Tue. Jun 6th, 2023

Fiber artist Windy Chien and Cast jewelry co-founder Rachel Skelly both discovered their artistic passions by reconnecting with things they loved in their youth. And they’ve now joined those two passions with a fine jewelry collaboration: Knot Life. It’s a stunning reimagination of Chien’s knots as fine jewelry.

From Aquarius To Apple To Knots

After owning one of the coolest record stores in San Francisco (Aquarius Records) for 14 years, Chien spent a decade working at Apple. Those are two extraordinary careers that anyone would be proud to accomplish in a lifetime. But Chien still had (at least) one act to go.

In 2013 when she was 46, she realized she’d spent her entire career supporting other peoples’ creativity, but she wanted to create something with her own hands—though she didn’t know what. So she left a coveted position with iTunes and embarked on a quest to find her creative calling.

She took about a dozen classes: ceramics, wood carving, stone carving and interior design. But it was a refresher in macrame—she had made plant hangars with her mother in the ‘70s—that clicked. “Within five minutes of the repetitive motion of knotting, I fell instantly back in love with it.”

In 2016 she challenged herself to make a different knot every day of the year and in 2019 published “The Year of Knots.”

From Vitamins To Fine Jewelry

Skelly spent her career as a graphic designer at companies from Starbucks to Old Navy, and most recently she was Vice President and Creative Director at Olly Vitamins. An impressive resume for sure, but like Chien, Skelly was looking for the next thing, and she wanted it to be creative.

So when her friend turned co-founder Eric Ryan (who also founded Olly) brought the idea of a unique new jewelry brand to Skelly, “My brain just kind of exploded because as a designer and an artist that is such a zone of something that I love,” she said. In high school she was obsessed with rings and wore one on every available finger and knuckle.

They Ryan and Skelly co-founded Cast in 2021, and the brand’s bold, unique, and colorful designs quickly garnered loads of press and a devoted customer base.

Tying precious metals in knots

Chien and Skelly’s collaboration is a collection of necklaces and earrings that render Chien’s knots in silver and gold. The stunning Artist Knot Pendant in gold ($3,900), features gold mesh knotted round a ring of charcoal jade. The collection also includes a silver version ($1,450), plus a smaller knot loop pendant and earrings which both also come in silver or gold.

I caught up with Chien and Skelly on Zoom to learn more about the collaboration, read on for the interview!

How did you guys meet, and how did this collaboration come about?

Skelly: “Windy worked with my husband many years ago and so I’ve had the privilege of following her artistic career and her foray into knots and have watched in awe from a close distance.

In the early, early days of Cast when I was just starting out and coming up with this concept that I wanted to always be collaborating with different designers and artists, I knew that at some point I wanted to work with an artist that didn’t have a background in jewelry. And I also knew that I really wanted to do something really unique in the world of knots because they are so timeless.

And of course Windy and her work are so inspiring. So I always had in the back of my mind like, oh man, I wanna collaborate with Windy one of these days.

So eventually, when we were ready, I reached out and Windy and she was so excited and willing to join our collective and dive in on this. It has been such a fun journey.”

Windy, what interested you in this collaboration?

Chien:For me, much of my work is about elevating knots. There are more than 4,000 knots in the world; most of them were invented by sailors. We think of them—if we even think about them at all—as these functional objects. Each one was invented to do one thing and to do it perfectly.

Everyone’s a knotter, but we don’t think twice about it. We take them for granted, but everyone ties their shoes in the morning. I think of a knot as a beautiful, exquisitely-designed object. And the journey of the rope, or the line, as we call it, is unique in each knot. And so what I’ve done with my art is to make knots at massive scale in order to really draw the viewer in and notice the beauty and the design and the ingenuity behind each one.

When Rachel approached me about translating that into jewelry, I thought, my God—I mean the goal is the same here, right? To really draw the viewer in and appreciate it. And the tools with which Cast achieves that are precious metal and precious stones, and this exquisite beauty that, as Rachel pointed out, people can wear and really make a part of their body.

So even though our methods are different, the goal is the same. So it just made so much sense to do this as a collaboration.”

Is each piece made from a cast? Or are they actually knotted?

Skelly: “Windy hand knotted the two pendants made with the charcoal jade ring. We sourced all of these different thicknesses of this Italian mesh wire of 14 karat gold and the sterling silver. And Windy got to work playing and she hand-knotted. Around those jade rings to figure out which gauge was just that perfect one that really was able to emulate her knot.

Watching her bending this metal mesh wire was such a thrill—we weren’t sure if it was going to work. We were like God, could we make this mesh behave like Windy’s cordage and ropes? And she was able to do it, which is amazing.”

Chien: “Yes, I hand-knotted at all of the prototypes. You know, much of the work of knotters worldwide is about finding the right diameter of cordage to wrap around whatever size of the object that you’re looking to bind or protect. So it was a process of experimentation to find just the right proportions that really screamed ‘beautiful.’ So once we found that, Cast has these amazing artisans all over the world, and they are doing the knotting now.

And I have to say the fact that they’re doing the knotting gives me so much joy because it also plays into the centuries-old tradition of craft being handed down generation by generation. I think a lot about craft versus art, and craft and art, and so in the case of the jewelry pieces, the fact that these super skilled artisans are taking a knot that I happen to love and they have perfected it too just really makes sense.”

Skelly: “To speak to the other pieces in the collection, once we landed that hero piece that was hand knotted, then we got to work trying to figure out how do play with scale?

Obviously we can’t knot a metal like that in a tinier micro view, so we started working on innovating and working on how to cast a form that can also emulate that feel of her soft wire and that cordage. So the more petite pieces in the collection—there’s a silver pendant of gold pendant, and then there’s a silver wrinkled earring—those are a two-part cast construction.

There’s a satin finish and a high polished finish, and we did that to emulate the soft nature of the knotting and then this sort of hard and shiny, luxurious nature of that ring. It’s a really fun collection because there are multiple techniques that we’re using in jewelry to try to emulate and get those visuals across. It was a really fun and challenging journey, and a really exciting one for I think us both. I think we learned a ton.”

What was the most challenging part of translating your knots into jewelry?

Chien: “Well, I’m not a jeweler. I don’t have those skills. With that being said, even though I make fine art, I always have the approach of the crafts person. Craft people have a fidelity to their materials—we start with the materials and develop total fluency in the materials—what they will do, what they won’t do, what they want to do, that kind of thing.

And so because I didn’t have a fluency in how precious metals work, it was such a learning experience for me. But Rachel and her team would had all of this expertise and were able to very quickly educate me as to like how these materials work.

When Rachel says this was like a meeting of minds and a true collaboration, it truly was because I had about half the skills here and together we sort of created the whole.”

What’s next? For how long will the collection be available, and will you be creating more knot designs?

Skelly: “We don’t have an end in site. At Cast we’re big on bringing in new drops and building on collections. So we haven’t fully determined our plans this collection but I hope to keep working with Windy and doing more amazing things with her.”

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