Silver Sisters Phoebe and Annette Stephens: Anndra Neen Jewelry’s Dynamic Duo

Anndra Neen’s stylish mixed-metal jewels take two

Anndra Neen makes one hell of a statement. Phoebe and Annette Stephens, the sister team behind the 3-year-old jewelry line, hail from a long line of painters, sculptors, and jewelry designers in Mexico City. Their upbringing encouraged them to be creative and led them to develop a penchant for the avant-garde. Phoebe’s ground floor New York City apartment—which sometimes doubles as a showroom—is filled with family paintings, the physical trappings of what the siblings describe as a childhood immersed in the arts.

In the middle of the room a coffee table is piled high with the sisters’ own designs—mixed-metal cage clutches that double as necklaces, oversize bibs, cuffs and rings with stark edges, studs, and wires. Some pieces look like they could have jumped off the pages of a Dr. Seuss book, while others could be mistaken for medieval armor. Many objects play with whimsical ideas and textures such as dots, quilting, or webbing. The collection has graced the necks and arms of A-listers such as Michelle Obama, Jessica Alba, Drew Barry­more, and Nicole Richie, and it’s easy to see why. An Anndra Neen piece is a showstopper.

Hammered ring in brass and nickel silver; $175

Phoebe and Annette say their taste for bold jewelry can be traced to their grandmother, Annette Nancarrow, a painter and sculptor in the ’30s and ’40s whom the sisters describe as having flaming red hair and a larger-than-life personality. She became a well-known socialite in New York City in the ’70s and made one-of-a-kind jewelry for Henri Bendel worn by none other than Peggy Guggenheim, Frida Kahlo, and Anaïs Nin. Nancarrow married three times throughout her life, eventually settling down in Mexico City with well-known composer Conlon Nancarrow. From their grandmother’s second marriage, the sisters’ father, Luis Stephens, was born and followed in his mother’s footsteps as a painter and occasional jewelry maker. When the girls were growing up, their father would collaborate with Mexico City workshops to make original pieces for them on special occasions.

Hammered Cone bangle in nickel silver; $575

After attending universities in the United States and embarking on their own careers—Phoebe became a fashion specialist for the Phillips de Pury & Co. auction house while Annette pursued theater—the sisters found themselves back on the familial path to ­jewelry design. During an aesthetically inspiring trip to Japan, the two hatched the fine points of Anndra Neen, which is a portmanteau of their middle names. The way the Stephenses describe it, their first collection, which initially comprised 20 pieces, effortlessly grew to 50.

“We didn’t always plan for this, we didn’t always know we were going to do it, but once it happened it felt so natural to both of us,” Phoebe recalls. Adds Annette: “It happened organically. The first collection was designed from our gut. It’s sort of in our blood, our DNA.”

The designers categorize the collections of clutches, rings, chokers, necklaces, cuffs, and bangles by texture using monikers like Bark, Melted, Two Tone, and Mirror and Pin. The Hammered Metal group features cocktail rings in the shape of primitive arrows, a bangle with cones like spokes on a wheel, and an oval clutch that resembles a peapod. The Quilted category is composed of puffy metal clutches, asymmetrical chokers, and cuffs. The Cage collection—one of Anndra Neen’s most popular—seems to recall barbed wire fences or grates used for industrial purposes. Materials are primarily mixed metal, nickel silver, brass, copper, shell, mother-of-pearl, agate, turquoise, amazonite, and silver.

Quilted choker in nickel silver; $625

Texture isn’t the only consideration. Ancient Mexican techniques in Anndra Neen pieces shine through, but there are also touches of European jewelry, ancient Egyptian motifs, Japanese design elements, and Bauhaus graphics. Similarly, the designers play with masculine and feminine concepts, and relentlessly push those boundaries. Aside from references to the art world and gender, allusions to architecture, textiles, and landscapes appear throughout the collection. On their website, Phoebe and Annette ­maintain a virtual inspiration board: a 1935 black-and-white photograph of Martha Graham by Barbara Morgan, Tibetan and Mongolian armor from New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wolverine boots from Leffot, and an Yves Saint Laurent dress from 1966 featuring a silhouette of a woman’s full-body profile.

Quilted satchel in brass and nickel silver; $745

Wearable art is how the designers prefer to peg Anndra Neen—like a painting, the designs evoke a visceral response. Nevertheless, they place a strong emphasis on the word wearable. “One of the really important stages in our design process is we put it on ourselves,” says Annette, calling attention to the sisters’ petite frames. “We see how it feels. If something’s uncomfortable or too heavy, we ­readjust. So it really has to be a piece that’s stunning, will draw attention, and you have to want to wear it.”

“It’s not just going to be abstract, it functions,” Phoebe says. “We make pieces that feel good and look beautiful.”

Cage choker in brass and nickel silver; $625

Since the beginning, magazine editors, retailers, and designers have been drawn to Anndra Neen’s vision. W magazine, Vogue U.K., and Harper’s Bazaar have led customers to Kirna Zabete and Maryam Nassir Zadeh in New York City; Capitol in Charlotte, N.C.; and Tenoversix and Roseark in Los Angeles. In addition, Anndra Neen has participated in a number of collaborations, including one-of-a-kind shoe clips for Tenoversix and jewelry for Matthew Ames’ Spring 2011 runway presentation. Joining designers such as Pamela Love, House of Waris, and Alexis Bittar, Anndra Neen has made a name for itself as a fashion-­oriented jewelry collection—the line is showcased at the MILK gallery during fashion weeks in New York City and earned the Dorchester Collection Fashion Prize last October.

Large Cage cuff in brass and nickel silver; $565

One of the biggest surprises in creating a business from the ground up has been the customer response. “I’m astounded almost daily about having created something that did not exist before,” Annette says. “We created it out of nowhere.” Their design instincts have also seen commercial validation. “We found that the more we love a piece, the more we put our heart into it, the more people tend to respond,” says Annette, noting that the collection is moderately priced from $150 to $950 for customers ranging in age from 20 to 80.

Mirror and Pin ring in nickel silver; $175

In spite of the limitations imposed by the slow production of handmade pieces, Phoebe and Annette have global aspirations. The women have fantasies of opening their own brick-and-mortar stores around the world. Fine ­jewelry, specifically a line of engagement rings, is undoubtedly in their future. When asked what metal they’d most like to work with, they answer in unison, “Gold!” They also would like to extend into a home collection incorporating mixed-metal tableware, sculptures, and candles as well as forge more collaborations with designers; the two mentioned Tane, a Mexican fine jewelry house, specifically.

Another revelation: “We are both creative and have a knack for business,” says Phoebe. “We like to combine both. A business really makes you grow, doing it in a pair.

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