Designer interview

Susan Highsmith

Susan Highsmith

Susan Highsmith is an all- American sweetheart. Her voice and personality transcend my computer screen as she talks from her Brooklyn studio with such vigour and vim, it’s actually surprising that she works in such an isolated setting. Her modest audience are her bench and tools. Even with all her amenable characteristics, Susan’s jewellery doesn’t reverberate any synonym for ‘happy’. More that it’s, sorry to sound trite, but it’s actually very ‘cool’ even though she was surprised to hear that summation. Cool is one component to her jewellery. Susan agonises over every detail to make it look that little bit antique, but balances it out with a fresh modern take, rendering each piece of jewellery with a sense of permanence. Think of the perfect little black dress, or the perfect pair of jeans, then translate that back into jewellery. That is Susan Highsmith for you - she creates the protagonist in any jewellery collection because of its extreme wearability and outright perfect symmetry, material and aesthetic. No waxy, flashy, ostentatious jewels here, no one needs to try too hard! Every piece is hand made and is intended to blend and enhance the natural beauty of its lucky beneficiary.

We sat down with Susan to get the lowdown on how she started designing, her deep-seated appreciation for good quality and her general thoughts on being in the fine jewellery industry.

How did you get going in jewellery design?

I had many artistic endeavours. I actually came to New York and studied dance in college. Then I just sort of stayed and pursued some acting, then I got into jewellery a bit. I remember someone said to me once “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” so of course I wanted to pursue all these different artistic projects like doing independent films one day and the next, doing a dance thing. With jewellery I started doing some classes, then I took some more serious technical classes with a mentor of mine, so I was very lucky. He is a self-taught jewellery master, he has been doing it forever and he has the same students that he has had for decades who keep returning to him. I guess looking back I was a little bit naïve by casually dabbling in classes here and there but the more involved I got and the more hands-on I became with jewellery, the more I fell in love with it.  


Tell me about how you felt about starting your company? Was it an intentional start or did it evolve on its own?

It was a very free approach. I just dabbled in different artistic things. At the same time I started in jewellery as you know, I was also dancing and acting but I didn’t really enjoy the process of auditioning. You would have to wait for your agent to call you with the outcome and honestly I have a massive introverted side to me and I like to be in control. Making jewellery allowed me both of those things. Then I was like “Oh I need to get a business license” and I had to start pulling together the business stuff. You start creating in an artistic sense but gradually it becomes more and more serious. The business side does not come to me that easily but the work pile got bigger and bigger so I eventually had no choice! You can say starting the company was a natural progression.


So are you doing it all yourself – the P&L spread sheets, the book keeping?

Yes everything except I outsource here and there. I don’t set my stones, I don’t cast my gold, I drop it off at my caster.

Do you enjoy using old cuts and rose cut diamonds?

I love old-miners but I don’t really use them as much as I would like to because price point wise, they’re just a bit too expensive. In a perfect world I would and that’s why I love to use rose cuts, but I’m just starting to dabble in coloured diamonds now. Historically, I was never drawn to colour and now I am experimenting with it, but not the bright rainbow diamonds, the more mellow coloured diamonds. They’re beautiful!  

I love the idea of passing things on and jewellery is the best thing to pass down generation to generation. It’s like old tools, you might buy a new tool and it breaks within a year and then you will probably go back to the old tool that always delivers. I love things that last a long time and especially with jewellery - well made jewellery will give that to you.

Would you say hand made jewellery is in as much demand as computer aided design (CAD) jewellery?

I think they’re both going strong, but I will say it comes down to education. Some people come to me for a custom piece and they wonder why it can take a bit of time or why it may be slightly more expensive. When they’re buying something mass-produced some people don’t even know that they are buying from a big box store, so that their pieces are being made by some other person in some other country. I will also say that this generation is a generation that want what everyone else has but then thankfully there are another set of people who think slightly out of the box and want something custom and that is where hand made jewellery comes in.


What tectonic shifts can you see with jewellery trends?

Interesting you ask, because honestly - I don’t really pay much attention to trends, like if someone asks, “what’s in right now?” I don’t know, like I really don’t know!


I really love that you aren’t interested in following a trend. I think that in a world of adornment and wearing things that probably don’t serve much of a utilitarian purpose, it’s unique to find a designer who is as free as designing without referencing a certain trend! So on that note, I guess the other question I have is how do you compare fashion to jewellery? Because we think it’s a misused and unfair comparison when the only thing they have in common is that they are both wearable. What are your thoughts on that?

You can’t compare them! I would say with jewellery anything goes. There are people that like antique jewellery or people that like modern and bold jewellery, someone might wear their ancestor’s rings next to a shiny and new piece. It’s a great and thought provoking question. I would say there is something deeply sentimental with jewellery, even if it’s new. Also with fine jewellery, if it’s well made, it will last a lifetime and then some, I can’t say the same with fashion especially fast fashion. The only time I would compare them both is if you’re not totally into jewellery and you want to buy a piece that is less expensive, let’s say something plated, then yeah, chances are that will be a fashion-designed piece of jewellery. If you can spend a little bit more money on something that will last and last, then why wouldn’t you? I love the idea of passing things on and jewellery is the best thing to pass down generation to generation. It’s like old tools, you might buy a new tool and it breaks within a year and then you will probably go back to the old tool that always delivers. I love things that last a long time and especially with jewellery - well made jewellery will give that to you.


You must love good craftsmanship.

I definitely do. I will spend a long time looking for something special. Even a good coffee maker. The same logic applies when I design my jewellery. I am very specific in my design and take my time in the crafting. It’s my attention to detail! I bought a roll top desk that I turned into a jewellery bench and I will probably have it forever! If I love something, I want to have it forever!


Just going to shift gears now. There are quite a few designers who have referenced architecture. I know architecture is one of your greatest inspirations. Two questions here, why do you think architecture is such a point of reference for jewellery designers and does anything else inspire you creatively?

Antique jewellery and different antiquities definitely inspire me. I will look at antique jewellery on line and in the shops as well, it’s amazingly interesting.

In reference to architecture, I can’t speak for anyone else because designing is just such a personal process. For me, my dad’s cousin was an architectural preservationist in Chicago. He was a huge influence of mine. He salvaged buildings before that was a thing to do. He would save elements from a Louis Sullivan building and hoard them when people were just scrapping stuff. No one cared about that stuff, no one was preserving. Now you will find salvation stores with amazing fireplace mantels and chandeliers. There was a time when people just knocked things down or demolished them and he really fought to keep those pieces. Also in regards to architecture, I remember when I was younger my parents used to take me to visit different houses. I remember visiting the Henry Ford house, so that made me initially want to become an architect when I was younger and my mum said, “well if you’re really good at math then you can do it”. That comment very quickly turned me off! I have always had a fascination for the detail of older buildings and an appreciation for things that have been around and so that’s where my dad’s cousin ties in. There are some really interesting books on him and there was also just a big tribute to him in Chicago his name is Richard Nickel.


Wow that is some relative you have there. The eye for detail and creativity runs in the genes!

Yes it seems to doesn’t it!


Do you have someone in mind who encapsulates your aesthetic?

Not entirely… Maybe someone with a level of sophistication. But then again she is bohemian as well. I guess I don’t design with a specific person in mind.


So what does sophistication mean to you?

I guess not fast fashion. Someone who is confident enough to buy one thing that lasts forever over ten things that last one year. I think there is an elegance in that. Of course I would love to design something big, bold and crazy but I keep my jewellery all within a certain range, except for the custom pieces of course. But things are expensive and I kind of want to be accessible enough to the girl that has saved up and wants to buy herself a graduation gift as much as I do for a self-sufficient woman. It’s interesting though, I get a lot of people from California that contact me.


Yes I would understand that. California has that bohemian and sophisticated atmosphere. What’s your favourite part of production?

Creating it, making something new there is no better feeling. I work pretty much all the time. At the end, there is something nice about cleaning a piece of jewellery in metal and fine finishing everything once it’s done, but when I am in the process of making it and everything is going well, I’m just in a zone, I could keep doing it forever. I will even lose sleep just thinking about it, I don’t want to put it down. You are creating with your own two hands in real time, it’s a meditation.


Do you create by collections or do you just make new pieces?

I make it piece by piece. I just keep adding to the pile. I can understand for marketing reasons why people create collections but I approach it totally differently.


I have actually noticed a lot of designers don’t create by collection. Their approach is more like an artist conjuring up something meaningful for them.

Yes absolutely, and as you grow you feel this pressure that keeps mounting. I have clients calling and asking “what’s new, what can you show me?” I have to just stay within my means, it’s a time consuming endeavour!


Describe your jewellery in three words…

Ooh I am stumped! Understated elegance and also romantic.


Last question. It’s a serious one. Are we going to see you dancing again!?

What NO!!! It was my ticket to New York. But if I’m going to be 100% honest, I always had a feeling I wouldn’t end up being a dancer, I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew it wasn’t going to be dancing. It’s interesting how your taste changes as you get older, like at one point I was interested in medicine, then forensics. But I have a pretty full plate at the moment and am very satisfied!

How can we help you with your jewellery?