In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
Sometime around 2013, it seemed a craze had overtaken the fashion industry: Everyone was suddenly hitting up piercing studios to load up on delicate ear jewelry. Every part of the ear became a piercing opportunity, no lobe left unladen by a pile of barely-there hoops and studs.
But for Maria Tash, the trend was nothing new. She'd been pioneering that look since opening her first piercing shop in 1993. Unsatisfied with the heavy, more industrial body jewelry available on the market, Tash began experimenting with mixing and matching metals and thicknesses to create more delicate jewelry begging to be piled on together.
"It started out like that, modifying jewelry; thinking about, 'How can I make this better?' Or I'd see big pieces, and I'm like, 'I like this tiny little part of it, so I'm going to try to recreate a tiny little part, and then how can I make it better?'" Tash says. "I always tend think miniature."
And while she's since established a signature jewelry brand — which now encompasses everything from rings to bracelets, in addition to earrings — it's Tash's unique style of piercing that sets her and her studio apart. Getting pierced at one of Tash's outposts means that the technician considers not just your ear, but the angle at which the jewelry will be viewed; Tash calls it "forward-facing."
Indeed, after our interview, I let one of her technicians put not one but two holes in my ear, each sitting at just slightly different angles, for a look that Tash consulted on. Everything was taken into consideration: Angle, existing piercings, my personal style. Through the process, it became clear that Tash still has a real passion for body jewelry.
In between checking out her new line and adding new piercings to my ear, Tash and I chatted about everything from getting her start doing piercings in her home to improvements in the piercing industry since she started in the '90s (just say no to piercing guns!). Expect to be inspired to add a few new pieces of your own.
What first got you interested in jewelry?
Even as a child, I would rummage through my mother's jewelry box. My mother would make fun of me because I would take all of her necklaces, and put them all on at once. She was like, "What are you doing?" My mother took a jewelry-making class when I was nine and I accompanied her; we had brass sheet. I would stamp designs into the brass sheet and form it into a bracelet.
So, I've always had an interest in jewelry. It's hard to explain — it's like an intuitive draw to it. But as I grew up — and this was in the '80s — I was into goth and punk, and you would see multiple piercings. I was deeply intrigued by that. As I got more into the scene, I started taking that jewelry interest and translating it to more unusual spots on the ear and body.
I opened a store in the East Village called Venus Modern Body Arts in 1993. Right around the same time, I'd flown into San Francisco and taken a course by Fakir Musafar and it was great; a lot of the innovation in piercing, in the Western sense, was happening in San Francisco in the early '90s, and I brought some of that technique back over to the East Coast store I had. It went from there as I grew up, and some of my tastes grew up. I got more into unusual combinations of metals and stones and modern laser techniques. It just snowballed.
The '90s were a period of a lot of experimentation for me, with the studio. People came in and got everything done. We tried thick rings, thin rings, all different diameters, all parts of the body. Even before I opened my store in 1993, I would put an ad in the back of the New York Press and people came to my apartment to get pierced. It was amazing, what people entrusted me to do to their bodies. It has just built upon years of experience, and I've refined what I know more and more.
What were your first steps getting into piercing?
Self-piercing, myself and my buddies. I did a lot of pushing physical studs through my own ears. I remember I bought a piercing gun — which is sort of a big no-no in the professional piercing world now. They have stickers of piercing guns with big signs through them, "Say No." [Laughs] It's a very archaic and brutal way to get piercings. It was a period of experimentation. I was thrilled just to have it. I didn't care about trajectory, how it aligned with the anatomy. It was just about the quantity and the spot.
Nowadays, I look back and I'm like, it was a crappy job, but back in the day, I was thrilled.
What made you want to open your own shop instead of working for someone else?
You know, I really had only two jobs before I opened my own store. I was a librarian in college, then I taught computer skills in a nonprofit in Brooklyn right out of college and then I opened my own place. When I worked at the job I did before I opened my own store, I got fired. I was working on setting up the business and I would teach the classes, but I really was not present in a way that did the company justice.
It didn't even occur to me to go try and work as an intern for anyone else, or to work as an apprentice. I didn't want to have to join their club. I sometimes felt embarrassed to even ask, but I just wanted to do my thing. I knew what I was doing. In piercing, there was one other store open at the time, and their aesthetic was heavy steel, S&M-y, and I didn't relate to that. I respected their experience, but I didn't personally relate, so I wanted to start something different that resonated more with me.
Now, I don't know if I'm employable by anyone else; I may be a stubborn, independent spirit.
When did you start your own jewelry line?
I started fabricating and selling to the public in 1993. What I wanted wasn't available and a lot of my jewelry design started with the body, like the perspective of long-term wear, things that lie very close or low profile to the body; I've always had this perspective, because I've come from the body jewelry world.
For example, for getting your navel pierced, you could get a steel ring with a steel ball in 1993. And I was like, "Well, can you get a rose gold ring with an Indian bead?" — which is prettier, and you have those two metal things. There's all these combinations. It was so easy to mix and match and create the different looks. Then, navel jewelry was huge. I spent many years designing really nice, really great navel jewelry. I hope I can bring it back, because I put so much effort into it! [Laughs]
What kind of feedback were you getting on your jewelry when it first launched?
I sold a lot of jewelry in the '90s, and today, it's all over the world and it's very recognizable. People liked it because I customized it, so if you have your eyebrow pierced, I could easily, in-house, go ahead and shorten the bar and then screw in whatever gems you wanted. People loved it. There was no returns or anything because it was customized and it lived in the skin. Nobody ever came back and said, "Give me a refund."
What sets your style of piercing and jewelry apart from others?
I have a style of piercing called forward-facing. It has to do with the angles that we pierce people at. We don't just go perpendicular to the tissue. We go at an angle that is flattering to the wearer. So we consider the piece of jewelry, hold it up, and we pierce in the direction of the person's face — we don't just look at the ear and draw a dot, and do it. That's very elementary, and not very elegant.
Style of jewelry, I've done so much navel things, but I'm known for, specifically, ear work. I think I have a recognizable style in rings that are very intricate and small but sturdy, that you can wear continuously. My studs also have something called Tash threading, so it has a decorative front and back. Most people are not really familiar with that. They're reversible, so even my studs frequently are recognizable because of this back decoration that most people don't worry about.
When did you start noticing your jewelry and your piercings picking up in popularity among the fashion set?
I would say five years ago. But there were people — stylists in particular; I want to give them a lot of credit — who came in the early days, who would get stuff for themselves, and then models that they'd be working on would go, "I love that. Where'd you get it?" and then they would bring them in. That's a lot of how it started.
When I moved to Broadway, my current flagship in New York, we saw a lot more international fashion week travelers, as opposed to when I was just in the East Village and people would walk by. During fashion week, people would come in. One of the people that came in was Fiona Golfar, who at the time was editor-at-large for British Vogue. She got a bunch of stuff. She was like, "Why haven't we written anything about you?"
So, she did, and once that did internationally, it really exploded. There were some people who were devotees beforehand, but that really got it out there.
How have you seen the industry change since you started out?
The piercing industry has gotten better and better. It is more evolved and sophisticated than it ever used to be. What that means is, the piercing tools are sharper and there's less trauma to the skin than ever before. It is more medically minded, meaning people are so hyper-careful about sterile gloves and every tool being sterilized in front of the clients, and disposable everything.
Jewelry-wise, it has evolved. The fitting is better; there's more options for fitting. I think as a whole, people are aware of who's doing well in the industry and what they're doing. I mean, it's light-years ahead of what it was in the '90s, jewelry style as well as technique and tools.
How would you say social media has changed how you approach your job?
Whatever we do can be disseminated all the way around the world in minutes and you have to be on your game. People take photos of themselves in the room, in the whole set up. You've got to be clean and spotless, or that's going to be out and your client in the Middle East is going to see it.
But also, you can influence the world in a way that is unbelievable and so powerful. I keep referring to the Middle East, because I just came back from Dubai; as a Western woman, seeing other women covered up, I think, "Oh, they can't do this or that," but it's not true. On social media, they saw what we're doing in New York. They love it. It becomes adopted out there and infused into their culture. I think social media is amazing.
How have you seen trends pick up or change?
I personally don't worry about trends that much. I don't love that word because it means that it has a finite lifetime. I think it's important to be aware, though. For example, if big hoops come back in, or let's say rose gold goes on a kick because Rolex does a whole line of pink gold watches or something. Know what's out there, but be true to what you think is beautiful.
What is something you wish you had known before starting out?
That business is very difficult! I never knew how much time, and how much of my life, it would suck up. It's not a job to me. It's really an extension of who I am. I never stop thinking about it; I don't turn it off. It's not like that at all.
To be truly successful in Manhattan, you really have to throw yourself and your life into it, in my opinion, because to differentiate yourself in a field like jewelry, where it's been going on for thousands of years, you really have to come up with something new and work your ass off. Some would sit down and say, "You need a lot of money" — well, it's nice to have a lot of money. I didn't have it, and so it took me a long time. I started out with a small amount of money from my father's death, and I opened the first store.
I think if someone would have said, "Hold on tight. Buckle up. It's going to be a wild ride." Which it has been.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into your field today?
It's tough. I would say if you're obsessed with it, go for it. There's always room for more people, but I can't say if I had a daughter, I would say, "Do it." It's funny because my father was an electrical engineer, and he was like, "Don't be an engineer." [Laughs]
I think it's great. I have a lifestyle. Nobody tells me what to do. I really think if you can go into business for yourself, it's a wonderful thing; it's very difficult, but it's very liberating. If you love what you do, it's amazing.
Work hard to have a unique aesthetic or voice. Don't copy anybody. Just try to know what you like and have your own spin on it. It's very important. I hate people that copy or are derivative. It drives me nuts. Think of your own thing. If you can't, find another field.
What is your ultimate goal for yourself?
Every time I achieve another level, I've already moved the bar up for myself and I'm never satiated. You're always like, "I could do more. I could do more," and I think that slight push keeps you growing, and I wouldn't want to stop growing.
I have a vision where I'd like a Maria Tash store in every major city. There may come a point where I want to branch out and do some other things, but I love the idea of seeing people excited about my brand in other parts of the world I never thought I would even be in. Like going to Kuwait, and having people like, "Oh, you're Maria" — it's an amazing feeling I never would have imagined as a teenager.
I'm ambitious. I want to see it happen on a big scale if I can make it happen, and have fun along the way, which it has been.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.