Apprenticeships are a tradition as old as civilization, and are arguably still the best way to learn a craft. But it is better still when that craft is learned from family. Alex Woo learned the art of jewelry design at the knee of her father, a master bench jeweller, and grew up learning all things gems, precious metals, and expert craftsmanship. Since those early years she has taken that appreciation and become an internationally-acclaimed jewelry designer.
Born and raised in New York City she studied Fine Arts and Jewelry Design at an Ivy League University before moving to Paris to study abroad. Back in NYC she opened a Manhattan studio and showroom and now, with over a decade in the industry under her belt, has traveled around the world for inspiration and has won highly prestigious awards such as the JCK Show Design Centre’s Rising Star. Each piece remains handcrafted (and often signed) by Woo, designed to evoke the strength in every woman while staying rooted in her femininity.
How would you describe yourself as a designer? I would say I'm very nurturing and detail oriented. My line is such a big part of who I am, so I treat each new piece like it's my baby. I'm involved in the process start to finish, so when one is finally complete, it's a great feeling.
How would you describe the aesthetic of your designs? I love clean and modern designs. Whether in interior design, or clothes, I have such an appreciation for classic and timeless styles, so these are all aspects that I incorporate into my collections. In addition to that, I love to tell stories through my designs, and represent different facets of all women. In doing that, I have also been lucky to hear stories from women who have worn my designs for different reasons than my original inspiration. It's wonderful to hear feedback and suggestions from all my customers and that sometimes inspires my next designs.
How do you find a balance between sleekness, strength, and delicacy in your work? I think the most important aspect about being a designer is staying true to yourself and your aesthetic. Sometimes a design is re-done 50 times until I feel it's perfect. My designs are all an extension of who I am, so it's important that they reflect my vision.
In your travels, has any one place continued to give you inspiration? My inspiration is drawn from all over; anything from the elements in my everyday life to experiences during international travels. Being a native New Yorker has always given me the inspiration I've needed to create my collections. With amazing energy and a vibrant aspect of the city, I'm constantly inspired by my surroundings, by the people, and of course - the great food! I'll admit that some of my most creative moments have been on trips to places like Morocco and Macchu Picchu. But more and more, I have been drawing inspiration from my audience, and those who wear my jewelry. Just as I am growing and evolving as an artist, my audience is doing the same. It's these stories that have now influenced and inspired me to be able to create jewelry that reflects life through design.
How does living and working in NYC inspire you? My workshop, showroom and studio are in the heart of New York - more notably, across from Rockefeller Centre. As a born and bred New Yorker, I only felt it appropriate that my jewelry is also made here, as my philosophy is that if someone wears my brand, they are supporting an essential part of this great city. This is why we re-branded our logo 2 years ago with "Made in New York" as an essential element of the design. That being said, I love that everything is so central and easily accessible in New York. If I need inspiration, it's all at my fingertips; from 5th Ave to Soho.
How did it feel to win such a prestigious award as the Rising Star award from JCK Show Design Centre? I use it as motivation and fuel to move forward and continue what I'm doing. It's this vote of confidence and support that really makes this work so exciting and rewarding. It's like someone saying that they believe in you; keep doing what you're doing. It's very encouraging and I am always thankful.
You proudly display customer stories/experiences on your website; how are you able to maintain a connection with so many people? Jewelry is the best story teller and being able to have my fans tell their stories through my pieces always brings a smile to my face. Whether a gift or a self purchase, the wonderful thing about my jewelry is that it is usually purchased to commemorate a special moment in your life, or represent something meaningful. Being able to share and take part in these women's lives is so touching and meaningful to me as a designer. One of my favourite stories is Julie. She's actually in the What's Your Icon video on my website - and she shared a story with me that was beyond what I ever would have imagined. Many times, people wear my little numbers because it's their lucky number, or it’s their favourite number, but she had a number 8 because she had to get a rare medical procedure which included a liver and stem cell transplant; and later learned that she was the 8th living survivor. It’s these amazing stories that make what I do all the more special. Another supporter with a great story has been Christina Applegate. She has worn a Little Letter S to keep her daughter close to heart, but also some of my other designs; as well as the one we collaborated on to support her foundation. Right Action for Women. My customer is classic, but she's modern and bold enough to share her personal story through her jewelry. No matter what age the customer (and I sell to a wide demographic), all these women share these very qualities.
You proudly support local talent and charities; how important is it to you to continue doing so? As an American Made company, we proudly support local talent and better business practices. It allows for each of my pieces to be selected from 100% sustainable, premium precious metals from American refineries and imported conflict-free diamonds. I know that if businesses like mine don't support them, we will slowly start losing this skilled labor to other parts of the world, and this is something that we can't let happen. It's personally important to me that we support and cultivate this local talent.
What made you realize that something needed to be done to support better business practices? As the child of an immigrant who came to America to achieve his American dream, being fortunate enough to live here was something that was instilled in me. Growing up, we tried to buy American made cars and always support local businesses. It became second nature to the way I grew up, and having a sense of pride in what we owned and where it came from was important. As a minority female entrepreneur, I now feel that it's also my opportunity to support that same feeling in what I do. My office is located in midtown New York City where I support all the local artisans, suppliers, and jewellers within my neighbourhood.
What is your favourite material to work with? I mainly work with Sterling Silver and Gold. I love them both for different reasons. Silver is a precious metal that most people can wear all the time. All of my designs are also solid so there's a lot of weight to it whether it is made in silver or in gold. As for Gold, it has always been valued and treasured through the ages, and having the chance to work with it is also very special. Especially since my jewelry is designed to be classic, treasured, and essentially modern heirlooms that can be passed down for generations.
Do you have a favourite piece from your extensive collection? It's like choosing a child, I don't really like to play favourites! I love them all for different reasons. Though I will say one of my bestsellers is the Little Luck Elephant; it's a symbol of pure happiness that's believed to carry everlasting luck in its trunk, so when the trunk faces up you'll maintain good luck forever!
Would you ever consider opening a studio in another city/country? Being raised in New York, and with my family still living here, I plan to stay for as long as I can. This city is so important to me that when we re-launched our brand, we changed our logo to incorporate "Made in New York" to reflect and give respect to the greatest city in the world. The idea of opening a second showroom and workshop sounds nice, but I think I'm just fine staying here.
What should a woman look for in a good piece of jewelry? Trends are great, but jewelry is an investment, and women should look for jewelry that is well made, has meaning to them, and defines who they are. Whether it is a special moment in one's life, a birthday, a new job, a new baby, jewelry should be something you want to keep and treasure.
What’s one piece of jewelry every woman should have in her collection? Something that is meaningful and special to her that she can wear every day. Whether it’s her child's initial, a bumble bee that represents her childhood nickname, or a design that represents an inside joke between her and her husband, it should be special. Having something wearable and a reminder of something personal to her is something she can wear and treasure for a lifetime.
Do you have a favourite era of jewelry design? I really love the Renaissance era, when personal pendants were not only the most coveted keepsake but also designed to be admired from both sides. It was the inspiration for my new Origins collection which is an 18kt Gold and Diamond, bespoke fine jewelry collection that also incorporates elements from some of my most iconic designs.
Any advice for aspiring jewelry designers? Finding your talent and doing something that you love is the ultimate dream, but stay true to yourself. Trends can affect your design process, and you can be influenced by those that surround you; but sticking to your own vision and point of view is what makes you distinctive as a designer and as an entrepreneur. You can also read the full interview here.