An Interview with Jill Herlands – Jewelry Artist in Hell’s Kitchen
Anyone who has visited or lived in New York unequivocally agrees that the city radiates an aura that’s all its own. Walking between the buildings and through Central Park, crossing from the East to the West Side, you feel like you can do anything. The city wakes you up, supercharging your senses. Drive, determination, and ambition: it is all within reach to become part of the story that is New York, no matter the profession. There is nothing like it. It is hard to pinpoint where this special type of kinetic energy originates. Does it come from riding the tide with likeminded people, the physical surroundings or both? How do you capture that essence so that you can take it with you?
Browsing Instagram, I could not help but notice Jill Herlands’ charismatic yet edgy designs, reminding me of concrete and glass, screaming chaos but expressing elegance, characteristic of New York. Delving into her profile, I saw that she worked in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC. The West Side Manhattan neighborhood, situated southwest of Central Park and walking distance to Broadway, runs along the Hudson River. Hell’s Kitchen was once infamous for Irish mobsters, who inhabited the once primarily industrial neighborhood over fifty years go. The now vibrant residential neighborhood attracts creative talents in theater, music, and television. Yet, I wanted to know more about what was driving her designs. Her website and brochures barely touch on the life before jewelry (2014). It was obvious that there was a backstory waiting to be told and it would be 100% New York. I reached out and we agreed to an interview on Friday, November 30, 2018.
When we started talking, I noticed right away that Jill is remarkable on so many dimensions and yet very personable. She is confident, decisive, outspoken and articulate. Despite spending her whole life in New York, having met tens of thousands of people during her lifetime, Jill connects with people on a singular and intimate level. She takes a genuine interest in what people have to say, engaging in the conversation and asking questions to learn more. As an active listener, she not only understands people but also remembers them. I would never have expected that from someone in a city where you must process information and meet people at a high-rate to remain afloat.
Raw Emerald set in Blackened Sterling Silver ring. David from South Africa commissioned this as a birthday gift for his daughter Maxine, who was born in May. Emerald is May’s birthstone. The ring size was slightly off, so Jill took it back to New York via FedEx, made the necessary adjustments, and returned it at no additional cost.
Born in 1961 and growing up in New York during the ’70s and ’80s, Jill Herlands’ journey into jewelry was not a linear one. During her childhood years, she drove her mother crazy, taking apart her jewelry and reassembling it in new and interesting ways. She did the same with her own clothes as well, creating new and original designs. Yet it would it be some time before she realized her calling. Although her parents noticed the inborn passion for creating, they were corporate types working in finance and hoped that she would take a professional path.
She attended the American Dramatic Academy in New York. After graduating, she attended the University of Miami, majoring in theater, hoping to find an outlet for her creative energy. Although her parents were supportive, they were somewhat frustrated with her individuality and skeptical on how she would make a living. While in college, she attended an audition to be an extra in Love Child (1982). Instead, she (Jill-Rene Weissman) landed a featured role in the Beau Bridges, Mackenzie Philips, and Amy Madigan film. She decided to leave school to pursue a full-time acting career.
She soon realized that her “New Yorker” personality, characterized as impatient, wasn’t a good fit for the process; too much waiting around for auditions and on set. Instead, she opted to work on the “inside,” taking a position at Bert Padell and Company (entertainment industry management firm), where the client list included such names as Madonna and Cindy Lauper. From there, she was hired by The William Morris Agency, assigned to their music department. The agency represented Billy Joel and Meatloaf, along with a long roster of established and new talent. Jill’s responsibilities included spending evenings at the clubs listening to great music and searching for new talent. Some of the noteworthy talent Jill had a hand in finding were Terence Trent Darby and Fishbone.
Electronics are quickly becoming fashion. An Apple Watch on a Sterling Silver cuff. The inspiration for this piece came about when Jill’s husband gave her his Apple Watch. Jill is not particularly a ‘watch’ person, so she decided to make the watch into a piece of jewelry she would wear instead. The underside of the cuff has been cut out to ensure it is compatible with recharging cables and stands.
Reaching her early 30’s she married an unlikely suitor: a cyber-security expert – seven years her junior who had been courting her for several months. A polar opposite, he was a technology executive, focused on his career. During those years she managed lesser known bands part-time but eventually left the business, devoting all of her time to raising her daughter. In 2014, after her daughter left for college, Jill decided to look into jewelry and picked up a torch. At that moment, she realized that was her calling all along, coming full circle with her childhood creativity.
From that point, Jill began experimenting with metals, tools, and raw gemstones. Through trial and error, Jill developed her own techniques, style, and even metal alloys. Although her works and techniques are studied by jewelry students who spend time in her studio, she is completely self-taught, remaining true to her rebellious and non-conformist persona. For her, school would have set boundaries and confined her to a set of rules. She does not consider herself a jewelry designer but rather an artist. Each miniature sculpture is a first-edition, one-of-kind piece that allows the wearer to tell a story without saying a word.
My personal favorite: Blackened Sterling silver ring, set with rough blue Fluorite and silver leaf. This reminds me of broken glass on a New York City sidewalk adjacent to a chaotic construction site.
Sterling silver and concrete ring, set with Celestite. The Concrete and Celeste Ring encapsulates New York’s landscape and optimism.
During our interview, before I understood her perspective, I pointed out that the ring above reminded me of concrete and broken glass. She confirmed that her inspiration came from New York’s cityscape, primarily construction sites.
Those themes and interests were reinforced when she renovated her Manhattan loft. During that time, she developed a fascination for the way raw materials twisted, turned, and interconnected.
The ductwork and piping piqued her interest, which she expressed in her jewelry. She even incorporates concrete, alloyed with gold or silver in her works – one of the proprietary methods that she holds close. Her approach is often experimental and spontaneous, “seeing where things” go.
Starting with a flat piece of silver or gold, she hammers, grinds, folds, torches, or solders them into shape. She does not cast or produce pieces in quantity; each piece is truly handmade and can’t (and won’t) ever be exactly reproduced. Her technique is hand-fabrication, and she consciously disregards the tradition. Instead, she uses unorthodox combinations of precious metals, rough gemstones, and non-traditional materials to create tension and expose the unexpected.
Jill thrives in an atmosphere of controlled chaos while allowing the materials to dictate the final outcome of her work. Her philosophy is “Imperfection is perfection”. Each jewelry sculpture is one-of-a-kind with a story all its own. When I asked her about specific pieces, she did not answer technically, but rather focused on the names, locations and client’s story, giving each of her works a special provenance. Jill gets to know each of her clients by ‘interviewing’ them before beginning work on a bespoke piece. It’s the personality and story behind the client that influences the final design; a piece that truly speaks to the wearer.
Her business was an accidental one, starting as an interest. However, the work, which not only reflected New York but also years in the music industry, did not go unnoticed. At the urging of friends, she started posting her works on Instagram, and her online presence took off. The social following led to significant orders, and in 2015, the studio was incorporated. Jill Herlands’ story is one of confidence, passion, and stubbornness, remaining true to her heart, imagination, and vision. Yet, she takes a pause to listen and understand the individual. During our interview, she asked me many questions about my daytime job as an IT Manager for a financial company in Oslo, Norway. I never thought anyone would find that interesting.
Taking energy from the city, she works from 6 am to 9-10 pm, taking long walks throughout the day to find inspiration. Jill’s pieces take on the wearer’s personality and outlook. They can either fade away or become a part of who they are, depending on the person and purpose. She stands behind all of her work and no one is allowed to alter or resize the pieces except her. Beside her bespoke and ready-to-wear work, Jill also repurposes clients’ existing jewelry. She incorporates the metal and gemstones from the original piece and creates something completely different and new. Although you can find her pieces in upscale boutiques and galleries worldwide, she receives visitors to her Hell’s Kitchen studio by appointment from all over the world. She also responds to every single comment or question on her Instagram feed! Jill forges friendships with her clients by treating each project as if it’s the most important one, which at the time of fabrication, it is!
Visiting Jill In Hell’s Kitchen
Between the first draft and final revision of this story, I made an impromptu visit to Jill’s home studio in Hell’s Kitchen while visiting family and friends In the area over the holidays. In person, she is radiant and full of energy. I managed to meet her husband and see her studio, getting perspective from her vantage point.
Jill Herlands with Tattoo Artist Dex of Bang Bang Tattoos in NYC – Dreams on Air exhibition in Soho, NYC on December 13, 2018.
From the window behind her workbench, I could see a TV over a Scandinavian credenza with two modern sculptures. The bright and lofty surroundings situated on glazed concrete floors and supported by modern and exposed elements correlate with her spontaneous designs.
Dreams on Air Display
We furthered our discussion on her journey to becoming a jewelry artist, primarily on going against the grain at times: guided by your passion and heart to the final destination. Willpower and determination, connected with a strong vision of what you want to achieve will compensate for the lack of formal education and specific experience. Jill emphasized that she is not afraid to fail, persisting and reiterating until she achieves her and the client’s design goal. Coming into a trade from the outside leads to outcomes never seen before but highly sought after. I shared with her our desire to make our blog the “Audubon book” for noteworthy and renowned artisan jewelry designers from around the world. She encouraged my wife and I to continue our course, writing in-depth stories that help the reader see the world through the designer’s eyes, connecting their life experiences and soul to the design outcomes.
The Hollow Forms Ring Is completely handmade from Sterling silver. The contemporary and geometric with worn surfaces reminds me of both Oslo and New York.
Seeing Jill’s work up close, I wanted to get my wife something unique from New York. I sent my wife a picture of the Hollow Forms Ring to which she replied was too big for her fingers but would make an excellent pendant: 80% of the original size, made from 18K gold and supported by a handmade gold chain.
We will continue this story in the spring when we start the project.
About the Cover Image:
Produced by OKINGMEDIA
Creative Director – @oludele2
Photography – @oludele2