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Any woman would love to wear a one-of-a-kind, standout piece of jewelry. Boulder-based musician and jeweler Marie-Juliette Bird delivers with Blackbird and the Snow, her modern take on the romantic Victorian aesthetic—an era not frequently tapped by designers this side of the Atlantic. Bird’s distinctly feminine jewelry explores organic motifs such as stars (as seen in our recent roundup of Victorian bridal style), moons, and birds, but without the fussy, overwrought detail often associated with the 19th century. In addition to her poetic themes, Bird’s line is environmentally sensitive, incorporating recycled metals as well as precious stones and opals sourced from ethical mines in India and Australia, respectively. I recently chatted with Bird about her designs and how music influences her work.
5280: So which came first—music or jewelry?
I was working in London on an album when I started making jewelry. Music is essentially ephemeral, and I wanted the experience of creating something tangible. There is also the question of value. Music is now basically free on the Internet. Although I consider music my most essential expression, as a music maker in this culture I’m expected to give away my music for free. But gold has a tangible value: Every day you can look up the price of gold on the Nasdaq. As a society, people do not expect free diamonds and gold; we have agreed that gold and precious stones are worth something.
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Does your music influence your jewelry?
The music and the jewelry are two mediums that express the same vision. Namely, I am creating an ode to the wilderness, foraging elements and symbolism from the natural world. Blackbird and the Storm (my band) incorporates the wild music of birdsong with human expression. Blackbird and the Snow (the jewelry line) incorporates luminous elements—gems and metals from the natural world—with natural symbols, which in turn become talismans.
It sounds like Mother Nature is a major source of inspiration.
I would say the natural world is my biggest muse and inspiration. Everything in the collection is directly symbolic of nature: moons, stars, birds, wings. I’m coming out with a collection that will incorporate traditional shapes with elements from the natural world but in a really different way than what I’ve done in the past. Essentially, each piece will need to be uniquely engineered, so everything is basically custom.
Let’s step back. You started your education in jewelry making in London, right?
I trained [there] with the coolest man: David Courts [of Courts & Hackett]. He created the original Keith Richards skull ring in the 1960s. He’s actually responsible for introducing the skull into the counterculture. It’s ubiquitous now, but it wasn’t at the time. David was my mentor for eight years. I definitely feel that the English Victorian feel to Blackbird and the Snow is very much influenced by him.
You choose to craft your jewelry using traditional techniques. Why?
I would say that 95 percent of the fine jewelry you see nowadays is made by computer-assisted design (CAD). Jewelry designed by CAD is drawn on the computer using special software. The CAD file will go straight to machines for production. The master [the original carving of a piece of jewelry] in this case is, essentially, the computer drawing. What I do instead is hand-carve all my masters either out of wax or metal. Pieces created from CAD tend to be perfectly symmetrical, whereas hand-carved masters have a more artisanal look and feel because they are sculpted by a human being.
Walk us through your hand-carving process.
The process starts with a rendering or drawing. Then if the piece is small, it’s carved out of wax, while the larger pieces are carved out of metal. From there, I make the mold and casting. A jewelry piece can only be hand-carved one time; once it goes through the lost wax casting process, the wax master is “eaten” by the process. [Editor’s Note: The casting process involves pouring a liquid metal alloy into a mold; the casting mold is created using a wax model that melts away, leaving a hollow chamber in the middle in the shape of the piece of jewelry.] If a master doesn’t turn out the way I want, I have to start again from the beginning.
And this centuries-old process is only one traditional technique you use in your work. What are some others?
Hand milgrain [literally meaning “a thousand grains,” milgrain is a row of small metal beads linked together to make an edge of a section of jewelry, like in the Celestial Moon earrings above], hand engraving, hand-hammered gold, and hand-cut stones and bezels. Plus, I set all my stones by hand. People don’t really do these techniques by hand anymore because they’re all really labor intensive.
We live in a world where people often aren’t sure what they’re paying for; the assumption is that if something is too expensive, you can get it somewhere else for less. But with Blackbird, customers are paying for the design, skill, know-how, etc.
I’ve been talking about this a lot lately. I think with the shift to more online sales, the consumer is becoming really savvy. It’s important to price my pieces so that they reflect the work involved—that they are handmade with beautiful, quality diamonds and not just diamond chips—but are still attractive and accessible to the customer.
Give us the inside scoop. When can we expect to see your new collection?
Spring—but it’s top secret until the launch!