Editorial

Michael Jensen Designs: Ancient Feel in Modern Jewels

Michael and Catherine are the duo Michael Jensen Designs, a brand that embodies a strong testament to art, and the history of jewelry. Their respective backgrounds birthed unique collections, with a sense of comfort and balance in crafting excellence. Michael Jensen Designs candidly shares insights and reflections on the challenges, opportunities, and conversations surrounding sustainability and ethical practices with Pietra Communications.

Both you and Catherine have a strong passion for the art and history of jewelry, which is clear in your work. How do these interests manifest, and can you share a little about your collaboration so far?  

We have always been fascinated with what came before. We access our inspiration through art history and historic events of the past.  Example: Catherine was researching a presentation for the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, CA.  She ran across a “story” of Julius Caesar’s arrogant adolescence involving a walk about the Pax Romana, encountering some pirates in Greece and a ransom of talents of silver from Rome. This reminded us of the talents of silver we had seen in a museum. Talents of silver are equivalent to ingots of silver – enough silver to pay a ship’s crew for a month. The edge was crackled and irregular. This took us into our Talentum design style. It had the look of the ancient weight of silver but still a strong contemporary profile. The Talentum designs just evolved from there.

With over 33 years of creating custom-designed jewelry, how have your respective backgrounds in sculpture, engineering, and gemology influenced the evolution of MJ Designs? 

Both of us have a background in art and art history.  As the makers of our designs – every aspect of our work is created in our studio. None of our work is outsourced. Michael’s degree in sculpture has fed his fascination with engineering.   Catherine has a passion for learning. Her background in art history was the result of a childhood spent in museums across the world and reading historical texts to answer “WHY”. As a part of the why, she explored the sources of color in gems and geographic locations. Our travels have inspired our designs – who wouldn’t be changed by the Acropolis or the Forum? Together it seems we were 2-parts of a puzzle that is our jewelry.

Can you share the inspiration behind reviving classical elements in your jewelry, and how you balance this with modern sensibilities as you do in your Vetus chapter?   

Our jewelry is never a direct knock-off of the past. We are committed to creating the feel of an ancient design as a completed piece. Our pieces have that aged look. Yet, wearing a piece of Michael Jensen Designs is comfortable and balanced… Every style of jewelry we make is worn and tested for its wearability and comfort.  It may have a uniquely ancient look but it is easy to wear. Our rings are built with comfort fit shanks, and often if the gemstone is sizable, there is a Euro shank for balance. Our pendants have a smooth back to avoid any snags to fine fabrics or skin. Weight is an element of Michael Jensen Designs. We believe jewelry should be felt by the wearer and it should have a presence with the wearer. Our pieces are not finished until they are worn. The wearer/client is part of the piece.

Can you tell us a little about your design process and how you narrow down what materials, gems, and people you choose to work with? 

In our design process, one of us will come up with a profile sketch and together we will detail it and deconstruct it. Most of our pieces are created in the lost wax process. Michael is passionate about the sculpting process and loves carving the piece in wax to cast it. As a piece comes together for us we will go from lines to colors. This gets us to the gemstones, which are open to possibilities limited only by cut availability (sometimes).  When we are working with client galleries /retail stores, it is usually for one of their clients. The gallery is the base point – we do not sell directly to the public. We only sell through our representing stores. In all cases, we provide a drawing of the designs with specific details noted. It becomes a very personal experience for the retail store and their client.

You add new designs to some chapters annually, including one-of-a-kind pieces. How do you decide which elements to incorporate or innovate upon each year? 

All of the new work that is added to a line has its genesis in the historical and artistic inspiration that has snagged us over the previous year. Usually, these inspirations have bounced around our brains for a few weeks or months. The concepts that we share sometimes don’t fit into our current collections so, we shelve them for a capsule collection that has a tangential connection to one of our collections.

How does historical narrative influence the design and character of the jewelry in the Talentum collection, and what struck you about Julius Caesar in particular?  

In the Talentum collection, the pieces are connected through the concept of the silver talent. The random edge of the talent, sometimes with pieces cut out in necessity for payment. Julius Caesar’s story was just the memory trigger for the talent. He used the ransom to fund his future political aspirations. Perhaps, unconsciously we see these designs as a direction leading us to continued artistic inspiration/aspirations?! Maybe…

Many of your pieces are one-of-a-kind, so what challenges and opportunities does this approach present in your design and production process? 

There are challenges in our one-of-a-kind pieces, with stores requesting a duplicate of a style previously sold – the first challenge we have is sourcing a similar gemstone – we rarely use calibrated gemstones. Custom cutting after sourcing the rough can be cost-prohibitive for the store/gallery/client. Even with subtle changes to the design – it becomes a watered down form of its one-of-a-kind model. We believe that a unique piece is a special experience for the wearer. For a while, we offered a duplicate of a production model if the store would locate its own stone. For many locating a gemstone – this was a daunting experience. Over the years, our stores have realized that they will want to check out our pieces early on in any show… before another store has selected all of the pieces they liked. A third of our pieces at any show are our production pieces… there are bracelets, rings, and pendants. These are the foundation of our Michael Jensen Designs collections. It is the unique jewelry creations that drive Michael Jensen Designs.

You’ve been working toward being fully green in your operations, which is no small ordeal. We’re curious what hurdles you’ve had to overcome to ensure your materials are ethically sourced and environmentally friendly, and how you feel about the process.

Michael and I are committed to working toward a green business. The process of being a green studio is ever ongoing. We seriously consider every process that we use in our production. It began with realizing that we were using lead-based enamels… not great for jewelry on a mom with a baby. We shifted the type of enamels we used.  The liver of sulfur is a natural oxidizing agent, as is our pickle and flux.  In most cases, the processes we use are the same processes that ancient jewelers used.  We were committed to going solar and then found out our roof wasn’t a candidate for the panels. Whenever we realize we could be doing a better job for ourselves, our clients, and planet, we consider our options. Our gold and silver are all recycled. Our gemstones are all ethically sourced, as well as repurposed from unwanted pieces of jewelry. The one area that is frustrating for us is – shipping.  The weight of a package dictates much of the shipping cost. The use of plastic air balloons/padded envelopes in shipping is what we are using until a new option surfaces. (Sound of a sigh)  Whatever else we discover that we can improve on is important to us.

You were at the AGTA GemFair in Tucson this year. What were you particularly proud of from that event, and what was the experience like? Do you have any more shows coming up? 

AGTA Tucson 2024 was a great show. AGTA really knows how to put a show together.  This year it was a long show, lasting 6 days.  Interestingly, the traffic remained consistent for us all six days. When it was over we had sold all of our work except three pieces. It was very satisfying. The other highlight of the show was reconnecting with the stores and galleries we haven’t seen in a while and with other maker artists. We love sharing new bench techniques and lapidary experiences and learning from our peers.  Now that Tucson is behind us, there will only be trunk shows in 2024. We are looking forward to time for new work and inspiration.    

Looking to the future, how do you see Michael Jensen Designs evolving, especially with the increasing importance of sustainability and ethical practices in the jewelry industry? Will we see new chapters or upcoming collections? 

Ahh, dreaming in the creative future, we see further developing our 1888 Collection with a nod to the late Victorian and Edwardian elements produced in 18k. This would be an opportunity to use engraving skills and more detailed elements. We see the sustainability and ethical practices continuing to be an ongoing consideration in our business. There will always be a new archeological discovery that will trigger a new direction of thought.

The work of Michael Jensen Designs is differentiated by the brand’s excellent craftsmanship, highlighting inspiration drawn from the personal passions of Michael and Catherine.  Their dedication to sustainability and ethical practices evokes curiosity for their journey towards a green business. To learn more about Michael Jensen Designs, visit https://michaeljensendesigns.com/.

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