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Jessica Kagan Cushman creates a salty take on scrimshaw

Jeweler and designer Jessica Kagan Cushman grew up with design. Her father is illustrious modernist Vladimir Kagan, and her mother is renowned needlepointer Erica Wilson.  It’s no surprise to anyone but her that she spends her days making things people must have. She talked to HAND/EYE about her irreverent reinvention of a traditional craft.
 
H/E:  Did growing up with designer parents inspire you, or did it inspire rebellion? 
 
JKC:  At first I was determined to have nothing to do with design - so for fifteen wretched years I toiled away as a management consultant, hating every minute of it! I was always designing and making things on the side, however, and I finally came to my senses and started doing the design thing full time about 5 years ago. My parents have been a HUGE inspiration to me - in fact my dad taught me how to do scrimshaw when I was about 10 years old.
 
H/E:  Why scrimshaw? 
 
JKC:  I thought it would be fun to take a traditional antique craft and twist it a little. When I came up with the idea, I had a collection of antique ivory bracelets from my aunt, and putting words onto them didn't require any special equipment or jewelry-making skills, so I just went for it!
 
H/E:  Are you interested in traditional scrimshaw, or only in pushing it forward with your own designs? 
 
JKC:  Having spent every summer in Nantucket, scrimshaw was an artform I was exposed to early. My father has a wonderful collection, and the whaling museum in Nantucket (which I visited regularly as a child) is filled with it. I love the simplicity and graphic quality of the black ink on the ivory.
 
H/E:  Who first noticed your work?  
 
JKC:  I made a few pieces for myself and then friends wanted them. Louis of Boston was my first store. Eventually Madi Weinrib noticed them at a party. She had an opening for me at her atelier on the top floor of ABC Carpet and Home in New York, where buyers from Barney's New York saw them. The bracelets really took off at Barney’s, and I ended up working day and night to fill their orders!
 
H/E:  What's your favorite piece? 
 
JKC:  This week my favorite is "Let's show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown!" which, believe it or not, is from Ghostbusters!
 
H/E: You responded to the classic problem of an individual creator being knocked off in a very inspired way.
 
JKC:  Yes! About a year or so after the bracelets took off, I got an email from an editor telling me she'd just been to an opening at Chanel where they had exact copies of my bracelets. She even attached images she'd taken at the party. Sure enough, they had co-opted my entire concept!!  I knew that trying to sue Chanel would be a futile exercise, so instead I decided it would be much more wholesome and amusing to make fun of them on a bracelet - my Ripped off by Chanel bracelet has been a huge hit!
 
H/E: How did the plastic come about?
 
JKC: The scrimshaw bracelets, completely hand engraved on 10,000 year-old fossilized woolly mammoth ivory, are very expensive. The resin reproduction pieces came from a decidedly democratic urge to make them available to as many people as possible! People collect them like baseball cards: every time I introduce a new phrase people add to their collection.
 
H/E: What new things are you working on? 
 
We have introduced handbags with all kinds of fun and "piquant" phrases on them. They are taking off just like the bracelets did. For Spring 2010 we're launching, among other things, a line of scarves with "neck-related" phrases on them: Off with her head, for instance. And Yield not thy neck to fortune's yoke from Shakespeare. They're really great.
 
Jessica Kagan Cushman’s ivory scrimshaw pieces are available exclusively at Bergdorf Goodman. Resin bangles, handbags, and scarves are available at boutiques and stores all over the world. Visit jessicakagancushman.com to purchase directly or to find a retailer.
 

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