Earthy, organic, with a romantic, vaguely vintage, fairy-dusted patina. Today, that could describe any number of jewelry designers cultivating a boho luxe aesthetic, but that general look and feel originated with California-based Cathy Waterman in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The East Coast answer was Karen Karch, in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, and skewed a little more rock ’n’ roll. And there were other indie talents quietly going against the grain in their city or city-adjacent studios. All their work predated Instagram and a stylist-orchestrated red carpet demanding bigger, bolder jewels (and gems).
Stores like Twist and Ylang-Ylang in Dallas (now Ylang 23) knew a good thing when they saw it and gave Waterman a platform that ballooned into widespread name recognition, paving the way for the designer’s many adherents.
Those of us who have been covering jewelry for 20-plus years have always looked to Waterman for an alternative point of view. But over the last decade, her jewelry has perhaps become less cool girl, more Upper East Side or Mill Valley, Calif., mom (or someone like Gwyneth Paltrow—who was wearing a Cathy Waterman bracelet when she accepted her Best Actress award for Shakespeare in Love at the 1999 Oscars—come of age). Waterman is name-checked several times in True Prep, the cheeky sequel to 1980’s The Official Preppy Handbook that was published in 2010: “You can always wear your new Cathy Waterman earrings to the next session of your book club.” And it’s interesting that Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Veep character Selina Meyer wore a stack of Cathy Waterman bangles as her everyday jewelry signature. (Louis-Dreyfus also wears Waterman IRL.)
There has been no red carpet proper of late, but the virtual format of the awards ceremonies have allowed for a more intimate look at what the stars are wearing, and when singer-songwriter Taylor Swift donned an array of Cathy Waterman jewelry suites at the 2021 Grammys before the show, during her performance, and while celebrating her Best Album of the Year win, it was…well, it signaled something. Swift, now 31, is about as influential as you can get, especially when it comes to the TikTok crowd.
Could a moment like this herald a new era for Waterman? Ahead, my conversation with the designer on this point and more.
JCK: You founded your brand in 1990—that’s one year after Taylor Swift was born! I know that you have long had a celebrity following, but the idea that a whole new generation is becoming newly enchanted with your aesthetic is interesting. What’s going on?
Cathy Waterman: Though we live in a fast-changing culture, things that are made with love, that take time to make, and have a design integrity will always be sought after. Daughters have watched their mothers celebrate occasions with my jewels and have aspired to own something.… It makes me happy to see them choose a piece for their own special days. It might be that my work is mostly inspired by nature that attracts young people seeking that connection.
How did Taylor Swift come to start wearing your jewelry?
Taylor has been and is a good friend of my daughter Claire (with whom I also work), and that is probably where she saw it first. She’s worn it for years in her daily life, though we are quiet about celebrity connections. I’m not sure where it started, but it might have been her Love ring, which she wore while writing [her 2012 album] Red (it’s in some of the cover art for the album). Pieces become talismans, full of energy. I hear that often.
Tell us about the inspiration for your Spring 2021 collection starring carved gemstones. Did you have the stones on hand in your vault all this time, or did you source them specifically for the collection? With travel restrictions and other supply chain challenges, how are you accessing material that meets your high standards?
I’ve felt deeply connected to nature from early childhood, and it has given me lots of strength and courage. You know nature is my inspiration, and while the materials and perhaps my interpretation has evolved, it feels like a through line. I think the use of diamonds in platinum gave me the sense of being able to create “light,” and that gave me the courage to tackle nature, which is an unending gift. And mixing metals is my favorite—gold and platinum…yum.
I’ve been having pieces carved since the beginning. The first carved flower was a ruby and was a gift for my daughter Claire’s 13th birthday. Again, inspired by nature and reverence for it. The fruit because, why not? Fun and reverent at the same time. The Buddhas come from that sense of reverence for the stillness that I find in nature.
It’s been really hard during COVID to source materials, but I have long, long relationships with stone dealers. So while my vault is full of stones, I didn’t have all the stones I needed for all the carvings, but I’m lucky my people came through and that they know my quality standards and make sure to treat me right!
The market is currently saturated with independent designers with an ethereal aesthetic, raw gemstones, rose cuts, etc. I remember you being the go-to for alternative bridal 15 years ago—now alternative bridal is an entire retail category unto itself. How does a veteran brand like yours assert ownership of a look you have been embracing for 30 years?
I just do what I do: make beautiful jewelry and put it out there in the world. I’m not a believer in rules, so alternative sounds precisely like me…. I love that perhaps I started something in the world of personal adornment—I have no need to own it, but am flattered to see pieces worn and loved by all generations. Especially for such a sacred moment in their lives. Bridal makes me happy, and before any ring leaves the studio I bless it.
What’s your game plan moving forward?
Making beauty trumps all. We are working on some new ideas, and while they are a through line, I think they will make people smile.
Top: Clockwise, from left: Amethyst, sapphire, and diamond jeweled flower charm in 22k gold; vintage coral strawberry earrings with diamonds in 22k gold; pink sapphire, opal, and tourmaline pear charm in 22k gold; all prices on request; Cathy Waterman
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