Looks from The Messenger collection
Just a few years back, Randi Mates was a historian with a master’s degree in Material Culture, researching obscure topics like the green imperial paint that might have killed Napoleon. Now she’s the designer behind cult jewelry line Aesa, named for the Greek personification of fate or destiny. And there’s something that feels pre-destined about Aesa’s success; the collection’s a hit at stores like Assembly, Jumelle and No. 6. In her Greenpoint studio, Randi talks to us about history, amulets and her intentions.
Christine Whitney: You used to be a historian, what kind of stuff did you specialize in?
Randi Mates: I did a lot of research on new materials developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, or topics like paint in 18th century Germany, like the first time they were ever able to make true green paint, which was actually full of arsenic and was super poisonous. When the air would get moist, the paint would off-gas arsenic, and it was thought there were all these deaths related to the paint. Some researchers even thought Napoleon’s death on St. Helena was caused by this. He died of this weird respiratory thing… Some people think it was his love of the green imperial paint that killed him.
Christine: How did you end up doing jewelry?
Randi: I was doing research on ancient metal work, and they have this institute on the Upper West Side that only teaches Greek and Roman techniques; they try to make things like the ancients did… I just went over there one afternoon to see what it was about, became fascinated and started taking classes.
Christine: What were the other students like?
Randi: Ha ha. I was about to start doing a history PhD and realized it wasn’t the right path for me anymore when I went to speak with the woman who was heading the program, and she came out of the library stacks covered with food and holding this big stack of books, her hair totally disheveled. There was Spirulina on her face and I was like, ‘Nooo, no!’ So, then I entered the jewelry world via this strange institute, where everybody’s over 60 or 70. It was the same thing, just a parallel universe.
Christine: What did the other people at the institute do? Did they make replicas?
Randi: You’re not supposed to make your own work for two years or until after completing a series of projects. You’re only replicating ancient jewelry during that time using the techniques of the ancients. I eventually became an apprentice, and we would do things like repair jewelry from museums and private collectors. We would have something worth like $300-$400,000, a prized piece of a museum, in a kitchen on the Upper West Side that hadn’t been renovated since like 1950. This one woman had cats everywhere, and Tab. I don’t know where she got it. We’d be holding the torches around her old kitchen table, trying to heat the metal evenly so we wouldn’t distort it. And she’d be going in with tweezers and other gold to fuse things with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.
Christine: With an ancient thing…
Randi: With an ancient thing, that came from, like, the best museum in the world. If the people in the museum knew where we were and how this was going down, I’m sure they’d be completely losing their minds.
Christine: But did you restore it?
Randi: Perfectly. Everyone there were incredible craftspeople.
Christine: You can’t question their methods.
Christine: During the years when you were just supposed to replicate, did you follow the rules or did you cheat and make your own stuff?
Randi: I made my own stuff, but I always was achieving the skill. They would grouse, but they would let me do what I wanted to do. They were always like “This is never going to work. This is never going to happen,” and I was like, ‘Shhh…’ That’s still something I get a lot, because we do a lot of our own stone cutting—or just unusual techniques.
Christine: What are some of the things you’ve tried to do that people told you weren’t possible?
Randi: I work with a Brazilian stone-cutter who’s been working in the same booth, which is basically the size of a bathroom, for like 35 years. It’s covered in green and black dust from his polishing compounds. All he does is smoke cigarettes and look at Korean porn. I wanted to cut this amethyst [for last year’s collection] and he was like, “This will never work; it will break.” I came in and brought him vodka. There’s this amazing picture of us both covered in dust with our hands up in the air after we successfully cut it.
Christine: Do you still use the techniques you learned at the Jewelry Arts Institute?
Randi: Not most of the time, but the techniques I learned there help me figure out these strange ways to accomplish unusual things both technically and visually… My assistants have all been trained in production methods, which is a completely different way of approaching the work. When I got my first job as a jeweler, I showed them what I did and they were like, “Awesome. Come on board.” And then when I got into the job, I’d never used a power tool.
Christine: So it was pretty different?
Randi: It was very much about getting the job done, whereas the torch that we used [at the Institute] was very much about romancing the metal. What I learned there influences the design, but it also influences what I feel is possible. And my assistants help temper me. They’re like, “We have to put this into production.”
Christine: What are some techniques they used in the olden times?
Randi: Bellows to keep the flame going or to make the fire bigger to melt the gold. They used a lot of pure gold, but sometimes they would alloy it down. They would pull all of their wire and hammer out sheet metal from an ingot of gold.
Christine: Did you use any of those techniques in the stuff that’s here?
Randi: This is modern-era…
Christine: Where do you get your materials from?
Randi: I get a lot of stones now from Minas Gerais in Brazil. We start with rough stones and cut them to our specifications. Like this quartz, we get a big hunk and then we cut it down to our own specifications. Every piece is hand-cut to our intentions. We’re making a limited edition series for Barneys and three other smaller retailers—just for the summer—with beads made from scraps of precious and semiprecious stones. I love the fact that we are making something from nothing. The color ways are so optimistic and light. Even though we’re on the fashion cycle, I feel like jewelry should not just be related to fashion. I like the idea of keepsakes or objects with different functions…that outlive trend-driven things.
Christine: Your spine pieces from last year are pretty well-known; what made you think to do spines?
Randi: To be frank, it was a happy accident. I was trying to explore flower shapes or ruffles, because there were a lot of people doing ruffles with clothing. I wanted to make something with an undulating form that’s moveable. When I hammered out the shapes and started putting them together, you know… It looks like a spine! That was not the intention. Literalism really isn’t my favorite.
Christine: What’s the theme of your newest collection?
Randi: It’s more about ancient instruments and talismans of honor. I wanted to make my boyfriend a birthday present, and thought it would be nice to make him an instrument. He used to be in this band called Neptune. They make all of their instruments and they’re gorgeous, gorgeous objects. They’re very similar to the jewels in some ways. So I started making all these lyre shapes.
Christine: You mentioned that some of the pieces are influenced by your travels.
Randi: Well, travel is always inspiring. The things you see, hear, the light, the smells leave a palpable impression that makes its way into the work. I feel like the jewels often come across as found objects, whether they are from the past or the future. Sometimes there is something quite romantic in this, and pieces feel like keepsakes from one’s travels, or there is this weird talisman quality or amuletic feeling that comes across that has a lot to do with both one’s experiences and intention.
Christine: Do you have keepsakes and talismans?
Randi: In my private studio, I have boxes filled with things I have collected, like sand from my trips to India or Italy. Or, I have rocks that I had to start labeling because there are so many. It’s like, ‘Wait, where’s the sand from?’ They’re things that help me sort of escape here and remember a different quality of life.
Christine: What’s the collection called?
Randi: It’s called The Messenger.
Christine: Is that a mythological reference?
Randi: No, it’s just a name I laughingly came up with at 4am when I needed to have a name. It’s hard to name things.
Christine: Tell me about the other pieces.
Randi: There are a number of pieces in the collection that are riffs on arrowheads, badges and stone work, while other pieces have a distinctly totemic feeling. I feel like all of these relate. Somehow during the course of making the collection, I began to feel like these were honorable objects that warriors wore when they were returning from battle. Things that could have been given to you by the people you conquered. It’s from a time where I feel like I was coming into my own, really enjoying the process of making things. They are subtle pieces that reflect some inner strength.
Christine: Pearl tassel pieces?
Randi: These are pieces that I quite like, too, that are part of the same collection, more honorable bounty from battle or travels that are now collected around your neck. This [below, left] is the first one that we made. There are almost 700 pearls on there, 90 feet of chain, like 100 solders… Nobody’s buying that, but it’s important to make something just for me.
Christine: Do you have a favorite piece?
Randi: I have a crush on all of them.
Christine: Is it hard sending the pieces out after you have a relationship with them?
Randi: Um…well, yes. We lay all the pieces out before we send them out. I do a quality check on them, twist something, do something to make sure every piece has it’s own voice, and then… We talk to them.
Christine: What do you tell them?
Randi: We wish them a good life: ‘We hope the person who buys you loves you,’ ; ‘I remember, your bale broke four times…’ Totally dorky stuff. But…it’s hard… For me it’s such an intimate thing, to be wearing something against your body, to send something you made out into the unknown. It’s hard to keep the intention when you start making larger quantities, even though in the studio we all share the same feeling towards imbuing each piece with intention. The pieces are quite personal, individualistic and intimate in some way, and it is important that this comes across in each piece; one way of doing this is through making sure the relationship with the maker is felt.
Christine: Other than the cutting, does everything happen here?
Randi: Pretty much.
Christine: Where are they being sent?
Randi: In New York, I sell at No. 6, Assembly, Jumelle, Mc & Co, an amazing decorative arts shop on North 6th Street [in Brooklyn] owned by this incredible Frenchwoman named Corinne Gilbert who’s an interior designer and a painter. We sell nationally at Barney, Barneys Coop and other boutiques, and a number of small boutiques throughout Europe and a few in Japan.
Christine: Do you have any projects you want to do in the future?
Randi: Well, I’m starting on my next collection now, and I think there’s going to be a quite Medieval feel to it, a continuation of these personalized amulets using what will hopefully be beautiful stones—we are cutting them now—and a mixture of metals. And then, we’ll see. When you sit down and start making things… For me, I just have to let it go where it goes. If I go into it with too much of an intention, it just never works out.
Christine: What kind of jewelry do you wear day-to-day?
Randi: I don’t really wear jewelry! Except this ring I got at Mc & Co. It’s by this woman who’s a descendant of the Castellanis, who are famous 19th century Italian jewelers. I like that it came from such a lineage but has a totally different look.
Christine: Where do you look for inspiration?
Randi: Everywhere. There is no way of anticipating inspiration. But, I do like to go to museums and libraries. I try not to look at other jewelers at all because I feel like it goes deep into your subconscious and comes out in another way. I read and look at historical documents and look at excavations. The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara is probably the most incredible place I’ve ever been, in terms of collections. Locally, I go to the Met.
Christine: What are your favorite spots at the Met?
Randi: I go to the ancient sections, but I also love the French royalty shit and the decorative art. I love the arms and armor and the Italian furniture from the 17th century that’s all inlaid marble and wood. I don’t really look at contemporary art anymore; sadly I don’t have the time. Do you remember that children’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler?
Christine: The one where they live in the Met?
Randi: Yeah! Exactly. They’d bathe and do their laundry in the fountain. I loved that book.
Christine: Spring fashion?
Randi: I wear a lot of Mona’s stuff [A Detacher] and Electric Feathers by Leana Zuniga. This jumpsuit is hers. She’s a really dear friend of mine. There are two Austrian labels, Awareness & Consciousness that I wear a lot, and Pelican Avenue. And I love Christian Wijnants.