Ampersand Woman: Jewelry Designer Erica Weiner
July 31, 2014 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
It’s fair to say that the art of being self-taught is in Erica Weiner’s blood. The NYC-based jewelry designer (and this week’s Ampersand Woman) comes from a long line of DIY types who have sewn fur coats, hauled ice, and hocked candy for a living. Her maternal grandmother, born just down the street from Erica’s Lower East Side storefront, supported her children by learning stenography from a textbook. Following in her scrappy footsteps, Erica picked up jewelry design on a whim while working at an unfulfilling job.
Eight years later, she’s on her way to creating a bauble empire with offerings like vintage-inspired pendants and eye-catching engagement rings. Erica’s pieces are reminiscent of something in your grandmother’s jewelry box, but they’re decidedly modern, too. (You’ll never have to worry about looking costume-y while wearing her goods.) We caught up with her at her Greenpoint studio, where she slipped into the Sarah and the Eliza, and chatted with us about how her creative outlet became her business.
Being a boss in the Sarah.
How did you end up becoming a jewelry designer?
Meanderingly! It was never part of any master plan. I love working with my hands, and I made a few necklaces—with no intention of ever selling them—to work out some misery I was experiencing at a crappy job. Some friends saw my creations and freaked out over them, so I signed up for a craft fair in Philadelphia and sold almost everything I’d brought. That was in 2006. It’s been a slow progression since then. Now, eight years later, we have a website, two retail stores, a collection of antiques, and a fine jewelry collection. Everything has been an experiment.
Why are you drawn to the vintage aesthetic?
I love anything that feels like it has a story behind it. I was an art history major at Vassar, and spent my early twenties reproducing and repairing vintage costumes for the theater. It involved sourcing a lot of period-specific findings, which I was good at because I enjoyed the hunt so much. The vernacular and day-to-day trappings of the past speak to me, because I can imagine myself living in another era. I think that a lot of people feel this way, or at the very least, our customers do.
Any favorite styles right now?
The collection is a living, breathing entity—it’s constantly evolving, on an almost-weekly basis. I’m excited about our new Horseshoe Necklace, which is going to be part of our fine jewelry collection, 1909. We’re also working on some antique-inspired pieces for our “original” collection—i.e. the lower-priced assortment. We’re going to do some of our own intaglio necklaces and signet rings. We recently released two summer-y styles: a brass men’s ring that doubles as a bottle opener, and a cuff cast from braided gimp. (Remember that stuff from Girl Scouts?)
What lessons have you learned since starting your own business?
The hardest part of the job I have now—by far—is running a staff of people. We have a really incredible team here at EWJ and on my worst days, I worry that the brilliant women who work for me will look at my work style and decisions and think I’m a lazy leader. Because of that, I used to get down in the trenches, do everything, and work twice as hard as everyone else. Then I had to remind myself I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by doing everything.
I’ve made mistakes, but it’s been a learning experience. Also, the lesson of producing anything: Do your thing, get it out there, and then refine—a lot! The first stuff you make might be dumb, it might suck; but just forget it happened and keep going.
Anything you wish you’d known when you first started out?
Too many things to name. And there are probably some things that I have yet to learn. But honestly? The biggest thing I wish I’d known early on is to keep your finances organized.
Describe your work personality, in three words.
Casual, direct, and funny.
Best advice you ever got?
This is not quite advice, but more of an attitude. In my early 20s, I had a great boss named Jimm Halliday. I worked with him for two years and developed the sense of humor of a middle-aged gay man. He had a way of making me want to do really good work. He knew how to make me feel like I was invaluable. I’ve integrated a lot of the things I learned from Jimm into how I interact with my employees.
If you could have a power lunch with anybody, who would it be?
Dolly Parton. Watch Barbara Walters interviewing her in the ’70s and you’ll understand why.
Being able to support yourself with work that makes you feel creatively fulfilled.
Wait, we’re not finished yet! Check out Erica’s daily routine below (click here for a larger view):
– Interview by Maura Kutner Walters
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