: Wow! I’m sure people are thrilled to have your teaching, whether it’s privately or in a small group, and to have so much attention from you.
Sonia: Yes, of course. You should see what people make when you encourage them to be creative. It was a win/win situation.
Sharon: What made you decide that you wanted to launch the classes?
Sonia: In-person school was not happening, and I think kids really suffered from not having any enrichment classes, or if they did, it was just not enough. My goal was to get kids to have an art class, and even if they couldn’t play together, to be in a room and see another child in a safe space. That is why I decided I wanted to teach. It was for the kids.
Sharon: That’s a great, great idea. I haven’t heard of people talking about this perspective before. Sonia, thank you so much. It’s been really great to talk with you.
Sonia: Thank you.
Sharon: You do such a different kind of jewelry. 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 with be another jewelry industry professional who will share their experience and expertise. Thank you so much for listening.