Jewelry designer Monique Pean and a necklace from her spring K'atan…
Monique Pean is one of the most talented new American jewelry designers working today. She founded her line in 2006, bringing a sustainable approach to her work by using recycled gold and conflict-free stones.
Since then she's attracted the attention of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, winning the Vogue Fashion Fund Award in 2009*, and of First Lady Michelle Obama, model Karlie Kloss, actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Watson, and many more who have worn her unique designs.
Each time Pean creates a new collection, she travels to a new place, immerses herself in the culture, connects with artisans to learn traditional techniques, and researches new sustainable materials.
For her spring K’atun collection, she traveled to the Tikal region of Guatemala, where she was inspired by the idea of Mayan architecture juxtaposed with midcentury architecture, and made use of the area’s black and gray jade to stunning effect. The result? Pieces like the jaw-droppingly gorgeous "Imix” necklace above, with fuchsia tourmaline, jasper and citrine, white diamond pave and 18-karat recycled gold.
I met Pean at the Couture jewelry show in Las Vegas recently and had a chance to ask her a few questions about her philosophy and her process.
When you say your pieces are sustainable, what do you mean?
Mining is very detrimental to the environment. For example, mining enough gold to produce one simple wedding band produces 20 tons of waste. That’s the equivalent to 2 1/2 full-grown elephant’s worth of mercury and cyanide going into the environment. When I started designing, I wanted to make sure that while I was making beautiful things, I was not impacting the environment in a negative way. I support the No Dirty Gold campaign, and other programs trying to incentivize the mining industry to clean up their practices. I only use recycled gold and sustainably-mined materials, meaning that they are mined artisanally, using a hammer and a chisel, not using blasts and mercury.
What kind of materials do you work with?
I use unique stones created over thousands of years, so each piece is collectible. I just started working with fossilized dinosaur bone from a stegosaurus. It comes from the Colorado Plateau, which is the only place in the world where there was a perfect storm of mineralization, so that as parts of the dinosaur bone and flesh disintegrated, minerals went into the bone and it agatized. Most of it is brownish red. But occasionally you will find pieces in colorful blues and purples, like the ones I’m using. It’s kind of amazing to be able to wear something from the Jurassic Age.
Your signature material is fossilized woolly mammoth tusk, right, which you source from indigenous Alaskan natives?
Yes. If the woolly mammoth tusk was trapped in ice, it maintains its creamy color. But if it’s exposed to silt minerals, it turns a brown or caramel tone. And if it’s exposed to salt, you get these amazing blues. I also have some that are peachy pink. On some pieces, we use a scrimshaw technique, where we etch into the woolly mammoth tusk with a knife, and inlay vegetable dye.
Tell me about your time in the Tikal region of Guatemala.
I was there for 10 days, staying at Francis Ford Coppola’s La Lancha resort. I explored the ruins, then went into the jungle and sketched for a few days. All the temples had step levels, and the colors were magical. I played with a lot of positive and negative shapes in the collection.
You grew up in Washington, D.C., and started your career in investment banking. How did you become interested in jewelry design?
My father worked for the United Nations for the African Development Foundation, so he was always taking me all over world. My mother is an artist, and we built a large indigenous art collection when I was growing up. It came naturally to me to want to work with artisans.
Monique Pean’s collection, $1,000 to $300,000 is available at Barneys New York.
[*UPDATED 06/25 at 1:02 p.m. An earlier version of this post stated that Monique Pean won the Vogue Fashion Fund Award in 2012. She won the award in 2009.]
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