Sometimes it’s the stone that inspires the piece, sometimes it’s the piece that inspires the stone.
I’ve always had an interest in design: clothing, jewelry, shoes, handbags. My mother was very creative and had a very beautiful sense of style and I always kind of looked at her as the icon. I went to UCLA, got a degree, and then I was in property management, nothing that had to do with design but I had an acquaintance who was a sales rep in the fashion business. I always had that in the back of my head that I wanted to be a sales rep, and she asked me one day, “Claudia, I like your sense of style, how would you like to work for me?” I went to work for her and I learned how to do sales. I repped clothing lines to smaller boutique stores. I loved it; it’s like Christmas every time you get a new collection. Unfortunately, you do get burned out in that industry and it was no longer a good fit. I was going through a lot of different changes in my life personally; my marriage wasn’t working out and I ended up working up with an AIDS research study at UCLA. It was an administrative position in the office. Coming out of an industry that focuses so much on what you look like... it doesn’t really get to the depth of people, because that’s not the business. But I think that working for AIDS research really brought me back to humanity. It was an amazing environment, and the people that we served; it really taught me a lot about human resilience, reading their medical records, reading about all the terrible times, pneumonia and having to go in and out of the hospital all the time… how are these men surviving this? And a lot of them weren’t.
At that time, I felt like I was going through a midlife crisis. I left my husband, I left my career, so now I’m here not knowing what’s next. Fortunately, because I was at UCLA I was able to take classes through their extension program. I took classes in drawing, writing for the media; I was in my 30s exploring everything all over again. Then I landed on a metalsmithing class through UCLA extension and I thought “Do I dare?” Because at the time, I had no money, I was completely in debt, and I had this idea that everything I did had to lead somewhere. It couldn’t just be for fun. So I thought maybe it could be a business. I took the class, fell in love with it, and started carving. Because I was by myself, at night I had plenty of time. I started making jewelry, carving waxes, soldering, on my dining room table which at that time was a piece of plywood because I didn’t have any furniture because I was getting divorced. So that’s how I started. My dad was a tool maker, very precise, and I think I’ve gotten a little bit of both of my parents. My work sort of reflects that: it’s very precise, it’s creative, and I think it’s elegant like my mom. I was going through a transition so I took my engagement ring and put it into a pendant and by doing that I felt I transformed the meaning of it into something that was “This is what I’m doing now,” instead of mourning. It kind of set the tone for everything else that came after.
I worked at UCLA four days a week, 40 hours. I started working for a jewelry designer in Seal Beach; she designed and created the pieces herself and she had her own store so I got the retail end of that experience. I joined trade organizations in the fine jewelry industry. This is about 25 years ago, so there was a lot of people in the industry who grew up in the industry. I’m coming out in the industry as an outsider and feeling very insecure about it and not knowing the lay of the land so I figured this was the best way to get to know more. Joining organizations, becoming involved, heading a Women’s Jewelry Association chapter here is Los Angeles, being on their board for 14 years, going to trade shows.
I had it in my mind that I was going to be the Tiffany & Company of modern jewelry design. Over the years, what happens is you discover what you’re good at and what you’re not good at and I found that what I enjoyed the most was working one-on-one with people and hearing their stories.
I had a very particular style in my mind already, so I didn’t really take any design classes. There was a student in class and she was German and she was making this napkin ring holder and I just fell in love with it. I loved the clean straight lines and how perfect it was. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I love that.” I loved the look of metal, and when you brush it you can see that grey or you can see that gold. I’m German, I grew up bicultural and it was very funny because when I entered the jewelry industry, I looked at a magazine and it said Pforzheim, that’s one of the big jewelry cities in Germany. I was looking through the magazine and I was like, “Oh my gosh. This looks like my work!” I had no idea how connected that was. I feel like it was innate.
It’s funny because I was a sales rep in the fashion industry and yet when you’re representing your own work, it’s a very different thing. It was hard to talk about, you get insecure about the work. I knew from very early on that my vision of what it looked like wasn’t going to be accepted in the mainstream. The style and the taste that people have was more blingy than what I was doing, which was very pared down and minimal and more metal-forward. I did shows here and there, you start off with your friends and their friends and you do home shows, you do neighborhood art shows and slowly but surely you build a client base, you keep their information, you build a website.
I had two jobs and the third one was building the collection and it took me several years. Also building my craft: I wanted to get better at what I do; you have to do it over and over again. Slowly but surely, I took studio classes, people helped get me my tools. My father bought me some tools, so I was very fortunate in that aspect. I met some great people who mentored me a little here and there along the way. Very slowly, very organically I tried selling through other retailers. That had its challenges; sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, sometimes my jewelry got stolen, sometimes it came back damaged. Or they would only do consignment… that’s a lot to fund for somebody who doesn’t have any backing. So it’s a very different approach than maybe some of my contemporaries; they had some money or they had some investors. I didn’t want that, I wanted to do it myself, and therefore it took a lot longer.
One of my best friends, he was getting married and asked me to make a platinum ring for him. What? I’d never worked in platinum, I didn’t know what to do, but he said, “I trust you.” It was his ring! Of course, you want it to be perfect. It was very early on and I was taking classes so I asked the teacher, “How do I get this made?” I asked my professor if I finish it the same way, because at the time I was working in silver and it was great because it’s not an expensive material and you can practice on that. I was learning how to finish the casting, bringing it to a high polish, using different grits of sandpaper to get it from rough to fine and then using the buffing machine. So what do I do with platinum, is platinum different? And they said, you can start off doing it yourself but you may need a professional to finish it for you. So I’m sitting there and it’s midnight after my day of work and I’m working on it and I’m like, “This looks horrible, it looks terrible...” I talked to my dad the next day about what I was going to do and he said, “Well, you could just melt the whole thing down,” and I said, “No, that’s not productive!” and he was like, “No, but it might make you feel better.” He understood because he was a tool and die maker so he had those moments, too. I got home and I looked at it again, and thought, “Wow, that actually looks really good!” Same piece. So what’s the lesson here? It’s what you are bringing to the table. Are you tired, are you exhausted? Step away, go for a walk, go meditate. Those are the lessons in growing up.
When I was looking to go to other schools to get a degree, a masters in fine art as a metalsmith, each school has a certain look to their bodies of work, and it didn’t resonate with me. I thought, “I already have a concept, why don’t I just do this? I have a concept in my head, let me get to know more of my craft so that I can drive the concept forward.” So that’s how I approached it. What I did was learn on my own what I needed at the time and then have mentors that helped me through it. I took metalsmithing classes, I took wax carving, casting, lapidary. I would take diamond grading and pearl grading classes so I knew a little bit more about the materials I was working with. I don’t have a bench jeweler’s degree or training; I have some training but I’m not a certified bench jeweler. But I work with bench jewelers and they finish my projects for me.
I will design it, I will carve the wax to a certain point, or now I work with 3D CAD/CAM people. I know enough to be able to communicate with the people that I need to communicate with. I know what goes into the stone setting; not everything, because each project is a learning experience. Especially if you’re going to do a custom piece. Stones already come cut and I’ve developed relationships with people downtown. I’ve gone to trade shows where it’s gemstones or minerals and they’re cut in various styles, you can buy them rough, you can buy them in any stage. And I’ve made relationships with certain cutters, like this cutter who did my engagement stone, he has a particular cut that he does that he invented. So that’s how we go about it. Sometimes it’s the stone that inspires the piece, sometimes it’s the piece that inspires the stone. And many times, it is the story of who is wearing it. Aside from doing the custom work, I also built my collection, my own body of work, which helps people draw inspiration when we work on their custom designs. There are a lot of designers out there that aren’t trained in metalsmith skills, either. They can assemble, they know how to cold-connect. They don’t need to solder, they can wire-wrap, they can put things together. I just think the field has opened up so much and the industry is more accessible and so varied in skill levels. You can hire out the parts you don’t know how to do.
I’ll share a story of a piece that I did with a client. He was celebrating 40 years at a company as a creative director and he asked me to create some designs for him that would reflect his legacy, something spacey, something out-of-this-world, he wanted to use materials that had that vibe, that was the concept. He wanted a brooch. I came up with four designs for him with that theme in mind and he chose one, which I made. He was really deliberating between two pieces, so he chose one for his celebration and had the back engraved and then this year he had me do the other one. This one was a design challenge for me, so I had to talk to several people. I had the sketch, then I would take measurements from the sketch and ask him if he feels right about this measurement. Then I would create a view of the piece not just from the front, but I would make a sketch from the side. It’s sort of a technical sketch with measurements; now, I didn’t know the measurements because I didn’t know how I was going to make the thing. Then I had to go talk to my jeweler and ask him, “How should I make this?” We needed to create a frame. I collaborated with my jeweler and the gemstone cutter to figure out how he was going to inlay this brooch with lapis and rainbow moonstone, and then we set in stones to give the illusion of stars. The lapis itself has speckles in it of another mineral called pyrite and creates the illusion of a sky with stars in it. The moonstone is offset, off the frame. I would collaborate with the gem cutter and the jeweler about how he’s going to assemble this. Then I made this bezel, I hand-carved the frame out of wax and then I bought tubing for these stones to create little cups, bezels, around the stones. I cut the tubing and I mapped it out on a piece of paper and I took a photo of it and I gave it to my jeweler with all the measurements to tell the cutter he needs to cut holes here, here, and here according to the map. This was a lot of back and forth: them telling me how thick I need to make it, me saying, “I want it his way and this way so how do we make this,” them telling me, “If we do it this way then this is going to happen.” So you learn with each piece. After I made the wax, the jeweler cast it in silver. I had the stone cutter cut the lapis for me, not set it yet, cut the holes. Then I brought it back to the jeweler, he set the stones into the tubes and adhered them into the lapis, had the moonstone set. The last thing that went in was the lapis and it went in from the back. You have to cut a shelf for I to sit on, like a frame with a little bit of a lip. Then it gets cleaned and polished. The pin in the back was probably laser-welded on which is also a technology that wasn’t available maybe 15, 20 years ago. All that equipment is very expensive and it lives with the jeweler. So it is a collaboration, I don’t do everything on my own.
[You can read more about the brooch process and see the finished product here.]
There are a lot of people downtown that are willing to help you and there are a lot of jewelers, but it’s better if you have an introduction. Because you don’t know who’s good, who’s not good… somebody could mess up your piece at the last stage by polishing it incorrectly and dulling an edge. I can ask my diamond dealer, “I need a new jeweler, where do I go?” or ask my gemstone dealer, “What jeweler do you recommend around here?” People you trust will give you those connections. I have hired people and then realized they weren’t very good at setting colored stones. And unfortunately I wasn’t really happy with the product and the client was someone I knew, so I told him, “I’m really sorry but I need to find a new person for you and I know it’s her birthday and you need to give her this ring. We have two options: you give her the ring as-is and I’ll have it reset, or you tell her to wait and you don’t have a gift or you can give her a picture of it.” And he said, “No, I’ll give it to her and then I’ll give it back to you.” Fortunately, he understood. What happened was I had to find a setter who knew how to set colored stones, which I didn’t know until I brought that guy a colored stone. Colored stones are softer than diamonds so sometimes people are afraid because they can break. The cuts on gemstones can vary more than the cuts on diamonds. Diamonds tend to be a little more regular, and they tend to be harder so there’s not as much worry. Some of the stones that you set – I always tell the client, “This is a high-risk stone and we use the best jewelers but I can’t take responsibility if this thing breaks.” I just make everybody aware ahead of time of what they’ve got. I have a setter now that is great, he sets million-dollar stones, so I’m perfectly happy.
Building relationships is very important. That’s why I end up working with the same people over and over, because it takes a long time to establish your language and their understanding of your work. My jeweler’s work is very traditional. It’s beautiful, he’s a master and he’s been doing this for 50 years. So you have to rely on their expertise to understand what I’m doing, and to be able to get across that I’m doing something that he may not ordinarily see as something that will look good. I’ll say, “Can you just do it? It’s an experiment,” and he’s like, “But Claudia, you need to do this instead…” and I’m like, “I know, but I know you’re going to make it look good.” He tries to teach me, too, on how I should carve things. So it’s good for me to ask him ahead of time, “I have this project, how should I go about it, what do you need? What tool do I need?” And he’ll say “You probably don’t have this tool because the way you did this didn’t work.” And I’ll say, “I don’t think I do, what do I need? Can you remake it for me?” He’s better at some things than I am… well, he’s better at all things than I am with regards to building it! But I still want to do some of the carving myself, especially the initial pieces. Even if it’s not the perfect end, it drives the concept. Like all experiments, sometimes they have to be made over and over again. They’re not always done first go-round. That’s why custom work can be expensive, it’s the time as well as the materials.
Sometimes I have a concept or design and I’ll take it to the 3D person with instructions for what I need, or a drawing and explain what the measurements are. Then he’ll print it out, the wax, and it’ll go through casting, it’ll get soldered together, assembled. Then the stone will get set, then it will get polished. It’s like Christmas every single time! That’s why I love it so much. You have something in your head and then it comes out and it’s shiny and polished and it’s beautiful. Last time I saw it, it was in wax, green wax or pink wax or whatever, and now it’s transformed. I’m fascinated by the whole science of it, and working with materials that the earth grew. There’s so much beauty in nature.
I get a lot of women coming in with similar stories: “I inherited this from my mom, I don’t know what to do with it, I’m thinking of a birthstone ring for myself because it’s got an emerald in it and emerald is my birthstone so how can we change this?” I ask questions and draw from them and it’s a very personalized experience. It’s very bespoke. I love their stories, I love for them to remember their loved ones. Sometimes the person still wants the flavor of what the old design looks like, and I work with them to figure out how this piece speaks to me and what they’re telling me about their parents or their mother or what’s important to them or how they remember her. So maybe we engrave a word or a saying or something inside or on the back to memorialize it or personalize it. I work with couples, too, to make their wedding jewelry. I just really love the way that I’m working now. It’s also great because it does give me some freedom. I don’t have a retail store where I have to be there a certain amount of hours; I’m by appointment. I have to mitigate my expectations, obviously… I don’t have clients coming into the store every day or looking around. However, I’m fine with that. I think I’m a little bit of an introvert so I’m fine working on my own.
Mostly people find me either through a referral, somebody that’s already worked with me before. Or they will look online for somebody who’s doing custom or redesign or repurposing. The idea of bespoke and custom work has become a little more popular than what it used to be when I started out. Also, the market has gotten a lot more full. I would say the jewelry market, since 25 years ago, there are a lot more people making, designing, creating jewelry. Technology, the ability to sell through marketplaces. I remember when we weren’t even selling through the internet. “Would you ever buy something on the internet? Would you buy a $5,000 piece online? I don’t think I would…” So that whole technology explosion makes it much more accessible and it makes it easier for people to create things and put them online, whether it’s through a platform like Etsy or some other platform. Because now there are a lot of e-tailers; you have Blue Nile selling diamonds through the internet. Diamonds and rings, build your own engagement ring, laboratory-grown diamonds… the field has gotten bigger and a lot more people in the business. As long as you have a good return policy, I think it makes people a little more comfortable. And also having an Instagram or social media site where you post things. And there are different aspects to the field: there’s costume jewelry, the semi-precious range, you’ve got fine jewelry, you’ve got fashion jewelry, you’ve got art jewelry, studio jewelry… and all the lines are getting blurred because the way that jewelry is being made is also changed through technology. Recognizing or creating a niche for yourself is super important.
Just recently I decided that life has been so unpredictable, I will maybe set several goals for the year and leave the rest to what I have energy for and what I really feel like I want to do now. That’s how I have to approach it. Last year I streamlined a bit more; I let my social media team go. I felt like social media is also a flooded marketplace with so much stimulation that to really have a presence, you have to be on there a lot more… it’s a full time job. And I think the ROI on it is not satisfying to me. It’s pressuring you to feed it. I’ve decided that I need to figure out what feeds me and then go from there so that I can do my best work for the people I need to do my work for. I’ve spent so much time trying, being wagged by the tail, everywhere, whether it’s selling through stores, trying to sell through internet platforms… I’m always trying something and sticking with it for a while to see how it works out. It turns out that in the end, I’ve landed in the place that I need to be.
Moving forward, I’d like to explore more creatively; I think I’d like to develop a figurative style that I feel represents me. I need to give more time to that. As far as where the business goes, I have a business consultant that I’ve worked with for the last five years and she’s helped me quite a bit. We’ll try one thing and focus on that and see what happens and I find that to be a good strategy because I get overwhelmed by too much input and focusing on too many different things. Then I tend to go in circles a little bit. It’s nice to have somebody to play off of a little bit or discuss where I am and what I’m thinking and how does that fit in. I’m not only designing jewelry, I’m designing my life and my lifestyle.
At some point, I decided that I didn’t really want to be the Tiffany & Company. Designing at every price point level – which I actually do – as one person it’s hard to keep your foot in everything so you have to streamline. You have to pick and choose what you can put your focus on. I’ve decided that where I’ve gone in the last few years is the custom work, the repurposing work, and the commitment-to-yourself idea. I created a series of rings for myself as a commitment to myself: to creativity, to personal growth, and to connection, connecting to the world around me and connecting to people and myself. Those are the main three values that keep me going and drive my business, so it doesn’t really matter to me how big I am. I like to connect with people and hopefully my work that I do with them connects them to the piece or to the memory they have.
I love what I do, I’m so grateful every single day for the leaning, for the clients that trust me, for the relationships I have. My husband says I make people cry in a good way. I just hope that I can do it for a long time. It’s been a long road, but that’s the point. It’s the path I’m on… enjoy the ride. I tell people to find the thing they like doing about their work and then to just do more of it and find somebody else to do the other parts. Even when I’m designing something by myself, a Claudia Endler Design collection piece, I still depend on an entire team to help fabricate it, so it’s not like I’m ever working on something truly alone. There’s always some kind of relationship or collaboration taking place within my work, whether I’m fulfilling a client’s vision or my own. Even if it’s my own concept, my own design from beginning to end, no input from anyone, I still need other people to help me make it. And I’m grateful for that.