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How I'm Making it: Erica Weiner Jewelry

New York-based designer Erica Weiner started off making necklaces on her dining room table as an escape from her frustrating job in the fashion world.
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New York-based designer Erica Weiner started off making necklaces on her dining room table as an escape from her frustrating job in the fashion world. Soon, girls were clamoring for her understated yet slightly offbeat pieces. Almost overnight Erica Weiner Jewelry was born.

Since the start, Erica has kept the philosophy of pretty materials combined with simple construction, all made locally. EWJ has expanded from its core range of under $200 pieces to include antiques, bridal and a soon-to-be-launched fine jewelry range called 1909. Not too bad for a self-taught woman who never wrote a business plan.

With a store on Elizabeth Street in Nolita and a Brooklyn location in the pipeline, there are few signs of slowing down either. After giving us a tour of her sunny Chrystie Street studio, we sat down for tea with Erica to learn more about how she does it. Fashionista: What were you doing before you launched your brand? Erica Weiner: For a while I didn't know what I wanted to do. I graduated college in 2001, and moved to New York ready to take over the world but then September 11th happened, and suddenly there were no jobs. I got lucky and ended up touring with a Broadway show looking after the costumes. So, I thought that would be my career, but then I got bored after a few years. Then I got into the fashion thing with internships and then an in-house job with a designer.

When did you start making jewelry? Throughout my time at the fashion house I was making pieces on the side just for fun. I discovered this place in midtown called Metalliferous that would buy up lots of vintage jewelry parts. It was like hitting the jackpot. Then, during fashion week one year we needed something to pay the models with and the designer asked if I could make them some necklaces, which I did. Soon after that phone was ringing. So I started a website and started doing craft fairs. Eventually I got fired. In fact, I’ve gotten fired from almost every job I’ve had. I guess I’m not good at taking direction and not having total control.

Did you always have an interest in jewelry? To tell you the truth, no! Maybe cause I was so poor back then, but I was more about making my own clothes. Then I learned how easy it was to make necklaces as opposed to dresses. Back when I started, the whole charms and chain thing wasn’t really happening yet. It was either super cheap crap or high-end stuff. I guess I just fell into it.

What were some of your early challenges when you broke off on your own? I had no money for starters. I had to live on a shoestring, and any money I made I put back into the business. I also felt like I should be looking for another career without realizing it was right in front of me.

Was there a eureka moment when you realized it had become your career? It was probably this one big order we got from Anthropologie. They were sending scouts out into the craft world and picking up big orders from small designers. They placed an order over $100,000 and considering I had an empty bank account, it was huge. Suddenly, it was real, and everything from that moment on was all about meeting deadlines and making the jewelry.

At what point did you start to build a staff? Every year that I’ve been in business I think I’ve added one staff member. The first year it was Lindsay. She was basically my drinking buddy in 2004, and she had just graduated school and was working in a bar and wasn't sure what to do with her life. Then that Anthropologie order came in, and I was like, “Hey can you help me? I can teach you how to make a necklace and pay you in beer.” Here we are a couple years later.

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What’s the process of making the jewelry like? It’s all made by hand right here in New York. Sending things abroad just scares us a bit; there’s a major process you have to go through with factory owners that just doesn’t appeal, and I didn’t want to do that. But also, we design stuff that is purposely simple and quick. This also allows us to keep prices pretty low.

How much do you follow fashion and trends? I absorb it, but don’t really research it. I don’t know when fashion week is anymore. The girls who work with me are so stylish. I guess I follow this small subculture of women who dress for themselves. I see the way fashion trends trickle down based on what people are wearing on the streets or what’s in the shops. Sometimes I’ll design something that I think is completely out of nowhere, but some of my peers do the same thing at the same time. It happens a couple of times a year, so there must be something in the air.

Antiques heavily influence the pieces you make--tell us about that. I was a preteen and teenager during the ‘90s and you could either go to the mall or Salvation Army. I craved individuality, so I went with the vintage option. Plus, it was cheap. My interest in vintage jewelry only happened recently though. I was always interested in antique sources, like using things that already existed to make things. A lot of the materials are so inexpensive because they are sort of forgotten in the world.

What antique pieces get your attention? Things that are weird. I just made this necklace that isn’t out yet--it’s a peanut locket from the ‘30s, and it says, “nuts to you” on the inside. I love things that are super dated--a little hokey almost. I wasn’t interested in doing accurate dating on pieces, but rather drawn to pieces that almost date themselves with their specificity.

What are some of the strangest things you’ve used? I thought the vertebra was a great one, but now that’s everywhere. I love old chains and old clasps. Things that have functionality fascinate me. Recently I found a box of nibs from old pens. It has that nostalgia built in to it, but also they they look so pretty. I’ve also never been art for art's sake about things; I really think about what will do well and sell.

What’s the process of sourcing like? I don’t have special sourcing days; I just keep my eyes open all the time. You can’t plan finding something specific. Our customers have come to expect a certain price range and a certain weirdo story line, so I’ve trained my brain to figure out a way to look at things to see if they can become a beautiful necklace or something.

What’s on your office mood board right now? We use Pintrest, but not so much for inspiration. It’s more the stuff we find that we love. I also love historical fiction and non-fiction. I have a real nostalgia thing, especially for New York City. This whole city is inspiring, especially the women and what they are wearing around me.

We can't wait for the new line of fine jewelry, 1909. Tell us about it. The name comes from my Grandmother's date of birth. My dad used to always tell me about her and how she was born in 1909 in the Lower East Side. She was very eccentric with crazy-ass jewelry. My family is from a long line of scrappy, hard working New Yorkers that were very really entrepreneurs. Maybe the name is a bit cliche, but it works. We use this 3D technology to combine the best part of a bunch of old stuff and create something new. The price range tops out at $1600 for a ring encrusted in diamonds. All the gems are vintage. It will be available in early August, and we are so excited.