Nina Berenato finds me wandering around the street by McCarren park. I’ve dutifully followed my Google map instructions to this spot, but after I pass longingly by Five Leaves (can I justify having lunch there by myself later?) all I see is a brick wall where the address is supposed to be.
Then I see young blond come striding around the corner, wearing a flowing shibori-dyed vest and black pants tucked into motorcycle boots. This is the artist behind Psyche Jewelry, a mythological, tribal, refined line of jewelry produced in Brooklyn from recycled metals and ethically-sourced stones. Berenato has a sweet, all-American face that is open and friendly. She leads me, chatting, back around the corner through an unmarked metal gate and into a nondescript building. Did I mentioned we were in Brooklyn?
Inside the shared studio, with its concrete floors and wooden work stations, morning light is pouring in the windows. We’re followed in by another guy who gets to work at a table by the window. It’s 10 a.m. and quiet, but another jewelry artist working in the loft seems surprised to see so many people here this early.
“There are some people who are in here just recreationally,” Berenato tells me. “And there’s other people who do it more on an artistic side. And I do it on the production side.” It helps that different artists have different specialties like stone or sautering, so they help each other with challenges and problems that come up in each other’s work. While I’m there, I spy an Of a Kind necklace by Elizabeth Knight that I recognized, lying casually on a work table. If I weren’t such an upstanding person, I would totally tuck that in my pocket.
Berenato and I pull up a seat at a table littered with tools downstairs to talk about her work. Psyche only launched in 2012, but it already has a deep catalogue of very original work, ranging from ear cuffs, to to medallion necklaces, chained rings, bar earrings, and septum rings with chain earrings, among many more mystical objects. (Her spike earring cuff gave me whiplash at Capsule last season.) What’s impressive, is that her collection seems of-the-moment … and yet entirely original at the same time. (Hot tip: Follow her on Instagram for occasional deep, deep discounts.)
Here’s what we talked about:
Tell me about your materials.
I work primarily in brass that is plated or in its natural form, or bronze. I also use some silver. I use the casting process, where I’ll make one prototype, and I’ll bring it to my caster for a silicone mold to be made, wax is poured in, and I can make as many pieces as I want from that mold.
Where do you get your metals?
I get them all over the city. Myron Toback sources only materials made here in the United States, they are family owned. A lot of the people I work with in the Diamond District, I’ve become so close with them. And most of them are family-owned businesses. They get to know your work. They give me advice all the time. They are really knowledgable about the tools.
Are your metals recycled?
Some of the sheet is recycled that they buy, but I take all the materials I use and I keep all the scraps to make new pieces. The caster I work with, Taba Casting, recycles all their metals. And their refinery is extremely environmentally friendly. There’s a lot of contaminated water that happens with the refining process, and you have to be sure that the refinery is cleaning up that water.
It’s not something that is hard for a designer to be eco-friendly. You just have to check and be sure that the people you are working with care about this.
Have you ever walked away from a supplier?
I haven’t. Because I worked with Elizabeth Knight Jewelry as her apprentice for a year, I pretty much had all those questions answered at the start. But I do know designers that have.
What are you trying to say with your jewelry?
A lot of my jewelry designs are based on ancient cultures, history and the past. The person who wears my jewelry would be someone that cares about preserving tribal cultures, cares about learning about different people, who is open minded and strong. The woman who puts them on in the morning feels stronger and more beautiful.
What kind of woman do you envision wearing your jewelry?[Laughs] Actually, sometimes I make a character in my head that would the person ideally that’s wearing them. There’s this woman I created, she’s an anthropologist. She also has a pet bird–I don’t know how that comes into play. The most important thing about the woman I have in my head that wears my jewelry, she’s very strong, she’s very independent. She wears what she wants because she loves it. And I hope that people who wear my jewelry, they wear it for that reason. They’re not wearing it to fit in, they’re wearing it to stand out.
A lot of your jewelry does seem very of the moment–fashion is doing a lot of geometry and gothic references. If fashion moves on from that moment, will you change from that, or will you stick with the aesthetic you’re going for now?
This next collection I’m working on, I’m veering off what I always do with ancient culture and tribal-looking stuff, and I’m being inspired by architecture. Which is something I’m seeing fashion moving toward–sleeker lines and more structured, more clean. It’s always going to be stuff I love, but it’s important to evolve.
What do you think the best big step is for Psyche?
I would love to make some of the big statement pieces that are more expensive to make, but I’ve always dreamed of making. Also, philanthropy is a big part of my business, so I want to keep making money so I can donate to the causes I love.
What causes are you into right now?
My last collection was based on the San Bushmen, a tribe in South Africa. They have these crazy trance states, where they’ve drawn these insane cave paintings, and that’s what I’ve been inspired by. Turns out they are in danger, they’ve been pushed of their reservation. Twenty percent of my internet sales of that collection are going to Survival International who helps them regain their lands.
A lot of charities take the money and interpret how they think it would best help the people and then make a plan. Survival International gives the money directly to the tribe, and the tribe uses it how they see fit. I think it’s really naive of us to think we always know best for the people. Their ideas are valid.