Decorative artist Michael Aram moves from furniture and tableware to fine jewelry
Michael Aram has a confession to make. It’s the tail end of an interview to discuss his new jewelry collection—a first for the designer, who’s known for his decorative and tabletop accessories—when talk turns to his surname. In Hindi, it means “gently, with peace, love, and care”—at least according to every bio, press kit, and story about him.
Did Aram, an Armenian born in Providence, R.I., and raised in Westchester County, N.Y., learn that detail before or after he set up his workshop and second home in New Delhi 25 years ago? “I had no idea,” he says. Is it for real? Well… “What the press release says is true,” he says, his voice trailing a bit before he perks up with a mischievous smile. “Aram also means slow and restful. Not lazy, but like, C’mon, speed it up.”
Molten cuff in rhodium-plated sterling silver with 1.58 cts. t.w. diamonds; $975
Pressing “pause” turns out to be an Aram trademark. Walk into his New York City flagship store, and within seconds you go from bustling Chelsea, a stone’s throw from a knot of traffic on Sixth Avenue, to a cool black-on-black cavern of zen, complete with a dreamy Eastern soundtrack. There’s his signature sensibility: perfectly imperfect and decidedly handcrafted. “When I started in 1989, everything was state-of-the-art, clean, high-tech, like Alessi,” recalls Aram. “Then I came in with my bowls and their hammer marks.”
Aram’s thoughtful approach is Slow Food compared with the machine-like whir of fast food. Even this fine-jewelry launch, a 100-plus piece collection of sterling silver and 18k gold, reflects that quiet pace. It’s been a decade in the making.
Feather bypass hinged bangle in sterling silver with black diamonds; $2,600
“This whole thing has been a journey, a work in progress,” he begins, his hands fiddling with an earring post. “Jewelry has always been the holy grail for me. I actually designed and produced a gold collection 10 years ago, but didn’t feel like it was ready.” In his first go-round, he created miniature versions of his large-scale works. No chains, all torque, no movement, heavy and inflexible. “It was like that on your wrist,” says Aram, gesturing to a large silver tray on a table. “I realized women don’t want to feel like an easel holding a piece of art.”
Scan the new lineup and you’ll find few traces of those initial offerings he’s since locked up in a safe. He has folded in functionality—“I didn’t even have jump rings before!”—and created, quite simply, pretty things women will want to wear: feather-shaped cuffs, pendants dotted with cabochon gems, and petaled rings.
Enchanted Forest Twig bangle in sterling silver with blue topaz and diamonds; $1,975; Michael Aram, NYC; 646-776-8356; michaelaramjewelry.com
“It was really important to design something that could be worn every day,” Aram says. “I listened to customers and friends, added movement, sparkle, color, stones.”
Priced from $450 to $17,000, Michael Aram Jewelry features four thematic collections: Molten (where edges are lined with dew-like molten metal beads), Feather (which includes the priciest of the designs, an 18k gold plume with a pavé diamond quill), Botanical (floral-inspired pieces), and Enchanted Forest (a Midsummer Night’s Dream–like array of twig and vine shapes). Each ties back to similar groupings in his main line—a deliberate move, Aram says, for the recognition factor. The nature motifs, he adds, have proven a winning formula for his brand thus far; it’s understandable to the male buyer. “There’s a universality to it,” he explains, adding that he occupies a nature niche that sets him apart from sales-floor neighbors Roberto Coin, Ippolita, David Yurman, and John Hardy.
Wisteria drop earrings in 18k gold with lemon quartz and diamond accents; $2,350
Unlike other jewelry first timers, Aram has the advantage of a successful quarter century of business behind him. The designer, whose love of art and craftsmanship reaches back to childhood—he recalls crawling under the display tables at Georg Jensen on Madison Avenue, where his father once worked—is an established brand, with a built-in client base and retail network. When the collection hit in August, aside from his own flagship, it went exclusively to Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s, two longtime partners. The former has been with Aram since year one; six months after his debut, he landed the cover of the Neiman Marcus catalog with a twig-shaped serving set.
Wisteria drop pendant necklace in 18k gold with lemon quartz and diamond accents; $1,690
Phase two of his distribution strategy targets accounts that currently sell Michael Aram: “places where the core customer exists.” Lucky for him, many of those venues include boutiques such as Pittsburgh’s Louis Anthony Jewelers and New York’s London Jewelers; these stores already sell his giftware, dinnerware, and stemware to their bridal customers. (And no, he answers, the flourishing nuptial market didn’t spark his entrée into jewelry, and there are no immediate plans to dive into engagement and wedding rings.)
Michael Aram at work in his workshop in India
Being established comes with its own set of challenges, though. For instance: Aram is already splitting off an independent website for his jewelry line (michaelaramjewelry.com). Should he do the same with his social platforms? “We’re grappling with that right now,” he says. “The pro is that we can really speak to the inspirations behind the jewelry, whereas on my Facebook page now, I talk about entertaining moments and setting the table.… The con is that we’re starting right out of the gate without our thousands of followers. How do we get them to cross over? Is it a giveaway? A contest?”
Later Aram will comment that “artists are good problem solvers. They’re good at starting things, figuring things out, taking nothing and making something.”
Botanical leaf earrings in 18k gold with rhodium and pavé diamond accents; $1,985
He’s referring to the myriad categories he’s introduced. In addition to his decorative designs—and his jewelry—he has created candles, furniture, porcelain, and lighting, as well as a secondary, more affordable tabletop line called Madhouse by Michael Aram. He’s had licenses with Waterford (dinnerware, barware) and Hartmann (luggage). Next up: crystal next spring and textiles for fall 2015. “I don’t see any compartmentalization,” he says. “It’s all the same expression.”
Botanical yellow sapphire ring in 18k gold with diamonds; $4,950
He shares that mindset with one of his earliest idols and inspirations: Alexander Calder. In fact, it was a 1988 Calder exhibit Aram saw downtown—while he was working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art designing books and posters and maintaining a small fine art publishing company on the side—that partly redirected his career. “Here was an artist who made incredible sculptures, toilet-paper holders, knobs for his cupboards, toys for his kids, jewelry. I thought, We’re so pigeonholed. If you’re a poster designer, you’re a poster designer,” says Aram. “That wasn’t for me. I wanted to do different things.”
Enchanted Forest bark rings with diamond accents in 18k yellow, white, and rose gold, $3,150; in rhodium-plated silver, $695
So itching for a break, a breather, something, he went to visit his brother and sister, who were working in manufacturing in New Delhi. The rest of the tale unravels like a scene in a James Ivory film: 25-year-old Aram found himself drawn to the cluttered, run-down parts of Old Delhi where he stumbled upon a man hand-forging steel cutting dies for shoe soles. “I remember wearing my baseball cap, ponytail, and shorts, looking like the total American, observing this guy hammering away,” he says. “It was mind-blowing that he was creating this engineering component.” Journal in hand, Aram sketched a shoehorn (with a Calder-esque curl at the end) for the man, Mohammed Idris, to make. It would be the company’s first design.
Molten rings with diamonds in 18k gold with doublet of mother-of-pearl and orange synthetic sapphire or olive quartz; in sterling silver and blue topaz; $3,350
Fast-forward to Aram returning to the States, clearing out his bank account, and setting up shop in India. Decades later, he still has a home there and works with the country’s craftspeople, although he’s expanded his production reach; some of the jewelry is made in Thailand, while the wax carving is done in New York City.
And Idris? He’s gone from a tiny workshop the width of his shoulders to a larger concern of his own. And he still works with Aram. The designer pulls out a spiral money clip, subtly faceted with hand-hammered imprints: “He just made this for me. Isn’t it fun?”
Aram adds that he’s been thinking men’s jewelry—although details and dates are TBD. He’s in no rush.