Lauren Newton deeply infuses her eponymous jewelry line with her fascination for wildlife. Her latest collection, available on her website and on NEWTWIST, boasts cuffs casted from the pincers of a crab found in Hawaii, and earrings that share the pebbled texture of a sting ray’s skin. A bold, yet whimsical, exploration of the ways Earth’s creatures protect themselves from harm, her jewelry is designed to be both a shield and an explicit expression of the wearer’s individuality.
Read on to learn more about how Lauren’s background in zoology prepared her for the jewelry industry, and how a Star Wars character became her favorite custom jewelry project.
How did your love for jewelry begin?
I remember very clearly digging through my mother’s jewelry box when I was a kid. She had this wooden and brass Asian-style jewelry box that my dad gave her in the ’60s or ’70s. It had a green velour interior, and me and my sister used to just dig through it all the time. My mom didn’t have fancy jewelry. She had quite a bit of costume jewelry, but it was just so amazing to see all the chains and pearls and sparkles.
I didn’t really consider making jewelry until I was an adult. I had ideas for things that didn’t exist, and they were influenced by my love of nature and my background in wildlife sciences. It started with a dodo ring. People like the dodo bird. It’s this weird, unusual creature. Why wasn’t there a piece of jewelry with a dodo bird on it? It didn’t exist, so I made it.
I took my first metalsmithing class in 2005, after I finished my undergrad degree, and came back to New York. From that point on, I was hooked. Forging and moving metal with my hands, it couldn’t be better than that. That’s where my journey started.
From 2005 until I really jumped into jewelry in 2012, I was working for non-for-profits. I’ve worked in the Bronx Zoo, the Prospect Park Zoo, the Central Park Zoo. I’ve worked for the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. I’ve worked for the Audubon Nature Center doing non-for-profit animal education and animal sciences and research. At my last position, I was a supervising educator of the Nature Center in Prospect Park. When the company downsized, I was laid off, and I asked myself, “What am I going to do now?” The whole time, I had been making jewelry on the side. My parents said, “Just do it.” So that’s when I took the leap.
That’s really interesting. I know we come from similar backgrounds, with Caribbean parents and growing up in New York, and I know my parents wouldn’t have been so happy with me jumping into a creative career—but it seems like your parents were supportive.
My mother and my father are very different people, and of the two of them, my dad is the creative one. My dad is the one who, when he was younger, did a lot of drawing and sculpting and painting, and my mother is very practical. They met in college and, oddly enough, are both registered nurses.
They both supported my ambitions to go into jewelry. But my mother, to this day, I believe, would probably throw me a party if I decided to work in education. My whole family is in healthcare. I’m the only one. Give me the creativity. I’ve been able to go from non-for-profits, to taking a jewelry school intensive. I went to the 92nd Street Y first, then I went to Studio Jewelers. I’ve taken classes at Studio 174. I’ve taken classes at FIT. Just through gathering skills over the years, I’ve been able to create this career for myself out of nothing. It’s not like I have a degree in jewelry-making. It’s just from practice and working for people. I’ve worked for several prominent designers in the industry. I still work for one, actually, and have just gathered skills, and gathered knowledge, and tried to make it.
Do you find that your former career ever influences the decisions you make when it comes to creating your jewelry?
My former career influences me not just in the jewelry itself, but in the nature of the jewelry industry. My Armor collection is heavily influenced by animal shapes and natural textures. One of my first collections, that I still sell on Etsy, has so many animals. That’s more of the design influence.
As far as the industry influence, I’m just used to being in spaces that aren’t dominated by Black people. I went to a predominantly white, rural college in Syracuse—the SUNY of Environmental Science and Forestry. The forestry school was exactly what you’d expect: ax-toting, log-chopping types. Hippies in tie dye socks with Birkenstocks, those were my peers. That was the beginning of my career, consistently being in white spaces. I met some people in college who had never interacted with a Black person before. Going from that atmosphere to the wildlife science field, which is predominantly white and predominantly male, was a similar experience. I was happy to be there, happy to learn, happy to have mentors in that industry—but also used to being the only Black person in the room. Transitioning into jewelry, it was the same exact thing. I was used to that, so I didn’t feel at all like I didn’t belong. It was normal for me.
You brought up the fact that the jewelry industry itself is primarily white. Have you seen any significant changes in the industry since the Black Lives Matter movement became prominent earlier this year?
I have seen some companies take initiative to offer sponsorships and pro bono services, of which I benefited from. Maybe I need to be more plugged in, but it needs to be bigger than what it is. The people who need to be making the changes are not the small businesses that operate out of New York, which is a liberal bubble to begin with. It needs to be GIA. It needs to be Couture. It needs to be New York Now. It needs to be Melee. It needs to be these bigger companies that have the power and the dollars to be able to actually do something.
It’s not about posturing and posting a black square. With trade shows, it’s about money. It’s about exposure. I know I don’t have $$ to go to Couture, and I’m sure most small, indie fine jewelry brands don’t either. So, what if Couture said, “We’re going to set aside $ to sponsor five POC designers to be on The Design Atelier”? Just reach out to the designers and say, “Hey, we noticed you’ve been doing big things in the industry. We would love to see you to come to Couture.” Nobody even has to know they’re being sponsored— because there’s pride involved in that, too. There’s money for that to be done. It’s an easy fix. This industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry. And for a person like me who doesn’t have generational wealth like that, it just feels so lopsided.
How has your business changed since the pandemic began?
My personal business has changed, in that I’ve gotten a lot of social media exposure. I’ve gotten some opportunities to be in some online markets. I’ve gotten some pro bono PR services, which is nice. Because I have a studio at home, I’m back at work. It’s tough, but things are still working behind the scenes. People who have money are still buying jewelry, and I feel like luxury never goes away.
I’ve noticed that some of your pieces are in sterling silver, while others are rendered in 18 karat gold, and some are gold plated. How do you decide which pieces are fabricated in which medium?
The Armor collection is in sterling silver and gold over brass, because those pieces are gigantic, and very heavy. I knew I wanted to make statement pieces, and some people just don’t wear silver. Some people like the look of gold, but those pieces in gold would be unsellable. So I did that collection in sterling silver and brass. Moving forward, the new collections are going to be silver and 18 karat gold.
I learned your jewelry recently became available through NEWTWIST, so congratulations!
That was something I did not expect. Seriously, it blew my mind. It’s such a blessing and the people who work there are wonderful.
Have you had to adjust the way you work to accommodate having a stockist?
They’re basically the first wholesale customer I’ve had. Writing up an invoice for them, giving an accurate lead time, going through the production process with that number of pieces, was such a great learning experience for me. If somebody else were to order, I know exactly what I did right the first time, and what I didn’t do right. I know that I need to expand the collection for people who want to do wholesale, because people like to see a range of things, and I don’t have enough product right now. It was a growing process for me. I’m really, really grateful to have that opportunity to work out the kinks, because now I know what to do.
What has been your favorite custom jewelry project that you’ve worked on?
I’ve had quite a few word-of-mouth couples, Black couples, come to me to do their engagement rings, which has been the most wonderful thing ever! The second engagement ring I did, the now-husband said, “My wife is a filmmaker. She really loves Star Wars. Can we make an R2D2 engagement ring?”
He sent me these very literal pictures of R2D2 rings from fan sites. I said to him, “This is a good starting place, but let’s rein it in a little. I know she loves R2D2, but we still want it to look beautiful and classic in 50, 60 years. We don’t want it to be too literal, or too comical.”
I designed a ring that was literally R2D2 meets art deco. It is probably one of my favorite rings. From the top, it’s got the blue and the white, sapphire and diamonds. It looks like R2D2 from the side and has the red sapphire where the button is. The bride was over the moon.
What is a piece of jewelry that you cannot leave your house without?
My platinum engagement ring was designed by me and made by my best friend, Melissa Cohen, who is also a jeweler. I did my platinum wedding band, and I have another platinum band that sits alongside these, that my husband gave me on our first anniversary. We’ve added a diamond for each year we’ve been married. These three platinum bands are on my finger day in, day out. I usually wear a couple of gold chains around my neck— my nerd necklace, and my afro pick necklace, which are my favorites.
What was the last piece of art, and it could be across any medium—visual, jewelry, film, music—that really took your breath away?
I would have to say it was one of my own pieces, that came to fruition in a way that was exactly the way I wanted it to come out. It felt to me like divine intervention. I posted it on Instagram and said, “This is what it looks like to feel like you’re doing your life’s work.” It’s an opal pendant. Through the opal, you can see four skulls. If I can make pieces like that for the rest of my life, I’ll die happy. When something I have in my head comes out exactly the way I want it to, it feels like magic.
Can you give us a hint about what you’re working on next?
I have a couple of things that have been on the back burner for a while that I’m trying to get out soon. I really love pieces that are kinetic, that have movement. I love color, so I’m hoping to use some semiprecious stones in the near future. I’m hoping to get another collection on my website that’s offered in 18 karat and silver. And I am a stone hoarder. I have stones that I bought the first time I went to Tucson in 2007, and I’ve already planned to go to Tucson in February. I’m hoping to open up customs for people using the stone stock that I have, because I need to clear it out.