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Dossier in Conversation with Anndra Neen

From left: Annette Stephens and Phoebe Stephens in Anndra Neen jewelry. Images by Tim Hout.

Phoebe and Annette Stephens, the sisters behind jewelry line Anndra Neen, share an admiration for Japanese fashion, a creative pedigree and a propensity for thinking outside the box. Growing up in Mexico City as the granddaughters of progressive composer Conlon Nancarrow and artist Annette Nancarrow—who moonlighted as a jewelry designer for friends like Frida Kahlo, Peggy Guggenheim and Helena Rubinstein—their childhood was spent drawing, painting and playing dress-up. Today, their creations include handmade cuffs, necklaces and silver cage clutches. Their inspirations range from the above-mentioned Kahlo to ’70s Issey Miyake designs to Brazilian tiles, and their vision for one-year-old Anndra Neen is equally eclectic. They aim to create a brand void of expectations, definable only by its ability to make a statement. Constantly in transit between their workshop in Mexico City and townhouse in Manhattan, Phoebe and Annette have formed an ironclad partnership that enables them to finish each other’s sentences, laugh at the same jokes and design covetable, unexpected accessories using traditional materials and artisanal techniques.

Erin Dixon: Tell us a bit about the process of designing as a team.

Phoebe Stephens: A lot of the stuff we design are just things we want to see. Our design process is really organic: We sit down, we discuss things and we throw things back and forth. My sister will start a sketch or I’ll start a sketch and then we’ll finish it for each other.

Erin: So you kind of work together on the conception and then evolve the design.

Phoebe: Once we have the piece, we will try it on the body. We’ll wear it for a few weeks and say, ‘How does it feel? How does it look?’ We’re constantly perfecting the samples.

Erin: You do all of this in Mexico City, working with artisans; how do you find them?

Phoebe: We have a workshop—a small operation—an artisan and the workers that polish [the pieces].

Annette: We met him through someone else and just loved his work, so we decided to work with him.

Phoebe: He is great at interpreting the drawing. He’s a real artist; he has vision. He’s been doing silver and metal work his whole life. He is also a workaholic, which is hard to find—I think that [we were] a really good match.

Erin: And at that point had you already decided to produce in Mexico City? What influenced that decision? I know you split time between there and New York.

Annette: The technique itself was something that we were drawn to. We wanted to bring our modern design sensibility to it.

Phoebe: Mexico has a long tradition with silver. Instead of going to China to produce, we wanted to be able to support our country. You can do things there that are interesting, well-made and that can compete in the international market.

Erin: So what brought you to New York?

Phoebe: We moved after college. I don’t think there is any city like New York. There’s so much energy and even though it’s changed a lot since we first were here, it has so many different people. You can really find your own niche. In terms of fashion, I feel free here.

Annette: It’s a place that functions as an outlet for people who can’t find that elsewhere.

Erin: You guys both come from creative, but not design backgrounds; was there an “aha” moment when you decided to do jewelry design?

Phoebe: We were in Japan. It was really inspiring for us. That’s where we talked about the possibility of starting something. We remembered a man we had met that worked in metal and [we] decided that once we were back in Mexico, we would find him.

Annette: We had always wanted to work together and this was the perfect opportunity.

Erin: You come from a creative family—do you have any early memories of working together or specific creative moments that influence you today?

Annette: I remember so specifically—in our grandmother’s studio—shelves full of beads. I remember as a kid opening them and playing with them. She had feathers and stones…

Phoebe: Besides art, she made jewelry. We’d go and play there a lot, make things and put them on. Creativity was encouraged in our home. We were always putting on plays or making costumes… particularly in our grandmother and father’s studios.

Erin: So is that why you chose jewelry as your creative medium?

Phoebe: Yeah, we had grown up seeing [our grandmother] do it and it was inspiring. She was always decked out in crazy rings and necklaces.

Annette: And the possibilities are really endless with jewelry. You can do so many different things. I think that was also what we were drawn to—the versatility.

Phoebe: There’s still so much that we want to do. We want to do fine jewelry.

Erin: What materials would you like to work with?

Annette: Gold!

Phoebe: We want to do something with rough diamonds.

Annette: Shells, crystals, resin, wood and leather.

Phoebe: We would love to source stuff too, like enamel—traditions that have been a little lost—and start to mix mediums.

Erin: And the actual hands-on aspect, you work directly with the artisan to develop the pieces?

Phoebe: Yeah, we do some of it ourselves. We literally sit with him while he’s making it, some pieces we’ll have to finish, like the necklaces….the chains… We’re pretty hands-on when we’re at the workshop.

Erin: Something that I’ve discussed with a few jewelry designers, which I’d be interested to hear your take on, is why people develop a really intimate relationship with jewelry, even more so than clothing?

Phoebe: I think it’s a tribal thing, almost.

Annette: It’s the history of it, too. Jewelry is often bought for someone in a romantic way or as something that you are buying for yourself. You’re buying it to have it forever. It can be something you wear day or night with whatever outfit; in that way, you’re forming an attachment to it.

Phoebe: if we go way back… The moment mankind started using objects not just for survival, but to decorate themselves, they become civilized. We can look back at those cultures and know a great deal from those pieces.

Annette: Their status, cultural background, their aesthetic…

Erin: How does that concept play into your design philosophy. What are you trying to “say”?

Phoebe: We want people to have that experience of decorating themselves. Having something that matters that they can pass along.

Annette: It affects how we fantasize about the person we are designing for…even if it is for ourselves. How someone would wear a piece, what they would wear it to—having that individual sense come through.

Phoebe: We definitely draw from our grandmother. She was larger than life and she wore things that maybe not everyone was going to wear, but she dared and it really defined her as an individual.

Annette: We draw inspiration from a variety of different things. For example, we just got back yesterday from Brazil.

Phoebe: They had this pattern on the walkway of Ipanema and Copacabana that we were inspired by…

Erin: In that type of situation—like in Brazil and Japan—do the two of you tend to gravitate towards the same items?

Phoebe: We’re the same in a lot of things and then in some things we are slightly different—sometimes in the way we dress. We might both like the same thing and then…

Annette: ….take it in a different direction.

Phoebe: But in terms of design and influence, we are alike.

Erin: The line started nearly a year ago… How has Anndra Neen evolved since the launch?

Phoebe: We know our customer better.

Annette: Our identity will stay the same, but our designs will keep evolving.

Erin: What has been the biggest surprise?

Phoebe: The response. You create something and you don’t know. You think, ‘I love it.’ But to have so many people say, “I love it; it’s so different than anything out there” is so gratifying. The idea that now—and I know it sounds sort of dark—you could die and leave something, an object, that’s really special.

Erin: Working with a partner is always a challenge; how has it been for the two of you?

Phoebe: Well, we have a pretty big age difference, but we were always pretty close and [working together] has been amazing. You learn a lot when you’re working so closely with a family member because it’s a reflection of yourself.

Annette: And it’s someone that you’ve seen grow up. It’s different than a friend who knows you really well. It’s someone that’s a part of you in a way.

Phoebe: I can’t even imagine working with anyone else…

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