Photos by Asia Morris.
In celebration of Long Beach Arts Month, we’re paying special attention to local working artists, whether they’re up-and-coming or well-established. These three local jewelry designers share an aesthetic that represent a generation's hunger for simplicity in a society perpetually inundated with too much information and an overwhelming amount of media persuasion. It's an attempt, whether or not the artists may agree, to ask why we're here, in a world of superfluous design attempts.
These three jewelers have learned to shape raw materials into wearable art and have found they cannot refuse their desire to work with their hands. They want to adorn your fingers, ears, necks and wrists with the thought of something minimal and timeless and alive to make a lasting connection with their customers.
Bless the Theory // Charmaine Vegas
Charmaine’s attraction to simplicity comes from her residing in a wide range of diverse cities and landscapes. From Carson to Hawaii, La Quinta to Long Beach, the artist has experienced all there is to take from the stark urban landscape to the rich lushness of a rural island culture.
“I grew up in Carson, in the cityscape," she said. "There was a lot of cement, there weren’t a lot of trees. When I left there I went to Hawaii and it was a total contrast. You had hills and big ol’ volcanoes and waterfalls and trees everywhere and the ocean is definitely different, but at the same time people in Hawaii, they have all this richness and lushness but they live extremely simply.
I think that a lot of the work that I do, even though it’s simple, it’s not cold. There’s texture to it—in a very simple way. I think that comes, as far as it being simple and very clean, from my time in the city and I think the textures are from a time in Hawaii’s extremely rich landscape.”
Charmaine’s father was born and raised in Maui, where she spent three very pivotal years attending high school in Kahului.
She explained, “I think that’s where I learned the most, even though I spent very little time there. Those years were crucial, those years when you’re learning a lot about yourself, what you like and what you don’t like. So even though I was only there for three years I call that home.”
It was in Hawaii that Charmaine acquired her first taste for the art of adornment.
“I had a good friend who had a leather cord necklace," the artist explained, "I asked her if she would make one for me and it took her forever to do it, so I decided that I would just make one myself. It was pretty easy.”
When Charmaine moved to Long Beach to finish high school and go to college, she continued to make simple earrings and necklaces with pearls and beads, but felt like there had to be something more advanced to pursue.
“I was getting my AA in fashion and I noticed they had some classes for metal smithing—I was very intimidated," she said. "There were big ol' hammers, machines I had never used... I took my first class and made a simple ring, and I proved to myself I could do it. That's when it hit me. That's when I got the itch.”
Despite the pull to stick to her passion, Charmaine pursued a 12-year career in Visual Merchandising, hitting a crossroads in her final year that would give way to Bless the Theory.
“Even when I was a kid I always knew I would be someone who would work for herself. In my career I realized I had hit that plateau, there was no where else I could really get to. I had a lot of money saved up at the time, I had done some traveling. I was in between trying to figure out if I wanted to purchase a house or quite my career. I knew I could only do one or the other. I went to go house hunting, it took about six months and I found a house that I loved— but it was out of my price range, by like a hair. So I thought, 'I can always own a house, but I can only do what I want to do while I have the energy and the ability to.'”
Charmaine attributed part of her decision to finally commit to Bless the Theory to the shift of more and more young artists and entrepreneurs taking the least trodden path, of a younger generation putting forth the energy to realize their dreams.
“We’ve been taught that success has to be a certain way and now we’re going back to the whole Ma n’ Pop business type way of living," Charmaine said. "I’m excited about it. I noticed that shift a while ago, and I think that also helps when you feel it, it’s internal. It’s such a good thing, people are becoming more realistic about what their idea of success is.”
She discovered the name Bless the Theory when she was reading an article on adornment theory. A professor had written the piece and allowed his students to weigh in with their own ideas. One of the students had written something along the lines of, “I’m thankful for that theory and bless it.”
Charmaine said, “I had never put those words together. I knew that it went along with wearable art so I used it. That comment really resonated with me.”
Charmaine has a serious knack for handling silver. I watched as she made a simple, refined and textured sterling silver ring for my size-six finger in a mere half hour. Her current designs, entitled “Fragments and Lines” were inspired by her appreciation of modern architecture and furnishings. However, the artist is excited to get into new materials.
“I can’t show you until it’s done, but I’m starting to work with wool and silver," she said excitedly. "Right now I do a lot of production work, but I’m encouraged and very longing to get back to doing one-of-a-kind pieces.”
RawFinery // Lizbeth Molina
Lizbeth Molina was commuting by Metro to Downtown Los Angeles every day. During her walk back home from the train station she would always take 1st St and stop by one of her favorite boutiques.
“I would always go to Anneise and I was always shopping and crafting my own bracelets at the time," Molina said. "Kimberly [owner of Anneise] said, ‘Oh that’s a cute bracelet, where did you get that?’ and I said, ‘Oh you like that? I made that.’ Then she asked if I wanted to sell some in her shop. I’d never thought about that but I said okay.
"So I started selling some pieces in her shop. Kimberly asked, 'Well, what do you want to call it?' and I thought I'd better come up with a name. I’ve always liked raw beauty, I'm obsessed with plants and nature in general and finding things in nature that can be worked to be beautiful. So raw goods, but finery, became RawFinery and I've been doing it ever since. That was a year ago.”
Minimalist pieces made of shell and metal are what characterizes RawFinery.
Liz explained why she was drawn to shells as her first material: “I'm from Miami originally and my family's from Puerto Rico and I've always been around a lot of water. I’ve always had a deep affinity for shells. One day I found these capiz shells. I really loved the unique patterns that they had. I just started shaving them down with the file first and making different shapes, making them smooth... I started thinking that I could probably do a lot more with things like this. I had the dremel already so I started out just cutting into them and making little shapes.”
Liz’s story is the trying tale of an artist torn between making a living and dedicating substantial time to realizing her passion. As an art history and fashion merchandising student, Liz thought her path would begin and end behind a desk.
“I was always working in corporate America and for my entire life, I thought that's exactly what I wanted to do and that I always wanted to be behind a desk and be in an office," she explained.
"Except, once I was there I realized, 'No, I don't want to do this at all.' I need sunshine, light and I need to be busy with my hands and to be creating beautiful things.”
Born and raised in Miami, Liz moved to California in April 2009 and discovered Long Beach through a group of friends.
“It felt like home," she said. "Long Beach reminds me so much of Miami without the superficiality. I really liked the vibe down here so we started coming every weekend. We've been here for three years, since 2012. I don't think I'll ever leave Long Beach. I love this city; I find it really unique.”
When she started RawFinery on a passionate whim, Liz dove in head-first. She committed fully, despite her previous conception of who she thought she wanted to become.
“I started this as a passion project and it revealed to me who I was and who I wanted to be," she said. "It kind of blew up overnight, I felt, and I was making so many pieces and my hands were hurting so much; I was so tired and I loved it. Doing it yourself is really time consuming and being pulled away, having to pay rent and having to have a full time job in order to do so... It pulls your heart in a bunch of directions. It's just tough.”
Recently, Liz took what she considers a “break” from RawFinery and landed a job as the executive assistant to a CEO who needed help branding his newly acquired island in Hawaii. She iterated her love for her business, saying, “I was traveling to Hawaii and all these other places and every day I just felt a little bit empty that I wasn't doing RawFinery, that I wasn't doing what I felt defined me finally. So I stepped away, I saved a bunch of money, and I quit again.”
The artist loves her customers and admits proudly that connecting with them is a huge part of what keeps her going, even when her hands have had enough. She has collaborated with admirers, even going so far as to create a piece from a sketch drawn by one of her fans. Recently, a man contacted her from Canada who had bought his girlfriend a piece of jewelry from Liz, yet had broken it in the washing machine.
Liz continued, “I said, ‘That’s totally fine, I’ll just send you another piece.’ I mean, someone in Canada is wearing a necklace that I made with my own two hands. Being a part of people’s lives in that way...I really like that.”
Liz has sold pieces to adoring fans in the Middle East, Paris and Ukraine.
“When I got a call for an international order, I almost cried," she exclaimed. "I studied art history in Paris. I love Paris, the connections I made there, the amazing time I had there... So when I found out I was going to be sending a little piece of me overseas, I felt fulfilled.
“Now I'm back to RawFinery full force and I'm thinking about changing the product line. I'm really excited about what I know I want to do now... And being really secure in feeling like this is going to be this way this time.”
Lacee Alexandra Artisan Jewelry // Lacee Norris
Lacee Norris is a Long Beach native and metalsmith, a woman who used the process of elimination to finally discover her love for casting, metals and high-quality craftsmanship. Lacee has always been interested in art and started her college career at CSULB in Industrial Design for Furniture Design.
“It was actually a science degree and I didn’t realize how technical it all was," Lacee said. "It just wasn’t my thing.
"I was double-majoring at the time in drawing and painting because I didn’t want to give up that part of me and we had to take a class outside of our discipline, so I took a jewelry class… I fell in love, dropped all my majors and switched.”
She tried to describe why she fell so hard for the oftentimes labor-intensive practice, saying, “I think it was all the hands-on stuff because it’s really gritty. People think jewelry is really glamorous but it actually requires a lot of manual labor. That’s what I liked so much about it, the process and the fact that there’s so much of a process. A lot of times I’m making a piece and I have to write out all the steps in order to know what to do first. There’s something about that that I really like.”
Lacee graduated from CSULB in 2012 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in 3D Media specializing in Metals and Jewelry and has been attempting to build her brand and hone her craft ever since. Her aesthetic is unique, a series of pieces based on decay. She finds inspiration in the raw and unrefined, while each of her bracelets, earrings, rings and necklaces gives off a sense of natural degradation. Her brand, “Lacee Alexandra,” is an eco-conscious one. All her materials are purchased from suppliers who share her belief in both social and environmental sustainability.
Lacee’s creativity and passion for using her hands is a respectful nod toward her roots. Her grandfather used to be a wood carver and her grandmother was a watercolorist. Lacee houses her pieces and works in the studio, a small back house at the end of a trail of stepping stones, that was used by both her grandparents. Lacee pointed out one of her grandmother’s dusty watercolors, still leaning up against one of the studio cabinets.
“It started out as an open space, my grandpa would pull his catering truck in here, then he used it for wood carving and my grandma used it as her watercolor studio," Lacee said. "Then she gave it to me for my metal studio. It’s cool because it’s been passed down.”
I asked the artist to walk me through her process and yes, it has a lot of steps.
“I start by sketching something out," Lacee explained. "My drawings are always really basic and oftentimes no one else would be able to understand them. Then, based on the sketch, where I really design the piece is in the wax. I carve out a design, oftentimes to 90 percent completion and then I have it cast. When I bring it back from the caster, I clean it all up and I really get in there with all these tools, files, rubber wheels...to perfect it. Then from there that’s considered the master, which I then mold. I make a mold, cut it, then inject it with that purple stuff [pictured below] and then I have a wax, then I get that cast. I have to clean it because a raw casting is really ugly, so I clean that, do any soldering I have to do, set the stones, polish, finish it, put the chain on it. Then it’s done.”
She’s in it for the long haul, knowing that to not feel that sense of accomplishment when someone buys her work, is an evasion of a lifetime connection.
“People have a really big attachment to pieces of jewelry, so it’s really cool to create works of art that people will have forever," Lacee said. "That little bit of joy is really exciting. Knowing that you put in all that hard work and that it’s being appreciated.”
Lacee has started experimenting with enamels in an effort to add a bit of color to her work, yet maintain her brand's reputation as an eco-conscious entity. You can find images of her most recent work by clicking the links below.