When I turned eighteen, my grandmother, and my kindred spirit, gave me a necklace of hers – a fob chain, with a tiny shield pendant engraved with the letter ‘S’ that we both share as our first initial. It is this sentiment of genuine sincerity and unique stories that is imbued in each piece of jewellery that I keep. And, it is a sentiment I share with one downtown LA based jewellery designer, the inimitable Kathleen Whitaker.
After launching her eponymous brand in 2003, this label has come into its own, comprising a coveted classic line in 14-karat gold sharp shapes, and a newly released stone collection made of semi-precious stones. It was during her study of ceramics that cemented her magnetism to sculptural forms, and her designs remain considered, drawing upon a myriad of different references from Japanese design to Roman artifacts. You see, Kathleen has origins cataloging musicological archives; so it is no wonder that natural gemstones and precious metals speak to her in mysterious ways. Her pieces are as sensual and raw as they are edited and refined, and exist in a stark contrast between the organic and the geometric – this truly is the hallmark of the Kathleen Whitaker brand.
It is the brave souls, the genuine folk who encourage her, and travel remains her fuel and sustenance. Kathleen Whitaker is transparent and true, inspired to the core, and a true reflection of her designs, which for her reflect the meaningful, sentimental and generational power of jewellery and personal adornment. If these pieces are imbued with the intellect and integrity that Kathleen possesses, then they are sure to become an heirloom of exceptional value.
Sophie Flecknoe: Firstly, can you tell me a little about yourself? What are your earliest memories of jewellery?
Kathleen Whitaker: Jewellery in my family is meaningful, sentimental and usually inherited. Jewellery played the role of marking milestone events. I have a charm bracelet that includes charms for christenings, Christmases, a crawfish for when I moved to New Orleans. My sister wears our great aunt’s class ring from the University of Pennsylvania. She was one of the first women to graduate. Clearly, that ring’s value isn’t in its gold weight.
How did you begin your journey into jewellery design? Did you study?
I studied ceramics at college. Three-dimensional mediums have always resonated for me. Carving, shaping, moulding in clay is not dissimilar from doing so in wax.
Can you explain your practice? Do you do preliminary sketches before crafting your pieces or is it more intuitive than that?
Yes, I start with sketches – usually sparked by shape. For the pieces in the newly launched Stone Collection, the designs start with gemstones. Proportion and form are always centre stage.
What does jewellery mean to you? What do you believe it should mean for its wearer?
Material goods come and go. Wardrobe pieces and accessories wear and age. Jewellery does not. It can be enduring and lasting. It should last many seasons, decades, ideally several lifetimes.
Where do you source your materials?
I source from the downtown Los Angeles jewellery district, rich with skilled technicians and suppliers. I also attend many gem shows around the country.
Your designs seem to be from another era in their presence and refinement. For example, your brooches are so classic and a beautiful return of such adornment. To what era do you feel most connected?
Aesthetically, there is a confluence of sources that influences my taste and point of view. I’ve worked in the archaeological archives of the Museum of London cataloging vast, vast collections of Roman artifacts (excavated from the museum’s building site). At the same time, I love Japanese minimalism. The designs are a mash-up of these influences and more. But fundamentally, they aim to be quiet, strong, easy and wearable and modern.
Who are some of your heroes, fictional or otherwise?
I’m not an idealist. I’m a realist. I see bravery in anyone who is real and genuine at a time when authenticity is so scarce. Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Isabella Rossellini. The types that subscribe to a strict No Frontin’! policy.
Jewellery is so entwined with fashion and style. Who are some of your style icons or labels?
Again and again each season people like Phoebe Philo, Alber Elbaz, Dries Van Noten innovate and elevate within the boundary of their own individual, singular point of view. That is enviable.
Where do you draw inspiration?
I need travel to become inspired. There is no direct activity when traveling or a single place of influence. But breathing different air, looking at different currency, hearing a different language, standing in different architecture… Without fail that is a creatively nutritious endeavour for me.
Is travel a major component of what you do? Where is somewhere you dream of travelling? Or perhaps you have a trip on the horizon?
In June, I will go back east a bit and then to Europe. I will conclude my trip in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, at a vacation house that has been in the family for six generations.
Words: Sophie Flecknoe. Images courtesy of Kathleen Whitaker.