Who is it? “I almost never wear jewellery,” says Lia Lowenthal, sitting in her South Bronx studio. “I work with my hands all day so I can’t have a bunch of rings on, meaning I’m super particular about only making things I really want to wear. Doing this has taught me to follow my intuition.” Born in New York but raised between the Upper West Side you see in 90s romcoms and suburban Los Angeles, the artist and designer has assimilated the culture clash that defined her upbringing into jewellery brand LL, LLC. “I was 14 when we moved and I don’t think anyone in our neighbourhood had even met a Jewish person before,” she says. “So it was weird, but I got to experience these totally different existences.”
She studied fine art at UCLA after high school then returned to the East Coast for an MA in photography at Bard College. One project, featuring abstract images of jewellery displays, included bits of unwearable jewellery she had created to balance on the body. When they were exhibited, a friend suggested selling them, so she made up a fake company name just for fun, and accidentally started LL, LLC. “I still feel like a very reluctant businessperson,” she says. “There was no strategy, but it became this thing I had to take care of.” And as magazines and stores started to take interest, the joke slowly turned serious.
With no formal training, Lowenthal started working at the atelier of legendary 60s silversmith William Spratling in Taxco, Mexico, learning to make everything by hand. Once a boomtown built on traditional crafts, its magic lives on even though the tourism has died out, and Taxco inspired her to turn her new skills into a commercial operation. “It still never occurs to me to allow space in a ring for it to be resized though, I don’t design in a technical way. But that comes from my art practice, I want the whole piece to feel like a unique form, not just function as a ring.”
Much of that art is rooted in Lowenthal’s obsession with how things are made. In sculpture, curves and edges can be imperfect, but with jewellery there is nowhere to hide. “It’s a game of millimetres, a game of grams.” she says. “Small decisions are consequential. A sculpture only has to work once; a jewellery collection means making a piece work hundreds of times, flawlessly.” Again, it shows how LL, LLC was never rooted in a passion for jewellery itself (she can’t think of many jewellery designers whose work she loves, for example), more how it fits in the context of a bigger story. Her earrings and necklaces are cultural artefacts, just like the other clothes, art and music that make up fashion.
Why do I want it? “We have a shared interest in cultural and social histories, but I don’t think Martine [Rose] knew anything about that. We only connected because she found my jewellery in a store,” says Lowenthal, explaining how her recent collaborations with the London designer came about. “That commonality means we work naturally together, and there are lots of parallels. Almost like we were drawn to each other.” This theme of treating jewellery as more than the expected rings and bracelets continued, as working with Rose was like an exchange of ideas, exploring how they could be translated into objects while leaning into a mutual love of research-based design.
Debuting at historic menswear event Pitti Uomo, the pieces that LL, LLC created for Rose’s Autumn/Winter 2023 show messed with the traditional expectations of men’s accessories but were also an unapologetic statement. Handmade in either her studio or New York’s Diamond District, depending on the techniques, they collaged feminist protest slogans with Jamaican coins that reflected Rose’s own story. Sifting through zines and ephemera in Brooklyn’s Lesbian Herstory Archives, Lowenthal had found the New Woman’s Survival Catalog. “It has a section on women who became radical feminist jewellers in the 1970s after leaving jobs society forced them into, like waitresses or typists,” she says. “That inspired the textured Venus symbol hoops, and I guess, subconsciously, the gold-plated vintage coins too. They were creating this sustainable economy outside of men.”
Lowenthal chose to go into the follow-up Spring/Summer 2024 collection completely blind and, knowing that Rose only worked with loose themes anyway, she built her pieces around matchsticks. “I collect vintage matchbooks and my first sculpture was a book of matches, but I had never considered them as jewellery before, so I knew this was going to be fun.” Shown in a sweaty north London working men’s club, they emerged as earrings, bangles and coiled Swan Vesta-like rings, based on the LL, LLC ring Rose still wears herself.
Working with Martine Rose has given Lowenthal the freedom to experiment with unconventional processes like an artist, but in the world of fashion; something that Lowenthal hopes to carry over into her upcoming jewellery collaboration with New York label A—Company later this year. Any opportunity to see her ideas brought to life outside of the gallery, be it on the catwalk or the street. “I know it sounds clichéd, but the best thing about making something is seeing people wear it,” she says. “It’s the only thing that matters. Even if I don’t make a dime, if someone likes wearing it and it becomes part of their life and they love it, then that is the best feeling in the world. Nothing compares to that.”