We all love beautiful things, right? Jay Strongwater is unequivocally the quintessential creator of beautiful things. Have you ever seen […]
We all love beautiful things, right? Jay Strongwater is unequivocally the quintessential creator of beautiful things. Have you ever seen or held a Jay Strongwater frame in your hands? They are quite striking and utterly magnificent. Serendipitously, Jay Strongwater is a distant cousin of mine. Jay generously offered a tour of his New York studio, and of course an interview was part of the package. This is a long one, folks, but oh so compelling. His unique path might give some young artists inspiration to follow their dreams.
ID: Please tell us about yourself and how Jay Strongwater came to be
JS: Growing up, as a young child I enjoyed making things – coloring, cutting out paper, using clay and so on. I was never very outgoing when I was young and creating was something I could quietly do by myself. My parents were always very supportive – sending me to after school or weekend art classes. When I started high school – Pascack Hills in Montvale, NJ – I was very fortunate to find an art department and art teachers who recognized my talents and helped inspire me with their teachings.
I then furthered my studies at Rhode Island School of Design, the esteemed art college in Providence, RI. While freshman year was an overview of all types of arts, I decided at the start of my sophomore year to major in clothing design. My mother loved fashion, and I was always enthralled by her beautiful clothes – Saint Laurent, Sonia Rykiel, Armani – so I think that desire to work with fabrics and create clothing was always there.
The summer in between sophomore and junior year I was with my mother – Penny – as she was shopping at a then store on 57th street called Bonwit Teller. On the main floor, she was looking in the case at some bold black & gold painted bead necklaces. I happened to say that I thought I could make something like that. So I went to the local mall – Paramus Park – and bought a bag of wooden beads people were using for macrame plant hangers ( this was 1981 ) – sprayed them black, with painted gold squiggles and strung up a few necklaces. Penny loved them and was often wearing them when a local store in New Jersey asked if I would make some more to sell in their store. I was thrilled, it was the summer and I needed the money! Through a series of coincidences, I found out that stores in New York City – like Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman – had “open designer days” where anyone could stand in line to meet the buyer and show them what you made. So that’s what I did, with my shopping bag full of beaded necklaces – and I got orders from both stores! By the end of the summer, I also had orders from Bonwit Teller and Saks Fifth Avenue.
I go back to RISD, by day learning pattern making and such, and at night, I was stringing necklaces. I finally shipped out all these orders by October, but a few weeks later some of these buyers called asking when my Spring collection would be ready! I didn’t even know what they were talking about, and I said thank you, but I’m back at school now. But when I went home for Thanksgiving and saw my necklaces inside these various stores, you can only imagine how excited I was. Not only were they inside the stores, but Saks Fifth Avenue put some of my necklaces in their Fifth Avenue windows on Oscar de la Renta’s resort collection. Even though I went back to school, my passion for making necklaces and selling to stores was growing.
I went to my parents and asked if I could drop out of school and use the rest of my tuition to start my little business. They actually agreed! I then really started to teach myself more about jewelry making – visiting small manufacturers throughout New York City who were kind enough to work with a young kid who knew nothing. I also was very fortunate to meet Oscar de la Renta and show him some of my jewelry designs. He liked some and would feature my jewelry on his beautiful runway creations each season. This little bit of notoriety helped spread the word about what I was doing and I was soon selling stores throughout the United States, and even Harrods in London. My business grew throughout the 80’s – more people working with me, more space, bigger collections – but all of a sudden in the early 90s, big bold fashion jewelry went out of fashion as a cleaner more streamlined aesthetic became the overriding trend. I tried to adapt by working in a smaller more delicate scale, but serendipitously one day as I was sitting at my workbench, I started to play with some components I was using at that time, and I collaged together my first all jeweled metal picture frame – style 5100, named after my mom, Penny.
Intrigued, I made a few more styles and showed a few buyers. While people liked them – the jeweler’s attention to detail, the sparkling crystals and such, nobody felt very confident about picture frames that were going to sell for $500 and up. But we shipped our few first orders in October 1995, and 20 years later, we haven’t stopped! For me the most exciting thing is to see how our “canvas” has grown each season – what started as a few frames is now a collection of boxes, floral objects, grand figurines, wrought iron fireplace screens and carved metal wall art.
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ID: What were your childhood ambitions?
JS: My teachers would complain that I spent many more hours creating the cover for a book report then actually writing the report itself! So I think my ambition has always been to create, in one way or another.
ID: Can you describe a day in the life of Jay Strongwater?
JS: I am very fortunate to be surrounded by a very talented team of designers and craftsman who I so enjoy working with every day in our New York City design studio and production workshops in upstate NY and Cranston, RI. Our designs have evolved and become quite complex with long lead times to create them – many over a year. So on any given day I could be involved in the production of the current spring collection, putting the finishing touches on the designs for the upcoming fall collection and starting to work on concept sketches for the following year’s spring collection. Or maybe it’s a day like today where I am making a trip to visit stores we sell to in Dubai. My passion is always that excitement when a new design has come to completion in the studio – but there is also that excitement of meeting our collectors in the stores and hearing what new designs they are loving and collecting. I think it is very important to always be visiting our stores, meeting both the sales associates and clients.
ID: Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?
JS: I hope I’m right here, working in the studio, learning about new materials to incorporate into our collections, watching as our designs continue to evolve.
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ID: What is your favorite Jay Strongwater piece? What pieces do you have in your home?
JS: They are all my babies, so no favorites! Of course, there are always new designs from this season’s Spring collection that I have watched come to fruition over many months that I am very proud of — the lily object — our first floral cheese board — sculpted porcelain vase with jeweled butterflies — sculpted metal and enameled peony framed in a gold leaf. At home, I have wonderful groupings of our frames with photographs of many loved family & friends. Frames dating back 20 years mixed with newer styles. We are just launching our first selection of hand painted wine glasses, champagne flutes, and embroidered napkins. I’m hoping I’m able to get a few to bring home for our next dinner party!
ID: Did anything in college prepare you for the career you have?
JS: I was in such a rush to leave school and “start” – start a business, start selling more stores, start making more designs – that I didn’t realize that college affords you years of creating without having to worry about commercial realities – can I reproduce it – will it sell – will it price correctly and on and on. Looking back, something I miss.
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ID: What single piece of advice would you give to someone starting out today? Any great advice you were given when you started out?
JS: Everyone always says follow your passion, and I certainly would agree. I would also say that you never know where the road might lead you. I thought I wanted to design clothes – ended up making jewelry for many years – and then have enjoyed great success in designing for the home these last 20 years.
ID: What do you like to do when you’re not working?
JS: Visit museums, art fairs and walking around New York City.
ID: Tell us a random talent you have!
JS: Every Thanksgiving I make my mother’s recipe for a lemon mold – the only time during the year that I cook!
Thank you, Jay, for this up-close and personal look into your life. We are so glad you followed your passion. The world is a more beautiful place because of it.
Images courtesy of Jay Strongwater