New York-based artist, jeweler and metalsmith Gabriel Urist’s workplace in Brooklyn may seem quaint and unassuming at first glance, but it has served as the birthplace for many standout pieces seen in recent years. A born artist, Gabriel started to chase his dream of becoming a jeweler by learning metalsmithing. Jumping from job to job as a metal caster, polisher and working in platinum and gold supply houses, Gabriel slowly built up his skills creating jewelry for friends. Now with projects for Nike, Supreme, Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Kanye West and a bevy of NBA teams under his belt, Gabriel Urist’s extensive portfolio has made him one of the world’s most celebrated jewelry artist. We recently had the opportunity to visit Gabriel Urist’s studio to ask the artist about his design process, how he got into his craft, what influences him, and the current state of the industry.
What is a typical day like for you?
I wake up. I do whatever I want and have as much fun as I possibly can.
How did you get interested in design?
I had a book about Greek mythology when I was four. It was 1983. I loved the illustrations. It was around then I’d say that I got interested in design.
I’d also say that some of my work is never designed. Sometimes the work feels like it’s more than just “designed”.. Furthermore, Jewelry designs are often “designed” mostly by the person whom it’s for, in which case I add my input and my individual style. There’s a lot of freedom involved. That is how I got interested in design. I had a catering company when I was eleven called Gabe’s gourmet grub and I cooked all the food. I cooked a lot when I was a kid. That’s how I got into painting and making things. I have to make.
What lead you to jewelry crafting?
I made a necklace for my mom and it made me feel good. I wanted to be like my big brother. He made music. I wanted to make something too. I made paintings until I started metal. The metal was interesting. I like working with my hands.
What is the typical process for a piece?
Each one’s different. It’s usually something like, “Hey, I like what you do, could you do something for me?” or, “Hey, we like what you do, could you please do something completely different than what it is you do?”
Traditionally, there are two schools of thought: casting and fabrication. Casting is making sculptures that get turned into molds that can then be produced. Fabrication typically means making one of a kind pieces out of metal. With new tech like 3D printing, there are a hundred ways to make any given piece. I like to make original things — I don’t copy other designers’ work, I don’t copy my own work.
If I’m collaborating with a big brand like Supreme, I am contributing my aesthetic along with a knowledge of metalworking. Many designers don’t know how to make things, I can’t design something I don’t know how to make. We get on the same page about how the piece should look, feel and work and then I get busy creating the best version of my concept for them. I create a sample and then we refine it to perfection and produce it.
Is there a specific style of piece do you enjoy making the most?
I like making gifts. I like being able to capture something spiritual about human relationships, friendships, love. There’s something spiritual about the commitment my friends have for each other. I like being able to contribute something sentimental to peoples’ relationships. I like making beautiful pieces for the people I love. I love making engagement rings.
I think there’s something spiritual I’ve been trying to achieve/capture that comes from that Greek mythology book. Those artistic renderings rang spiritual to me.
“Copying is not only unethical, it’s also superficial. Copycats are the enemy of art.”
How does New York inform your craft?
I learn from other people. I like the different walks of life, the different strokes, and I also like architecture. I always wanted to be an architect when I was little. New York is my home. My family comes from here. There’s a subculture for just about anything anyone could be into in New York. If you’re passionate about something, and people can tell, they will want to help you grow. That’s something I love about New York.
Can you name any other influences on your craft?
Nature inspires me, the elements, etc.. The properties of metal, I study those. Also, when I was in high school and first exposed to metalsmithing, I told my parents that I wanted to combine the things I love: basketball, hip-hop, and metal work. those things influenced me a lot. My grandfather also influenced me. He was a rabbi in Brooklyn for 70 years, and a mason. His daughter is my Mom. My father is my Dad. They influence me a lot, to do good.
Over the years, what’s been the biggest shift in the industry you work?
Copycats. More and more people copy. The industry’s pretty weak as far as creative innovation. To a lot of jewelers the game is about mold making and copying. The technical side of the industry is growing every day, with new sciences and technologies and machines being introduced to the industry every day. It’s weird, there’s like an inverse relationship between capability and results. In spite of all the copying, I believe people will appreciate true creativity, freshness, and originality and the aesthetics that go beyond the surface. Copying is not only unethical, it’s also superficial. Copycats are the enemy of art.
You mentioned working with Wu-Tang and Supreme, who would you say makes up your clientele?
I would say that everyone has a little appreciation for jewelry and beautiful objects immortalized in precious metal and stone. I work a lot with my friends.
With custom orders does the customer come first or your personal vision?
What’s special is the relationship between those two things, the point where they come together. My personal vision is useless unless it connects with the customer.
What has been your favorite project so far?
I’m making a jewelry collection for hamilton, a show on broadway. I turned the characters into charms. My mother is a playwright and that project is really meaningful to me. It’s launching this February. I also started making my favorite sneakers into pendants back in 2003. Those might be my favorite projects. I also just made wedding rings for some of my favorite people.