If you like jewelry, walking around the CADAR offices is a bit like finding your way home. It’s a large room with two plush couches in the middle, a cluster of employees who thoughtfully take your coat and direct you towards beautifully designed gold and silver pieces that sparkle, glimmer and glow. People arrive in a cluster, and as we gather around the couches, Jean Poh, CEO of CADAR, draped in black diamonds and heart shaped earrings encourages us to try on the jewelry. I want to say we hesitate but we don’t. We–a gathering of ten people pulled together for Modern Micrographia–lunge…Why?
This is part of the reason I have asked Jean and Alex Poh, siblings and fourth-generation jewelry makers and sellers, to join us to talk about jewelry. I want to know why we value it, how to understand its value and how it both brings and creates meaning. I ask Jean because I have known her for over a decade since she quit a corporate law career to take blacksmithing classes in Seattle. Since then, I have watched both she and Alex step further and further into jewelry making and the jewelry industry.
“It started when we were children,” Jean shared with the group gathered around her. We sit rapt as Jean, dressed in black with blood red lipstick, explains that “her father was a jeweler and they would scrape up the tiny slivers of diamonds that would fall when he would make pieces.” Their father was the craftsperson for pieces that have adorned celebrities, icons and royals.
“I used to take pieces in brown paper bags when I was like five or six years old and walk from my father’s showroom to celebrity offices,” shared Alex. Like Jean, he is ebullient, cool, and has coal black eyes that connect with the watchers in the room. “Those pieces must have been worth $50,000 even $100,000 and he just sent us off with them. I’d get a little signature and then come back. Maybe he’d give me a dollar to get a snack.”
Those formative experiences never really left. Even though Jean went to be a lawyer and Alex got a degree in finance. They just couldn’t shake the bug associated with advocating for and creating beautiful things.
“There is something for me in the craft of it,” shares Jean. “There are people who are spending hundreds of hours to make a piece. And thousands of hours learning to work with the metals, understanding jewels and then designing pieces. The time, and the people and the care are what make the pieces so beautiful to me. It is that time that gives them their value.”
She takes out a piece of CADAR jewelry and shows us how the bracelet is actually a woven series of loops that create a chainmail backing. But, also how every spoke nestled it the chainmail holds a tiny diamond.
“The crafting of each of these loops is a very fine process,” shares Alex. He does not work at, or for Cadar, but instead is an independent jeweler who creates bespoke jewelry. He crafts work he dreams of, sketches, builds and refines. “To make a piece like that could take hundreds of hours. But, it’s not even just that. It’s the skill required to create those pieces that is so precise.”
Alex goes on to tell us that the craft of jewelry making is dying out in some places in part because very nimble hands are required to make things that small. And, that dexterity comes often from the skills we learn at an early age, particularly penmanship. So, it is both time and skill and learned craft that give the pieces value - all things born not out of the beauty of an object itself but rather the human effort that goes into making the pieces.
“For me that is what is meaningful about anything,” Alex shares. “It is up to each person to figure out what they find meaningful and then to create that meaning themselves. That is how I feel about making jewelry. Creating it fuels me. It gives me meaning.”
The room responds deeply to this. There are artists in attendance, craftsmen, painters and creators. They nod their jewelry bedecked heads as he speaks.
For Jean, not a jeweler but a CEO, her sense of meaning comes from sharing the work of craftsmen around her. “When I tell the story, and share the work, I feel a deep sense of meaning. I want to help people see and explore the art of jewelry and to understand and feel its value.”
The room responds deeply to this too. In both the work we do and the work we do in advocating for others who are doing their work, we can derive meaning. But, it is up to us to decide where to spend our time and our energy.