Designer interview

Jean Prounis

Jean Prounis

Reminiscent of ancient civilisations and meant to last thousands of years

For Jean Prounis, there was only ever one color of gold; the buttery yellow that we know from visiting museum exhibitions of ancient times. From Greco-Roman to Pre-Colombian, her vivid creations encompass ideas from civilisations long lost. In an imaginary conversation with her grandfather,

Jean’s jewellery speaks to times of both yesterday and tomorrow, transcending time and honoring the grounding and protective powers of gold. Explored here in a conversation on ethical sourcing practices, the legendary New York supper club Versailles and 22 karat.

The first thing, I wanted to know, is what initially made you wish to become a goldsmith? 
I guess it was from taking gold smithing classes. I studied jewellery and metal smithing in college and undergrad, and I just fell in love with these classes I would take out of school, which were specialised in ancient techniques. I just loved the meditative processes of chain making and granulation and these repeating forms. I tried to weave in those repeated techniques into how we design the jewellery and it feels much more grounding. It ties it together for me. And I just love 22 karat gold. I fell in love with it after I made my first 22 karat chain. It is the most beautiful material. It’s amazing how it just comes out of the earth, I mean in 24 karat, but we alloy it here; that’s just the process of adding fine silver and copper. 

That was definitely on my list of questions; the 22 karat gold. It has this very specific color. 
Yeah, it’s a really beautiful yellow. It is warm and buttery. I find it quite neutral. It is also the kind of gold where either you love it or hate it. But we have been converting a lot of people, who typically wore 18 or 14 karat, and then they buy one piece from us and they need more. 

But there’s not that many designers who use that specific color, which makes it very unique.
And the way we make it. It has a little more silver than used in a commercial 22 karat. And the reason why we do that is that when we alloy in-house, we are able to use recycled gold. We will buy 24 karat that has been recycled from scrap jewellery, so it is refined. We add the silver and the copper here, and from there we make sheets or wire, which is like the DNA of all jewellery to some extent. And the gold color, I like to reference ancient pieces that have more of a green gold. It is not as yellow as a 24 karat. I like the coloring. 

Maybe tell me a little bit about these ancient ideas, references and inspiration. 
First off, 22 karat is the most historical alloy of gold, so if you look across multiple cultures, or ancient civilisations, they use 22. Largely because of the embedded meanings in gold and how it is thought to be healing and grounding. And there was a lot of symbolism represented in gold. And because of the longevity of the material. One thing that is so beautiful about high karat gold is that it does not oxidise. As you wear it, it remains this beautiful buttery yellow. If you go into the Met or the British Museum, you see how those pieces are still this beautiful color, and that’s definitely one of the aspects that I love about this gold; because of how long it can last throughout civilisations. And I also love the common ground in ancient pieces and having this tie between or connection between pre-Colombian jewellery and ancient Greek jewellery. I mean, those are continents divided, and they instill this really embedded meaning in the high karat gold, and there’s this connection to the sun. I love all the symbols of it, and also just how it feels. But the other part of it is the antiquities because I do love to say our pieces are a story of ancient tombs. I love to just look at books about antiquities, whether that be pottery or jewellery or architecture, I love to look at these elements, designed from there. It’s kind of like tying in multiple aspects of largely Greco-Roman times, but all types of ancient civilisations; also, ancient Nubian jewellery and pre-Colombian. I love to have a widespread dialogue in the pieces.

"It’s kind of like tying in multiple aspects of largely Greco-Roman times, but all types of ancient civilisations; also, ancient Nubian jewellery and pre-Colombian. I love to have a widespread dialogue in the pieces."

I really like this idea that it reaches back in time thousands of years, and that the pieces will last thousands of years into the future. It’s kind of like non-linear. 
It will last beyond its wearer. It’s meant to be worn everyday, and for you to embed your own meaning in it. And, touching on the materials again, 22 is a softer gold of course. And since this is handcrafted jewellery, it is not going to bend out of shape necessarily, but the surface, more so of rings than anything else, picks up knicks and knacks, and the beautiful matte finish wears away with time. I love that, and with each person who wears a piece, it turns into a more unique piece for the wearer. 

It becomes part of the person who wears it?
Yeah, and we do offer restoration services, because some people prefer the matte look, but the intention is for it to change as you wear it.  

I was reading about your Bulla pendants, and I really like this idea that there’s a grounding energy…
The Bulla pendants, that was our latest launch or chapter, in February. Those were designed or inspired by Bullas, which were worn as protective amulets of a sort. The history is interesting; it was given largely to young boys to wear as this protective measure, and you would wear it until you were a man. That is the most known historical story of them, but it was also given to animals in the same way, and women also wore them. But women would most often wear them in crescent shapes, which is not necessarily my aesthetics. But I just loved how gold dome surfaces, like Bullas, are very calming and I loved how there was this connection to how they were worn for this grounding, protective purpose. 

And when we apply that to today, I guess it can give the same sense and feeling for anyone who wears it. That you take this idea and apply it to a modern piece of jewellery. 
Yeah, for me, when I wear them, I like to wear them as a reminder for meditation and to take a moment, to care, and self-care. So that’s what I embed this meaning in. It could be anything. It could also be that someone gives it to you as a gift and it reminds you about personal connections and nourishing those connections in life. That was the intention, because it is a more simplistic design. I think it is really beautiful when you have pieces like that, to ornament them with meaning. 

You mentioned it yourself, that you call it chapters more than collections. Does that tie into your ideas around what impact your production has on the planet and people for that matter?
Yeah, that’s one thing that is really important to us, our made-to-order approach. We do not have a large inventory of any item, because I think it is special to have something made for a client just with them and their intention for the wear in mind. We do take a lot of consideration into the wearability of the piece for that client, so I think with that care and attention, it really helps us minimise our footprint. Aside from the recycled gold that we work with, all of our gems that we source are responsible; so that means socially and also environmentally. Where we can, we like to use upcycled stones, and we use stones from antique pieces, or I will work with vendors who have parcels or stone batches from the 80s, and I try to shop from their older pieces. When we do work with newer materials, we like to ensure that the vendors are able to speak to where the materials are from, and where it is cut and just to make sure we are working with people who know the life of a piece. The whole footprint thing is very important, and I think it is very manageable for a small fine jeweler; there really is minimal waste. Any piece that doesn't work out in a collection or if we make a mistake, it is something that we can always re-cycle and it is regenerative in a way.

That’s one of the coolest things about the material that you work with; that it is recyclable. There’s really no excuse to not care about these things. There are two more elements I would like to talk about. The first is the women who inspire you, the women you shoot the jewellery on… 
When we look at casting for photos and campaigns, I like to look for this feeling of comfortable and natural beauty in yourself. In a nutshell, I like how the jewellery is quite raw, and beautifully raw. That’s what we like to capture with the women we work with in the photographs. We work pretty much exclusively with a friend who is a photographer, Adam Kramer, and he also just has this very warm approach to photography. We love to shoot in natural light, and really capture that connection of the jewellery with the sun, because there is this beautiful synergy between the two, of 22 karat and the sun, it is kind of needed on it to photograph it. 

The last bit, and I guess you’ve repeated it a million times, but it is quite an interesting story with your great-grandfather, with Greece and New York, and your personal background.
Those books, I was talking about, the majority of them were from my grandfather, and he was such a large bibliophile for Greco-Roman anything. On my father’s side of the family, my grandfather was Greek, my last name is Prounis, so that’s the lineage. He loved his Greek heritage, so growing up he really wanted to share that with me. They had this amazing library, with five bookshelves filled with everything Greek whether it was architecture or jewellery or museum exhibitions on Greek culture, and he would always write and underline the pieces that really resonated with him or that he enjoyed. I love going through them now. He has passed, but there is still this conversation going on with him, where I get to respond to the things, he underlines, in the form of jewellery or the story of a piece. It is this fantasy of a conversation that I am having with him. It was really beautiful that he was so passionate about his culture and wanted to educate me on it. But I guess, even more backstory, would be my great-grandfather, who came over from Greece when he was 13, by himself, and he worked as a busboy and worked his way up in the restaurant world and eventually launched his own cabaret supper club. It was Edith Piaf’s first US contract. My grandfather kept this amazing archive of all the imagery from there, all the celebrity headshots, lots of these 30s 40s stars, and the linens and the menus and all of it. I really wanted to connect the Versailles, as it was called, and Prounis, my company, in some way, and I felt like it was best to do in our packaging. That’s where the sage green comes from. Their tablecloths were embroidered in cream and sage. People always ask if I take any inspiration for my jewellery from there, and in a lot of the headshots of the celebrities and performers, they had on these beautiful gems, so there is a big connection there. And for our larger pieces, that is definitely a connection. Most of our line is quite wearable, but then we do have bigger statement pieces, that’s kind of where that inspiration comes from.

That’s really amazing!

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