Luxury jewellery is something that most either love or despise. It can be seen as excessive, tacky, classist, and almost irrelevant in today’s common culture. However, a New York-based jeweller has brought purpose and relevance to this seemingly crusty market in an effort to reflect contemporary society and inject some meaning onto the things we decorate our bodies with.
Michelle Berlinger, who heads up Berlinger Rings, carves her passion and her message into pieces that aim to really reflect the world we live in today, as well as disrupt social norms and perceptions around jewellery.
With a brand-spanking new men’s line out, I thought it was about time to get her on the line and find out what the buzz in New York was all about.
Interview with Michelle Berlinger
Tell be about you and how you became this jewellery extraordinaire?
My jewellery making career started when I was thirteen and on the national gymnastics team and I broke my back. I was in a body cast and very unable to move. My dad’s friend was a jewellery designer and gave me some beads to make a necklace and that was the first thing that piqued my interest in jewellery.
I had always kind of been fascinated with stones and rock and like most kids, I had a rock collection…
Lol wut, no they didn’t…. anyway
During this time when I was very broken (in the physical sense) I really picked up jewellery making and by high school I was selling my designs to some local stores in LA.
As soon as I got to university I found out there was a jewellery making studio and I got a job there. I spent the rest of my university career in the jewellery making studio. In my final year of university I applied for this program that let me study how jewellery is used as a symbol and how it is used to communicate identity. The program also let me make jewellery myself so I spent most of my final year at university making jewellery that communicated a stance on feminism, equality, and empowerment.
That academic interest then branched into a business idea that jewellery can be used to communicate not just identity but social chance and progress.
Why do you do what you do?
I have always been super handsy – I like to touch things.
To make things that you wear is a really tangible way to be and feel value in your creative work. As an artist, I would rather make something that is creative and useful rather than not really touchable. The fact that you can engage with my work, touch it, and wear it everyday is really important.
The other thing I love about what I do is the symbolic nature of the materials I work with. The fact that the stones and metals come from the earth and then are made into something that’s reflective of humanity is something that is incredibly interesting to me as an artist.
How do your pieces reflect humanity?
Well let’s look at it from a historical perspective - 100 years ago women were wearing corsets and this was a tiny reflection of the incredibly structured society at the time. From this our fashion has continued to parallel and mimic our society over time. Not only that, it has continued to symbolise our personal and family values. Whether it is something that is passed down through generations or seen as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. Today, jewellery is much more affordable to the average person so its now even more reflective of social norms and the world in which we live.
With all that in mind, no one company has used jewellery to reflect something positive. I mean, Tiffany’s talk about how their rings represent love and foreverness but that’s what jewellery has always really represented. It’s nothing new. No one has created pieces that represent a progressive ideal. No one has created jewellery that says “look at the way our society is changing for the better.” Jewellery should represent that now so that it can be something great and we can make a new part of history where the rings do represent love and everything it always has but it also loops the wearer into something more relevant and modern.
Have any brands had an influence on your own organisation?
Toms is a really nice example for us. But honestly, there isn’t really anyone within our category that is doing what we’re doing.
We want to represent something more than just a luxury brand. We want to inject a more purposeful narrative into our brand in a way that other luxury brands have not done. If you look at most other luxury brands that are making rings for marriage or engagement its all about either the very cool David Yurman thing or the super luxury Cartier thing or the glitzy Tiffany’s thing, but there is no real meaning beyond that.
The reason why I’ve started this brand is because I don’t see anyone doing what I am doing within the luxury jewellery market.
You’ve just released a brand new collection of men’s rings. Why did you decide to do this?
Well, I was working in a luxury jewellery store and a woman came in and I was talking to her about her ring and then she motioned for her husband to come over and she was like “honey, show her your engagement ring” and he proudly showed me his ring and I was like “holy fuck that’s so cool, I’ve never seen that before” and she told me that she gave the ring back to him when he proposed because she didn’t want to be the only one wearing an engagement ring. That was like the coolest feminist thing I’ve ever heard and so that day I called my business partner and told her this story and that we’re starting a men’s engagement ring brand that then morphed into wedding and fashion rings.
The whole idea of having men’s engagement rings that men could give to their boyfriends, women to their husbands, etc. seemed really empowering. We wanted to break down the idea that engagement rings are just for women.
And it works really well. We’ve had couples come to us and they’ve kind of co-created their rings together which is a much more equal way of doing things. It really signifies a partnership.
Doesn't that almost diminish the tradition of one of the partners surprising the other with an engagement ring?
Yes, but honestly not as much as you might think. In my experience it’s been around 50/50. Half of the time, one partner will have two engagement rings made and then surprise their partner, and the other half of the time both partners will come in and choose their rings. So the traditional surprise aspect of the engagement is still relevant and important, but perhaps not as much as we may think.
What styles have influenced your collection?
I am mostly inspired by heirloom objects that I see in my travels and everyday. For example, I’ve spent the last three months stopping people throughout Europe and New York and asking them about their rings. It was usually older men and they would tell me all these stories about their family rings which were mostly from the 1920s or the Victorian era. My collection is then based on this art-deco style era, but obviously they’re well made for modern life. They all aim to have this heirloom-style narrative or authenticity.
How have you gone about creating a narrative for your collection?
We first started by Instagramming the rings that we found people wearing and telling the story of the ring. Our collections are then very small - only five pieces because we want the rings to have purpose and meaning. We spend time carefully matching stones and metals or thinking about the design in order to create a story behind each ring that speaks of both our purpose as a brand and the cultural relevance of the various parts of the ring itself. All the rings have intention.
For men especially, we recognise that masculinity materialises itself on so many different levels and that men have either different or reluctant approaches to jewellery and rings in particular. This means by having smaller collections we can easily create pieces that are reflective of many different types of men.
How have you designed this first collection?
For this collection, we’ve primarily worked with grey diamonds (black diamonds, sapphires, turquoise, and jade also feature). We think the grey diamond is gorgeous and has this rustic beauty that we love. Our styles are also super comfortable, they’re quite low-profile, they don’t come up high off your finger, and the metals like platinum are very durable. Yes, that can mean they’re a bit more expensive but it also mean’s you can wear it everyday and it stay in perfect condition and not have to have any repairs. This is great for men who are active, who like subtle designs, and who don’t want to worry too much about what’s on their finger, but who also want a piece that can communicate something about them or what they personally believe in.