In South Philly, a new 'Jewelers Row'

Five jewelers all share a studio in the Bok building, as a collaborative new jewelry collective. From left to right Melanie Bilenker, Leslie Boyd, Mallory Weston, Emily Cobb, and Maria Eife gather in their work space in Philadelphia PA on January 27, 2017. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

A couple of miles south of the preservation battle roiling over Philadelphia’s blocklong Jewelers Row, a new and even more compact nexus of jewelry-making is emerging.

It’s just 700 square feet, to be precise.

It’s called the JV Collective -- a small studio in the Bok Building that’s home to five up-and-coming jewelry designers, each putting out striking, often envelope-pushing collections in materials ranging from the familiar (gold, bronze) to the obscure (rope, nylon, human hair).

The five women, who all live in South Philadelphia, came together as a matter of pragmatism: They can share costs, as well as necessities like a drill press, a torch, and a photo studio to document their work.

They don’t always cross paths in the space. “We’re all doing the art hustle quite a bit,” said Leslie Boyd. That means teaching college courses, creating works for gallery shows (three are represented by the Sienna Gallery, in Lenox, Mass.), toiling at day jobs for fine jewelers in the city, or making small production lines to sell at craft shows, boutiques, or online.

But, along the way, they’ve developed a community -- and maybe even a critical mass for this city’s new jewelry scene. Here, meet the JV squad.

Camera icon MELANIE BILENKER 
A series of four brooches made of hair on paper, framed in gold and pressed behind crystal.

Melanie Bilenker

To the naked eye, Melanie Bilenker’s pendants and brooches look like tiny, precise line drawings preserved behind glass. Squint through a jeweler’s loupe, though, and you can discern that each line is made from hundreds of tiny snippets of hair. Yes, Bilenker is one of the few modern practitioners of hairwork, a practice that had its heyday in the Victorian era.

“I’m a sentimentalist,” said Bilenker, 38. “The thing with hair is, if you have a photo of someone, it’s a representation of them. If you have a lock of hair, it’s actually a piece of them.”

She works from sketches, each  based on a photo or series of photos depicting candid moments of everyday life. When she started this body of work, she trapped the hair in layers of resin. Now, she uses tweezers and a fine knife to glue each piece of hair onto paper, pressing the finished work behind a watch crystal.

She’s made self-portraits with her own hair (using coarse, dark hairs from the crown of her head for thick lines and fine strands from her temples for lighter strokes). She’s made cat drawings with her cat’s hair. She does commissions, using hair submitted by strangers that arrives at her house by mail.

“Some people have a serious ick factor with hair,” she said. To her, “It feels nice to be trusted with something so intimate.”

Camera icon EMILY COBB 
Mirrored Giraffe neckpiece, made of 3D-printed and dyed nylon with hand-applied gold-leaf finish.

Emily Cobb

Recently, Emily Cobb has been spending her days sifting through the library of the Wagner Institute, where she has a fellowship. She hunts for inspiration and makes sketches from the historic collection of biology illustrations. Then, she time-travels forward from the 19th century to the 21st, and uses a computer-assisted design program to spin those ideas into large, sculptural jewelry pieces -- a mix of animal images and abstractions -- that are 3D-printed in semi-rigid nylon. Finally, she finishes the works using traditional materials and techniques: patches of gold leaf to represent the splotchy skin of a giraffe, or cast silver for the beak of a dove.

Cobb, 29, likes straddling the two modes of working.

“The reason I became a jeweler is because I loved metal. It makes anything you put it in feel special and precious,” she said. But in her computer-based work, she finds room to innovate, as in a necklace shaped like a coiled snake, each scale defined and separated as though floating. “It’s meant to look as if it will crack apart, but there is a hidden structure inside. That’s what I love about CAD: You can do this architectural way of building things.”

Camera icon Ian Shiver 
Snakeskin Disco Ball by Mallory Weston, made with hand-stitched gold-plated brass, copper, leather and Styrofoam.

Mallory Weston

For Mallory Weston, 30, making jewelry has been a lifelong impulse. “Ever since middle and high school, I would do macramé and make things like that almost obsessively. I got a job at a bead shop in high school,” she said. She went to the University of the Arts intending to study glassblowing. But when she took a jewelry class, she knew she’d found her calling.

Her pieces these days are often outrageous, oversized statements -- like a series of large-scale bows covered with rhodium-plated pins, in shapes like peace signs and marijuana leaves. “It’s an exploration of the life of symbols and how they move into popularity, become commercialized, and then fade into obscurity,” she said.

On a recent morning, she was stitching together a piece that straddles jewelry and embroidery: a smiley face of anodized titanium, cut into a mosaic and then stitched back together. Other times, she’s used the same technique to make fragments of metal look like snakeskin or a braid of hair. It would be kitschy if it weren’t so meticulously crafted. “It’s metal but it moves like fabric,” she said. “That movement is really something that is important to me in my work.”

Camera icon Maria Eife 
Earrings made of 3D-printed and dyed nylon.

Maria Eife

Maria Eife’s jewelry often looks like complicated geometric puzzles: earrings made of 3D-printed nylon structures that are then dyed and pierced through with sterling silver posts, or necklaces of seamless, 3D-printed links that are intertwined at their inception, then paired with semiprecious beads. Eife, 39, started designing this work on a computer program before she ever had access to a 3D printer.

Now, she prints bangles in complicated loops of mesh, and creates architectural rings of gold and silver. These works are designed to be bold -- but also affordable and wearable, topping out at around $360.

Recently, though, Eife found herself reaching for a coil of wire and producing a prototype of work that would be handmade from start to finish. “It’s called Lady Links,” Eife said, holding up a chain. “It’s different shapes of boobs and butts and bellies.” Part of the proceeds will go to Planned Parenthood.

Camera icon Leslie Boyd
Wisdom Teeth necklaces by Leslie Boyd

Leslie Boyd

It’s difficult to categorize Leslie Boyd’s body of work, because it ranges from sweet-and-simple creations (small geometric earrings), to statement pieces (big, chunky necklaces made of rope and cast copper) and what you could call overstatement pieces (a phallus-shaped, gold-tone pendant on a crotch-length chain). Boyd sums it up: “My work is rooted conceptually in gender politics,” she said. But at the same time, “I’m a very old-school, handcraft person.”

Boyd, 29, studied sculpture in college. But, she said, “When I took that first jewelry class, and I figured out I could take a sheet of metal and do anything with it, that was inspiring.”

Now, she makes an affordable line of simple pieces she calls Voyd Handmade (find it at Cactus Collective on Fourth Street in Philadelphia, or on Etsy). And, she produces one-of-a-kind pieces, like the new rope series, made with nylon rope and pieces of copper that are cast into ropelike shapes, then oxidized or powder-coated for a pop of color. These are, in a way, meditations on the nature and value of jewelry itself.

She’s recently been contemplating a new line, inspired by the Trumps. “Historically, the first lady wears costume jewelry to show she is a person of the people,” she said. Melania Trump hasn’t always taken that approach. Boyd is not sure what that collection will look like yet. But, she said, “It feels important to channel political and social justice initiatives into this work.”