Designer interview

Ashley Zhang – From antique jewellery to modern designs

Ashley Zhang – From antique jewellery to modern designs

Ashley Zhang launched her eponymous brand in 2018, and while having her own jewellery brand wasn’t “something that I necessarily set out to do from the beginning, it just organically happened and made sense.” Feeling “lucky” that the brand has evolved into something “bigger than I thought I could ever have” after only five years, the designer spoke to us about her design process and taking inspiration from the past.

Having studied at US design school Parsons, Ashley thought she would go “the clothing or styling route”. Instead, she worked for a jewellery company.

“I thought, wow, this is exactly what I want to do because I think jewellery is so much more personal than any other kind of category in the fashion industry. It has so much meaning, they're celebratory. It could be a birthday, a graduation, a wedding, a birth: those are often what we find that our customers are buying these pieces for. It's more exciting to us. It’s a connection to their life and how they wear the pieces.”

After taking a break from jewellery around the time she got married, Ashley was “getting a lot of requests from friends, friends of friends, recommendations to make jewellery and then right after the time I got married, in 2017, I was realising I was getting more requests than I had free time for. I thought: maybe I should just make this my own business.”

Antique jewellery as a starting point

Taking inspiration from the past, the jewellery designer starts from antique pieces. But while you may think she spends all her time at auction houses or in antique shops, she streamlined the process for herself and her team.

“I don't really travel much to buy jewellery. I work with private collectors who do, but people think that we're just going to antique shops.  

“But really, some of these private collectors, what they do is they're well known within wealthy communities. If somebody inherits a piece, instead of taking it to an auction house, they'll take it directly to them, and then they'll partner with us on the pieces that we like.

“They will travel the world and work more directly one-on-one with people. Private collectors love hunting and finding these pieces, but they have no interest in retailing them. That's not their specialty, they don't want to work with customers. They just want to travel, find stuff and we partner together essentially. They get to do the fun parts of it and, I mean, I think our part is fun too, but it's just not fun for them.”

Making an Ashley Zhang piece

From antique jewellery to Ashley Zhang jewellery collection, the pieces go through a design process and manufacturing that involves a team.

Ashley explains: “You know, I'm not a bench jeweller at all. I'm just a designer, but I work directly with bench jewellers and so it's a constant collaboration and partnership with them. I have an idea and they help me figure out what technically could work or couldn't work. I would say there’s a lot of innovation.

“For example, the snake necklace: how do you get this kind of chain to lay properly when you add a heavy piece at the bottom? How do you make sure it doesn't flip up?

“It’s things our jewellers are not necessarily used to doing, so there’s trial and error to figure out these pieces. And I think it's really exciting to work that way.  

“I don't know why, but I tend to make these pieces that look simple but are quite complicated from a production standpoint.

“The onyx, emerald charm and the mother of pearl charm: these stones are all hand cut. To have them sitting in a gold piece hand cut and then have a piece also insert into it and have it be really seamless and clean is technically very difficult, but it's directly inspired by Victorian era jewellery when people were making all these pieces by hand.

“The swivel charm took us about eight months to figure out. Ho do you make it turn properly? Making sure it didn't flip too fast or too slow.”

Designing pieces inspired by the past involves looking at a lot of antique, “for example, that swivel pendant.

“We had this really cool swivel charm before it sold. I took it to our production team to look at all the pieces and I said let's do something like this, but let's simplify it. I did a very like simple sketch.”

Old diamonds for new pieces

Ashley’s connection to the past extends to her suppliers, with her “diamonds mostly coming from a supplier who also sells antique jewellery and vintage jewellery”.

The diamonds she uses are recycled diamonds, taking from old pieces of jewellery and “bought in batches” by her team. While this may seem unusual, Ashley says: “The industry probably uses more recycled diamonds than people realise. I think that the older generations who are in the industry maybe don't realise that it’s seen a positive thing. I think in the past they thought that people might be turned off by the fact that these diamonds were used before.

“We really do reuse all old diamonds. Maybe they're not 100 years old, but they're taken out of old pieces.”

Ashley Zhang’s other gemstones are usually custom cut by a lapidarist who sources them from the rough. “He works directly with mines to source those for us.”

The Ashley Zhang customer

Ashley wants to make affordable jewellery for a customer who is “maturing her style”.

She says: “I think that the Ashley Zhang customer starts with our bridal customers.

“She’s in her mid to late 20s and moving on and maturing her style. She wants higher quality pieces in her wardrobe, but maybe doesn’t have $7000 for a starter piece.

“That's where we really see our customers: they’re building their collection. And we strive for longevity when we design. I don't want anything to feel too trendy. I want you to be able to wear our pieces with antique jewellery, but also if with the next trendiest thing. We want you to wear it for 20-30 years.”

Longevity is a goal for Ashley, both in the quality of the pieces she designs but also in style. Her pieces are meant to be “mixed and matched, which is why we really sell these chains separate from the pendants.

“So the Albert Chain with the dog clip clasp is meant to go with your old pendants you don’t have a chain for.

“You can throw our chains on with any pendant, you're not set with that stack. You can really mix it and match it with your mood and what other pieces you're wearing.

“We don't want any pieces to feel like they're too hard to style. We want them to be very easy to style.

“Our rings, you could wear them by themselves or you could stack them so that some people wear those as wedding bands. Some people wear as middle finger rings. 

“Everything is meant to styled very easily.”

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