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Golden Souls: How local artists are changing the business of wearable art

By Matthew Ryan Miramontes

Sarah Sindler always wanted to be an artist, but it was not until she began casting and working with fine metals like gold and silver did she find a career involving wearable art.

Other artists like Sakony Burton might have been involved with his clothing brand Désir longer than he has been turning fine metals into pendants and rings, but his desire to learn new techniques of metal work brings a new meaning to independent shine.

Ira Helfer is the owner of David I. Helfer Jewelers which originally opened in the Clark Building in 1936 that has offered mentorship to artists like Sindler who was able to get her start under his hand.

While these three jewelers are representative of their own style and client base, they combine to draw up the underground and forefronts of independent artistry in Pittsburgh with fine metals and wearable sculptures. Not only are they able develop a marketplace for the world through their creations, but their artforms can be a direct correlation to a more personal Midas Touch.

“I didn’t know that I was going to be a metal smith, I miraculously stumbled into it and then I was able to eventually turn that into my job,” Sindler said. “I always wanted to be an artist, but I think jewelry making has made that possible for me and to have a client base that is large enough to support myself.”

In addition, Naomi Curtis, 29, Braddock and Janine Paulson, 20, Squirrel Hill, also work under Helfer’s guise that can accredit him for not only connecting them to each other in a tight knit friendship, but also accompanying them into the business side of materials. Even while Sindler has ventured away from Helfer’s shop, she recognizes that he was able to take her in and begin to show her the basics of metal working.

Sindler, 31, North Side, was able to be placed directly into contact with Helfer after she continually was a frequent customer to get small pieces done at the shop. After one of the full-time employees took a two-week vacation, Helfer’s shop asked her to be an addition to the team and it was a stepping-stone that led her straight into working with fine metals. While grills were never a main focus for Helfer, Sindler was always interested in creating wearable, teeth-clenching art pieces.

Sindler is completely self-reliant now, working in her own studio and being able to use her own means to craft the pieces. Once starting at Helfer’s shop doing polishing and casting, she can say this gave her the entryway into some of the deeper formalities of independent metalworking through more intricate custom pieces.

“I had been working there for about six years, and I just needed more space in my brain to really have an ability to design what I wanted for RELD,” Sindler said. “I felt like I learned a ton there, but I wasn’t going to be helping myself if I stayed.”

While it was a completely undetermined future for Sindler, taking that first initial leap has now given her the confidence to survive off her own brand and style.

“It was a risky decision to just stop working entirely and focus on myself, but I don’t regret leaving either,” Sindler said.

Nowadays, a grill, or metal being formed over the teeth, might seem like a normal attachment in the performance world and now are often times a symbol of status or style. Sindler is able to see mouth pieces in a different light which led her to begin working with them for anyone who wanted some glimmer in their smile.

“I’m obsessed with people’s perceived notions of beauty, self-image and confidence and what that means in an outward appearance or how they are expressing themselves,” Sindler said.

It comes back to the root of the materials she works with and how Sindler is able to become fascinated with the creation behind gold and silver.

“I think I like grills and am drawn to making grills so much because it sort of exemplifies those flaws in a way that’s almost encasing them in gold or beautiful metals because socially, we present ourselves on media in a different way than how we feel about ourselves so it’s a conversation about that,” Sindler said.

It was through this connection that pushed her to pursue a career in the arts, having the unique ability to work with gold, silver, diamonds and pearls rather than paint brushes and easels. One of Sindler’s works was a “Mid-Length Rhinestone Wig” that was comprised with rhinestone strands wire wrapped to fit a steel armature of metal framework which can be custom fit for and worn for $1,100 as a practical, but also peculiar piece.

In the form of competition, Sindler explains that storefronts and independent artists almost always have an entirely separate level of clientele which creates a healthier community than it does any sense of rivalry.

“Our markets are pretty different where they have a history, my client base tends to be more performers like DJs, rappers, the musician type,” Sindler explained. “I do custom jewelry apart from making grills, and some of my clients give me free reign of all creative decision making, so that is always more exciting.”

One of Sindler’s recent pieces was actually a gift to Paulson, it is a sterling silver grill with two hearts shaped out that is similar to her “Butterfly Cut-Out Grill” listed on her website (http://www.kingreld.com/) for $220. Many of the prices for silver and gold are much cheaper and affordable than what would be thought for a precious metal. The custom work of being fit to an exact copy of impressions for caps or grills is exactly what Sindler wanted to do.

Sindler is always trying to incorporate a person’s love and personality into the pieces that she develops. One of her newest commissions comes from a customer that loves rabbits, so Sindler is trying to figure out ways to put new spins on her craft.

“I’m working on a human collar that’s white gold sheet, with little hinges on the side,” Sindler said. “It has these pink settings with pink sapphires and white rabbit fur fluffs set behind the stone. Then [a] decorative pink gold cable chain that comes out to $3,500.”

As for exciting work, Sindler is able to craft some incredibly twisted works like pearl wig caps and ideas that shift on the bodily functions. Things like snot and boogers which are often disgusting can become unique designs for Sindler’s brand KING RELD to run with. Her webstore (http://www.kingreld.com/) contains a plethora of ready to order materials like her “Blood Drips Nose Cuff” that is made with silver filled wire that hugs the bridge of the nose for $130 and hangs over the bridge of the nose down to right above the lips. Then, a sterling, Figaro chain (popular Italian style of chain) is attached next to each tear duct and dangles a pear-shaped imitation garnet set in sterling silver cinch bezels.

“My friend Mike, who is in a band, had a prosthetic eye, and they wanted a fancy eye [when] being on stage,” Sindler said. “I molded an eyeball, then cut that in half in the wax, hollowed that out so it was like two shells, then set a tiger’s eye piece and soldered the two back together.”

It frequently comes back to how Sindler wants to create not only intricate and unique beauty from the wearable art she makes, but then also remind the client that it goes deeper than just the material worth.

“I always want to invoke power and confidence in the pieces I make and for the people wearing it,” she said.

It may come off as strange, or even downright experimental, but to Sindler, her artistry is a fresh take on the idea of crafting new styles with old materials. Just when gold seems to become an old resource, jewelers and artists are able to reshape the metal into what beauty can truly be. Everything from grills to nails, from lips to glasses can be found under Sindler’s hand where even her grills are more medieval and whimsical than anything in a natural setting.

The “Marischa Grill” on her webstore is a sterling fang tooth grill that outlines six teeth with a genuine blue sapphire set on the middle tooth with a dangling cubic zirconia set in sterling silver cinch bezel for $260. A long sterling chain is then attached to either side and secured with a big sterling silver hoop that dangles a pear-shaped imitation sapphire set. Another is her “Tusks Grill” which uses cow bone that is formed to fit like walrus tusks in bezels that is connected directly to the grill for $760.

“What I usually make is more crazy stuff that I sometimes think will never sell, but I make it anyway and those pieces are great because they can open the doors to getting into shows,” Sindler said. “It’s funny because word of mouth is the best thing for me, and it relates perfectly to grills.”

Burton, 24, North Side leads more of an underground approach to the creation of his work that started with clothing drops on shirts and jackets. Now, he is creating jewelry that brand his logo Désir on pendants and rings instead of cotton and fleece. Even as his career is just budding, Burton is immersed with his passion and deliberately makes a point that he wants to learn every step of the operations. He starts from what materials to use all the way up to how to market the pieces as approachable.

Désir had it first drop of clothing three or four years ago but began to gain traction around Pittsburgh when he created hoodies, shirts and stickers with a smiley face wrapped in barbed wire that were seen around local venues and on performers in the city.

“At first, I was just making clothing to make it and then gradually people wanted some too, so I didn’t really know that people were willing to put the money up to actually buy the

pieces,” Burton said. “I am just trying to put out this message of affordable luxury that’s made well and priced well, but I am still very early on in my career.”

As he transitions into silver, his sterling pendants were one of the first designs that Burton had for the public for $100 and came as a .925 sterling silver pendant that was “about the size of a quarter” as listed on his website (https://www.desir.us/product/sterling-pendant). The pendant has depth to it as the letters are stacked on top of each other through 3D layering done in Cinema 4D on the computer, then shipped out to a jeweler to become physical.

“I am just about making these things tangible at the end of the day,” Burton said. “As of right now, I just design the material I don’t actually craft each piece, eventually I would like to be able to learn the process and [that] all comes through research.”

Burton is taking an indirect step to lay the groundwork down for a promising return with an innovative attitude. While he may not be on the same level as Sindler or have nearly the same experience as Helfer, he has the vigor to be a one-man creation crew. While clothing is his main hustle, Burton is determined to begin making the transition into other mediums like furniture and jewelry as a full-time part of his future collections. Many of his designs and necklaces can be seen around the city at skateparks and in music venues, while his art has just recently been featured with Boom Concepts for the Side Wall Project.

“I wanna do it, so I do it,” Burton said. “I like it, so I’m gonna make it. I’m not very structured, so the only structure is what I create and at least the promise is there. It might just come with the upbringing, sometimes ends meet and they have to meet.”

Helfer, 63, Downtown, started as a regular jewelry maker after taking over his grandfather’s business, but eventually found himself in the mentor role with Sindler. Now, he has transitioned into being a business figure for Curtis and Paulson as their jewelry careers begin to develop.

“Sometimes there is no difference between brick and mortars versus independents, we both share private customers that will come specifically to those people to get their items,” Helfer said. “It comes down to technique where they work in different forms.”

Where those physical stores can acquire clientele is through their history and expertise in a niche style of work. Now that independents like Sindler are popping up around the city, there is more of a balance to the market for finding artists that can fit that desire.

“A lot of these independents like Sarah [Sindler] do other niche items, I would have no idea where to even start on how to do a grill,” Helfer said. “We all work together, it’s a community effort.”

In this shapeshifting community that has the ability to change frequently, Helfer is able to stay afloat in business by having a continuous client base that come to him directly for services that independents may not offer and vice versa. Where 23 floors of jewelers once operated and did business, now only 13 storefronts remain through the consistent changes in brick and mortar business in Pittsburgh.

“Everybody that works for me, does their own thing and they are all independent artists,” Helfer said. “They might not be at the point where they are fully supportive of themselves to the point like Sarah [Sindler], but they are working toward that with each piece they create.”

Community seems to be the way that Helfer has been able to have such success over the years as he can orchestrate work from other surrounding artists.

“Everybody thrives from everybody else; we all work around and it creates an economy to work with,” he said.

Another veteran of Helfer’s shop, Curtis works with leather to create her artistry and while jewelry was her beginning focus, she is now able to adopt to a new medium while in the same vein of wearable crafts.

“I was able to become a part of the jewelry making community because of the other people that I knew who were jewelers, and they shared their trade with me,” Curtis said. “I wanted to make myself a pair of bootstraps that no one else had, and I asked to borrow some things from a close friend and she gave me a handful of supplies and immediately just took to leather making.”

Leather crafting has been evident in human history, originally starting with hide work on the creation of scraping animal hides and processing those scrapings into leather through tanning, a process that makes the hide more durable and less susceptible to any decomposition or coloration. Curtis had always wanted to learn the steps to crafting with leather but uses pressure as a direct motivating factor to begin.

“I had already been making things but I didn’t have an inventory or a name, but I wanted to do it,” Curtis said. “I signed up to vend [at an] event and I think it was about three months before the event, but I was mentally freaking out.”

While Curtis had practically nothing from the start of it, she was able to start something that went from a hobby to a practical job.

“That pressure was rough, but I felt like it helped me light the fire and get everything started,” she said.

Even though it is a practice that has historical use, the idea of working with leather can appear foreign when looking at metal casting to then transition into working with animal hide. Curtis explains that the process is much closer and can be more rewarding if done correctly. Curtis’s brand Death Rattle Jewelry Company specializes in forming everything from metal molds of bat boot charms for $80 to punk-esque oxblood cuffs with metal studs that stepped freshly out of a Motörhead video for $100.

“It is different, but I like to incorporate things from my casting world into my leather work too,” Curtis said. “Many of the pieces that I make are multi-mediums and there is something about it that doesn’t require waiting.”

While Helfer was able to lend a supportive hand to many of the independent crafters that also work under his roof, Paulson originally found the jewelry process after creating her own work and finding a lane to sell and operate her own brand through. With a large collection of her pieces being costume pieces that were mainly used for theater performances with pendants and necklaces ranging from $30 to $40.

“As I really started getting going with making more pieces, I started making pieces that I would just wear for solely myself,” Paulson said. “I was speaking with the owner of a local shop called Three Pigs and the owner loved my work and wanted to wear them for herself.”

Three Pigs was an opening catalyst for Paulson, but she eventually found herself interning with Sindler and refining a craft that engaged to fit a more niche style through more intricate and detailed art forms.

“I started interning with Sarah [Sindler] because I saw she was doing what I really wanted to do, and she was doing something entirely different and unique,” Paulson said.

“Everybody has their own distinct style and many people try to support each other in it, and her grill work was something that I really gravitated towards.”

Paulson’s first moments in jewelry were taking the different markets and trying to spawn a new form of hands-on marketing and selling towards the business aspect of art. Like all of the other artists, they cite Helfer as a wealth of information that gradually grew into the basis of entrepreneurship and formation of authenticity.

“I think what’s really helpful working with Ira [Helfer] is that I get a mass of knowledge in these things I wouldn’t know before, I would still be working in cold connection jewelry without a solder if it wasn’t for him,” Paulson said. “I think it just adds more benefits if you are trying to start your own thing and it helps legitimizes you and your work.”

There is a side to Paulson that has taken inspiration from Helfer and Sindler that slowly inches her closer and closer toward marketability within a continually shifting and redefining marketplace. Where jewelry making is never going to stop and new techniques will be introduced as time continues, Paulson sees Pittsburgh as a discernible marketplace even if that could not be the case in the future.

“There are now different markets like Hand Made Arcade every year or the Babyland Holiday Sale, there are more vending events that are creating in Pittsburgh as gateways for people to sell,” Paulson said. “I don’t see Pittsburgh as a sustainable market and I think the hardest thing could be selling fine pieces where people like it, but don’t appreciate it.”

Sarah Sindler, wearing a wig of pearls and silver
Marischa Grill
Tusks Grill
Naomi Curtis, David L. Helfer Jewelers, Downtown

Boot charms that were hand crafted and personalized by Naomi Curtis.

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