Karin Jacobson: The Artistry of Sculptural Jewelry

In the world of contemporary jewelry design few artists manage to redefine the essence of wearable art as distinctively as Karin Jacobson.

The early days of her career were marked by her debut at the prestigious Walker Art Center, where her vibrant, oversized cocktail rings in sterling silver and lab-grown gemstones were a staple, whereas now her creations blend organic forms with ethereal natural gemstones, showcasing her technical prowess. Her work is a testament to the belief that jewelry should not only be worn but also resonate with a certain ethos, blending aesthetic appeal with materials that tell a story of environmental consciousness. At Pietra Communications, we chatted to her about what matters to her art and where she’s going next.

Your journey began with your flagship collection at the Walker Art Center, then you quickly rose to national recognition. How has your style evolved since then, and what have you learned along the way?

My style and collections have evolved so much since I first started my business. Originally my pieces were mostly production pieces made in sterling silver with lab-grown gemstones. (I was looking for lots of super bright colors in really large gemstones, but which I could still afford to work with as a brand-new designer, so lab-grown was the best option.) My specialty was over-the-top, really big and fun cocktail rings.

And now my work is a lot more fluid looking, with these folded organic shapes, and all natural gemstones. I’m using oxidized sterling silver and 18k gold – both of which really make the geometry pop. And I make a lot of pieces that are one-of-a-kind or limited edition, using a lot of one-of-a-kind gemstones and diamond melee.

But there is still a throughline, I think. I really like bold pieces with clean lines and symmetry – even in the more organic-shaped pieces. Although the pieces are now so different, I still think that both collections really represent me – maybe me then and me now – but still me. And I still love making a big cocktail ring. (These days, they’re even bigger!)

I guess what I have learned over time is to try to be true to my own vision and to try hard to make work that doesn’t look like anyone else’s. That can be difficult in a field where there are a lot of amazing designers. But it is important to cultivate one’s own signature look.

How do you ensure that the materials you use, from recycled metals to fair trade gemstones, meet your standards, and what challenges have you faced in this endeavor?

Sourcing gemstones can be so tricky – a lot of the suppliers can be quite opaque – but I have a group of trusted suppliers that I work with regularly for gemstones. You have to ask the important questions. But it is also really helpful to have referrals – because my business is just me, and doing the due diligence takes time! – so seeing the suppliers that people recommend in the Ethical Metalsmiths community is extremely helpful, as is attending the Ethical Gems Fair. I’ve been pleased to meet people out there who are not just meeting high sourcing standards, but actively doing good in the communities that they work with.

For metals, I use both SCS recycled metals and Fairmined™ gold. And that is a little easier because there are a lot of different suppliers are selling the same basic items, but are sourcing them in different ways, so if you can find the ones who are sourcing the metal the way you want them to be, then you can at least find the more commonly used sizes of sheet, wire, bezel strip, etc.,

The big challenge is, especially as a sole proprietor/designer, how do you verify what people are telling you about how they source? I think we do our best to ask the right questions, but I also think that it helps share our information with eachother so that every designer doesn’t have to ask every supplier every single question. It’s a dauntingly large issue to tackle on one’s own.

The other challenge has simply been finding everything you need in the material you want. But that is getting better every day, as more and more ethical suppliers enter the marketplace – and more suppliers expand their offerings.

Can you describe the process of developing your folding technique and idea, and how it influences the design and functionality of your pieces in the Origami collection?

The folding technique is simpler than you’d think, but it did take some playing around to achieve the look I wanted. I often start with paper cutouts and see how they look – but even as I call the collection Origami, paper and metal really don’t move in the same way at all – so it isn’t long before I need to start making samples in metal to really figure it out.

Initially, I just had the idea that I wanted to turn flat pieces of metal into 3D shapes, but I didn’t have any idea how I would do that or what I wanted the finished pieces to look like. I tried literally folding them, like with creased edges, which is very difficult because of the metal’s thickness, and because the metal can fatigue when you bend it and eventually crack. I also tried slotting pieces together – but that didn’t achieve what I wanted either. Ultimately, the material informed the process, and I ended up with pieces that had curved folds and made undulating shapes.

But one great result, functionally speaking, is that the metal gets work hardened as it is bent, so the bends make the pieces harder, and therefore sturdier for everyday wear. And another great result is that with the many cutouts, and folds, I can make pieces that are really quite large and voluminous, but still lightweight – which is most helpful when making earrings. (I hate it when earrings are too heavy and pull – it’s such an annoying feeling!)

Becoming Fairmined licensed is an important achievement. What lead you to decide this was the path for you, and how has it influenced your work – particularly your newest collection?

I was simply looking for a way to offer more ethically sourced gold. The Fairmined Initiative is one of those suppliers that is not simply meeting high sourcing standards, but actively doing good, and I wanted to support that.

Now, to be completely transparent, not all of the gold that I use is Fairmined yet. I am trying to incorporate it more and more, as I move forward, but there are still challenges. There are some items that are difficult to find in Fairmined gold (for example, I have yet to find a supplier for Fairmined gold tubing, and that is not something that I’m able to make myself). It is also more expensive – which is understandable, because they make sure that miners get paid more – but it takes some time to get customers comfortable with the higher price.

One way that it has influenced my work is that I use more casting in my Fairmined gold collection. Since casting can create basically any shape, I’m not depending on being able to source specific mill products, and so I can be freer in my designs. I’ve found that Fairmined gold is a particularly good match for my collection of solitaires, which are on the chunky side for rings, and have a weighty, luxurious feel.

What is it like working in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District, and does being part of this vibrant community influence your creativity and business practices?

I feel so lucky to be part of this community because being a solo artist can feel kind of isolating at times, but my studio is in a building with literally hundreds of other artists, and it’s so nice to run into each other and get to share what we are up to! And even better than that, my studio building is in a neighborhood with lots of other similar studio buildings – so I have other artist friends in other nearby buildings that I can easily meet up with over lunches, and we can visit each other’s studios.

Every year there is an art crawl in the neighborhood called Art A Whirl, which is the largest single art crawl in the nation – all of the studio buildings and galleries open up, food trucks come out and the local bars and breweries put up stages for bands, and it’s just this huge celebration of all kinds of art. It’s really fantastic to feel like the arts are so valued in my community.

We know the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is important to you. Can you tell us about your connection to it, and about other associations/nonprofits you align with?

I’ve actually done fundraisers for a number of non-profits, including the ACLU, Open Arms Minnesota (which delivers free meals to homebound patients), the Bogota Wage Subsidy Project, and others. In the case of the ACLU, I just thought that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was such an incredibly inspiring woman. She fought for gender equality and was a founder of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, and so when she died, I wanted to honor her by making a donation to the ACLU. I created a sterling silver pendant that was inspired by her beaded “dissent” collar, and promoted it on my website, Instagram, and to my email list, and donated all of the proceeds from the sale of the pendants to the ACLU.

Another similar project was for the Frontline Families Fund – a non-profit created by University of Minnesota-based epidemiologist Dr. Mike Osterholm early in the Covid pandemic. Dr. Osterholm is a leading epidemiologist and head of CIDRAP – the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and was part of President Biden’s Covid-19 Advisory Board. He created the Frontline Families Fund to provide financial support to the children of healthcare workers who lost their lives to Covid-19.

Early in the pandemic, I felt so helpless hearing about how hospitals were being overwhelmed with critically ill patients, and wanted to find some small way to do something for the frontline healthcare workers who were daily risking their lives to care for them. (I think we take for granted now that we will eventually get Covid and it will be like the flu or a cold and we’ll get over it, but in those days, before vaccines and when the disease was more serious, it was terrifying for doctors, nurses, and all hospital staff members who were constantly exposed to it.) I contacted Dr. Osterholm to let him know that I was organizing a fundraiser based on the sale of a new sterling silver pendant called the Mended Heart Pendant, and he was so pleased that he asked me if he could tell the story on his podcast. He let me know that his podcast had a large following and that I might get a lot of orders, but I was still shocked when after the podcast first aired, the orders started flooding in so fast I was getting notifications every few minutes that first day. In the end, I raised almost $21,000 for the Frontline Families Fund – by far my most successful fundraiser yet.

How do you select retailers who align with your brand values, and how do you work with them to build upon the success of your business and theirs?

A lot of finding the right retail partners happens naturally, over the course of our conversations. Once we start chatting about the work, it’s a quick jump to discussing materials and sourcing, and then it’s not long before it is obvious if we are on the same page, and if they are also excited to keep improving sourcing and to share that story with their clientele. And them telling the brand story, and my story, and the sourcing story really helps build success for all of us.

Could you walk us through your design process, from the initial concept to the final piece?

Usually, the design process starts with trying to clear my mind – so maybe it’s a long trail walk or a visit to an art museum. I don’t necessarily want to look at other jewelry, but I do like to look at things that are creatively stimulating. Then I like to sketch and take notes – I usually have a notepad with me everywhere I go.

When it comes to the Origami pieces, as I mentioned before, sometimes the first model is in paper – but I quickly move into playing around in sterling silver. Sometimes this phase is fairly quick and straightforward, and I make what had been in my head when I was sketching, but sometimes in the process of playing and prototyping, I wind up going in a totally different direction.

But once I have established what I’m going to do, I like to take some time to wear a prototype and test for how it looks and feels on, and how comfortable it is. And then for a lot of the designs – I can come up with lots of iterations, trying the same style with different stone combinations.

How do you deal with the technical challenges of creating jewelry that is both sculptural and wearable?

There is a fair amount of trial and error – basically, I make a piece and see if it works on the body. Which honestly, is a super fun part of the process – I get to make prototypes and wear them around before deciding if they are ready for prime time (and if not – I decide what needs to change to make them comfortable) – it’s the best!

Are there new materials, techniques, or themes you’re interested in exploring? What can your followers and clients expect from future collections?

Well, this isn’t necessarily “coming soon” because I don’t have the equipment to do it yet – but I’d love to learn more about stone cutting and get a lapidary setup.  Even if I don’t end up learning how to facet, just cutting cabs and custom cutting different shapes of stones would be fun.

What is your personal and professional mantra?

Just give it a try – even if you don’t know what you’re doing!

(I didn’t go to school for jewelry and don’t have much formal training, so much of my learning has been both on the job and trial & error – and honestly, that is a great way to learn!)

As we draw the curtains on this insightful dialogue with Karin Jacobson, it’s clear that her narrative is a profound testament to continuous artistic evolution, ethical commitment, and the pursuit of the unique. From her first bold, statement-making pieces to her current sophisticated, sculpturally crafted collections, her journey is a beacon for aspiring designers and a testament to the potential of blending artistry with advocacy. To witness the continuation of her artistic voyage and explore her unique creations, you can visit her website, where the confluence of art, ethics, and innovation continues to unfold.

To learn more about Karin Jacobson, visit https://www.karinjacobson.com/

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