Delving into the American designer's esoteric approach to contemporary jewellery design, END. sit down with Martine Ali to talk modularity, subverting tradition and the appeal of silver.
“A garment, an automobile, a dish of cooked food, a gesture, a film, a piece of music, an advertising image, a piece of furniture, a newspaper headline—these indeed appear to be heterogeneous objects. What might they have in common? This at least: all are signs…this car tells me the social status of its owner, this garment tells me quite precisely the degree of its wearer's conformism or eccentricity.” – Roland Barthes, 'The Semiotic Challenge', 1994.
When we consider the role of jewellery within our everyday lives, Barthes’ comments on semiotics offer an astute observation of how the garments and accessories we wear relate to our – whether intentional or not – symbolic statements about ourselves. A carefully draped necklace, a gestural bracelet or an eye-catching ring can instantly offer presence, announcing a certain confidence and comfortability in oneself. Challenging pre-conceived notions of utility and identity through an uncompromising visual sensibility, Martine Ali’s eponymous brand has become a tour de force of modernity within the realm of high-end jewellery. Shirking convention with modular accessories that clip together to offer unrestrained degrees of personalisation to their wearer, Ali’s creations unlock a world that celebrates the eccentricities and intricacies of the individual.
Establishing her brand in 2010, the Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based designer has cultivated a dedicated following for her industrial-tinged accessories that combine an esoteric yet universal appeal with ‘90s nostalgia, cultural touchpoints and modularity at its core. Striking and confident, Ali’s jewellery inspires with its creative approach to personalisation, with her pieces crying out to be altered, clipped together, and made your own.
Sitting down with Martine Ali, END. discusses the American designer’s modern approach to jewellery design, the significance of modularity, and the importance of subverting the classics.
What was it that initially piqued your interest in jewellery design?
I’ve been making jewellery since I was super young really - I think I started when I was in kindergarten. I had a babysitter who was always trying to keep me busy, and every other week we’d go to the local craft store and dip into something new creative. Finally we made our way to the bead counter and I started to bead jewellery with really tiny beads. I just fell in love with it. My mom ended up wearing some of those necklaces to work, and some of her friends wanted to buy some – so she started hosting these little trunk show parties at our house where she would lay out all the jewellery across the dining table and serve some wine while grown women were arguing over necklaces. At that point, I realised that I must’ve tapped into something. I’ve been making jewellery in one form or another for my entire life. Honestly, what I did was step up my material usage and taught myself new techniques. It’s always been this medium that I’ve worked with throughout my life, and it’s kind of rare, but from when I was a little kid, I definitely knew I wanted to be a jewellery designer. It’s always been something that has been a safe and comfortable space for me to be creative. What’s really interesting about it is that jewellery lives in this space in-between sculpture and clothing – it’s wearable. If you have the ability to work with your hands and have a creative eye, it’s an incredibly playful space to step into.
To me, your jewellery seems playful, exciting, and fun, transformed with twists on traditional scale, dimensions and modularity to create this ultra-stylised and modern version of what jewellery can be. What importance does modularity hold within your design practice? How does modularity influence your design process?
It definitely does now, but it wasn’t always there. I used to make much more ornamental jewellery that wasn’t very wearable for a lot of people. But as I stepped into being a designer in New York City, looking at the way things in daily city life function, I opened my eyes. Like being on the subway, for example, you’d see how a chain link would close a gate, or how bike messengers would wear their bike lock chains across their bodies - I started to see jewellery out in the world. New York had that influence on me, because it was about having these pieces of wearable art, this beautiful jewellery, that also served a purpose and a function.
In 2016, I had my first studio space that I shared with a sculptor and a painter, and I had a friend who has always been a muse for me, who was a bike messenger. He would come and try the pieces on and say “if this was like this, I could hook it onto that” and it really opened my eyes up to how these elements of ornament can be quite functional in reality. If the things that we’re wearing have multiple ways of being worn, they are infinitely more useable and practical in our lives. Reflecting on my own lifestyle, New York isn’t necessarily an easy place to live, you’re moving from apartment to apartment, trying to figure it all out. You want less objects really, so I loved the idea of having these two bracelets that can be worn as a choker, or if I really want to, I can connect them to my pants and wear them as a pant chain. It was a response to editing my lifestyle, thinking about the things that seem signature to me and the things that I always have on me. Modularity, now, is definitely one of the boxes that I check with every design. Even If the piece itself doesn’t have some type of modular connectable element, we take a clasp and cast it, freeze it and use it as a pendant – so we can suggest towards modularity. It’s very much in the DNA of the brand and it’s what makes the pieces recognisable.
Also, one of the most gratifying things is seeing someone wear the design in a way that I didn’t think of, or when they’ve attached their own pendant and personalised it. It gives people the space to bring my work into their own lives in a really unique way. I really enjoy giving people the opportunity to buy into the brand, in a way where they can build a jewellery wardrobe for themselves. From season to season, I love the idea of creating that continuity between pieces, of making a chain that I know connects to a chain from the last season, so people can develop their own sense of layering. It gives them the autonomy to decide how they want this collection to live in their lives.
How does this new take on jewellery design relate to – or contort - more traditional approaches?
I think we’re all programmed into putting jewellery into these boxes – a necklace, a bracelet, a ring – and there aren’t really very many options there. It’s been an exciting and fun creative exercise for me to combine things that have function in other spaces and bring them into a jewellery space. For instance, years ago, one of the most inspiring spaces for me was the hardware store or the dollar store, where they have a lot of different construction materials and functional elements – and trying to fabricate those in precious metals, or scale them down into a space where it might fit nicely on a necklace. It wasn’t really a smooth transition, I remember when I first really started putting my jewellery out into the market place, my style was really unexpected and I think people were confused. I did a fashion event in LA, and this girl came over and said “What are these? Designer dog collars?” Ironically I have since then gone on to design a dog leash capsule, but at that point I hadn't! The scale and the intensity of the closures and mechanisms really threw people off, as they weren’t used to seeing this sort of approach in jewellery. What I really enjoy doing is bringing that approach into a space that feels a bit more familiar to people so it isn’t as intimidating and they can understand the function of it beyond something that is entirely ornamental.
This modularity creates a personal, human connection with what we wear on a more explicit level - how does modularity serve to enhance that connection between product and customer?
It’s something that, at times, is difficult to put words to, but it’s something that I can see. If I have someone come to the studio and they’re trying on a few different pieces, when they put the piece that is really them on, you can see their entire person become more confident, sexier, more whatever they want to be. I really think that has to do with offering controlled options or options that I know lend themselves to a lot of different people in different ways. There’s that thing that we all universally want, and it's that feeling. It's something that you can really see happening with someone – it’s that additional element that completes their look, that piece that they know will enhance all of their outfits in just one single purchase. It really is an amazing energy shift to observe, it’s almost like you’re watching somebody put on armour and get ready to go into battle. As soon as it happens, it’s clear that the customer feels it, I can feel it too – it’s a beautiful way to connect with people through the work that I do.
"When they put the piece that is really them on, you can see their entire person become more confident, sexier, more whatever they want to be."
Do you feel that this way of working has helped you identify these subcategories of customer?
I really had to do that, and it was something that I had been fleshing out in different ways, throughout my entire design process. Now, it’s in a space where that is pretty formulated, even though there is definitely a degree of looseness and things always change. It’s one of those things where you’re able to work with certain scales to appeal to people who wear finer jewellery or appeal to people who wear gold jewellery – that’s the thing, there really is that gold person too. But then there are certain silver pieces that I know that they’ll like. That person who wants something really bold and really push it, wearing something that people will really notice. And of course there are all types of things in between, but I really do think that once you can control those pockets of people, you’re able to approach a lot of different types of jewellery wearers and have different kinds of conversations.
Does designing with modularity in mind cause unforeseen difficulties when making your pieces?
This is something that I always want to tell designers who are just starting out – it’s hard to know and understand all of these things up front, from the beginning. That process really became fine-tuned as I started working directly with stores and saw what was selling, who that customer was, and what they really needed. We put a bunch of things out there and certain things stick and you begin to move more in that direction. But truthfully, even if I decide to hold back on something, it’ll come back around in a couple of seasons or a couple of years. It’s something that has evolved as I’ve been putting my work out into the world and its hard to know all of that until you actually do it. For me, there’s a lot of validation and direction that I get from feedback – I had a load of ideas and tried a lot of different things, but I think the brand’s offering was very much shaped by a lot of the people and stores that wore and stocked my jewellery.
Social media is also really helpful, in that sense, because once you see that thing that is really resonating with a lot of people, the creative challenge is identifying what subtle variations I can do to make that feel fresh but continue to illicit a similar response. It really does have this wonderful guidance attached to it, which can be uncomfortable for creative people at times because we’re all control freaks – it’s kind of tough to just put your work out there and see – but I’ve really found that has been such an immense amount of direction for me. I really like when people challenge me, and welcome being pushed in a direction that is different – you end up doing that different thing through your own lens, so it still feels consistent with what you’re doing. It’s really important to always be offering something unexpected or something people didn’t expect to see that way, but through my lens. That’s what really helps people remain stimulated by my work and that’s why we get an insane amount of press. The jewellery still feels familiar, it still feels like us, but we’re constantly throwing something in that feels like a juxtaposition. That’s important as it holds your core audience, but also surprises and delights them. Jewellery is fun, at the end of the day, so it has to have that element to it.
Primarily working with silver metals, what is it about natural metals and colours that appeal to you?
My selfish answer is that I just think I look better in silver! (laughs) I personally just like how it looks, and gold is also so expensive to create in. From a more aesthetic point of view, there is something about silver that feels tough and not too precious. I’m really striving to minimise this ornamental and delicate perception of jewellery, and there’s something about silver that feels tougher – it feels like you could take your chain off and slam it against a brick wall and it wouldn't be damaged or might even look better. That’s the energy of the jewellery, it’s not precious, it’s meant to be banged up. It looks even better once it has been a bit worn in. That’s really why I always return to silver, it just has a sensibility that no other metals really have. I am interested in pushing myself always, so I’m not saying that I wouldn’t work with other metals, but there is something about it that I love. It makes each piece feel like it is creating its own history.
Having been worn by Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, GoldLink, Lady Gaga, Quavo etc. your jewellery has struck a chord with musicians – why do you think your creations resonate so profoundly with creative people?
I grew up in the era of MTV in Chicago – I didn’t have access to fashion, but I had access to musicians through MTV. That was my runway. Musicians have always been my style icons. Jacob the Jeweller was always referenced in rap songs, and I really wanted to be like him when I grew up. I felt like whatever someone was wearing, as soon as they put that chain on, they’re shining! My work has always been directly inspired by musicians, so I think that is why there is a really obvious parallel there. If I’m making something that is inspired by your lifestyle, the things you need to do and the way you want to feel, it goes hand in hand that they respond well to the work. It’s something that has been a really consistent relationship.
There is something really important about artists representing themselves in ways that are unique and different from everybody else, and my pieces really give them the tools to tell that story visually. It’s this wonderful relationship that exists between the inspiration in my work and really offering them this space to be special and different, to be wearing things that aren’t mass produced. Everything we make comes out of our Brooklyn studio – all our pieces are really hand touched, with a soul and spirit that speaks to creative people and really inspires them.
Who would you want to see your jewellery on next?
It’s a tough question! We just had some amazing placement with Dennis Rodman. I’m from Chicago, and when I was growing up was when the Bulls were winning all the championships. Dennis was the only basketball player back then who was weird and edgy, with the colourful hair, the sunglasses and all the piercings. So I would to have said him, but now he has worn it, we have to think of the next person! I guess that’s a blessing that it keeps happening, so I’m going to have to go back to the drawing board, but I feel like we might have got them all!