Brent Neale’s jewelry design is an exercise in color, whimsy, and artful playfulness. Her incredible collection of fine pieces are evocative and bold but are tailored enough to wear everyday. She takes breezy symbols like a cannabis leaf, a mushroom, or a rainbow and creates pieces imbued with nostalgia that still feel utterly current. Neale’s special jewelry is bound to be passed down from owner-to-daughter, to sister, to loved-one with a sense of true sentimentality.
Melissa: How did you go from your nine to five jewelry job into creating your own namesake line? Tell us the story.
Brent: Yes, I went to FIT for jewelry design and that is a two-year degree. After I graduated, I started working for a fine jewelry designer who I worked for for eight years. I was doing product development for three different lines. An 18-karat line, a sterling silver line, and a costume line. I loved working on all three lines because you are juggling so much but also have the flexibility to work all of the different price points. For example, with the costume you can do anything you want because the materials didn’t matter as much. For sterling you have some flexibility because it’s in the middle but with fine you need to pay extra attention to what you are making.
I had my first child while working there and then got pregnant with my twin girls. At one point in the pregnancy, I was on 6 months bed rest because I was high risk. Suddenly, I was like, “oh god, I am going to have three kids under 3. I can’t go back to my normal 9-7 job or I will never see my kids.” So I took a year off to be with my new family. My husband said to me one day, “you need to start drawing or designing because you are not yourself.” I began to draw and sketch and came up with 5 pieces to start which quickly turned into 15. One of my first pieces was the rainbow ring. It was an oval carved into a cloud with baguettes that were different colors of the rainbow. I loved it so much! I showed it to Moda Operandi and they launched the collection. That’s how it all started.
Melissa: Tell us how you come up with the names of each of your collections? They are so evocative!
Brent: I don’t know. It usually starts with the piece then I think of the name once the piece is completed. I don’t think of the name and then design the pieces. I don’t know how everybody else does it, but that’s how it comes to me. Then I pull it into different directions and see what else may fit. I also need to create an assortment of price points and styles like earrings, rings, bracelets and that sort of stuff.
Melissa: You have such a sophisticated playfulness that is imbued in all of your designs. Has that playful side always been a part of your nature?
Brent: That’s a good question. I think when you’re working for somebody else, it’s very much you’re designing in their voice and this is my voice. That has been fun for me to develop.
Melissa: Do your kids have any favorites from your collection?
Brent: I think that they recognize the mushroom the most because there are designers that do hearts and stars. I don’t actually know of anybody else that does an exact mushroom like mine.
Melissa: How do you find the balance between the playfulness and vintage inspired nature of your pieces? Where it feels modern, vintage, and playful, all at once?
Brent: You don’t want it to feel kitschy. I love old jewelry and there are some beautiful techniques that were used and are very hard to do. I use one setter who sets my gypsy rings. He’s older and has been in the industry a long time. His talent comes through in his work. He has worked for some of the biggest names and houses so his experience really shows. Whether or not people pick up on it, I know they feel it.
Melissa: How do you find the people that you work with? Is it based on what you’re designing?
Brent: Sometimes, it happens that way. I also rely heavily on the people who taught me at school. I had different teachers for various areas and I can always email and reach out to them directly for guidance. All of my teachers were working professionals. The contacts I made at school have really helped me to find what I need within New York City.
Melissa: Speaking of sentimentality, when you are designing, do you consider that your pieces may be passed down? Does that factor into your design process?
Brent: A little bit, but mostly I think people—when they’re buying the jewelry—really they’re buying it for themselves. I think about this a lot because obviously, my kids are going to inherit more jewelry than the average person. Because that’s what I do. But people do come to us all the time and say I love this piece because it was my grandmothers and it’s so special but it’s not me and I will never wear it. So we help them figure out how this beloved piece can fit into their life.
Melissa: You definitely don’t shy away from color or even camp but still keep things refined. How do you walk that fine line?
Brent: If you come into my house, you’d be like, Whoa! I love color in all aspects. I love it in clothing, home furnishings, interior design. I love it in art. I love it! So I don’t shy away.
You don't want it to feel kitschy. I love old jewelry and there are some beautiful techniques that were used and are very hard to do.
Melissa: How do you take trending topics like cannabis and mushrooms and turn them into pieces that transcend so they’re not rendered a caricature?
Brent: I was thinking about this the other day. I think it goes back to how the jewelry is made. It’s wrapped in 18k gold and diamonds and there really are not many of them. I try to keep production small on some of these items so they remain special and cool for the owner. The mushrooms were inspired by Alice in Wonderland, down the rabbit hole. Those illustrations are so famous and they depict mushrooms and hearts! So sometimes, I am inspired by a children’s book, a book or art, but they all somehow work together. I’m working on this new collection right now and it’s a little bit about an old movie from the 80s. It’s a cartoon your children would have seen mixed with some art from the 18th century so lots of different elements but they have something in common.
Melissa: How many times a year do you do collections? How many pieces per collection?
Brent: I do two collections a year with between 15-20 pieces but then there are different colorways so it ends up being more. I obviously cannot make just one thing in one color!
Melissa: You work with your hands all of the time and are probably running around to your model maker and bench jewelers, what are your particulars when you have to be out and about?
Brent: I rarely wear heels anymore. Isn’t that so sad? I mean I do love them. If it’s summer I am usually in a sandal, sneaker or flat. In the winter, I am usually in a flat boot, something warm because it’s New York. It gets so cold, slushy and yucky. So I like a good combat boot…I need to be comfortable because I am rarely sitting. I am always walking around seeing different people working on different parts of a project.
Melissa: Is there any piece that you didn’t think that would sell so well and it ended up being a number one piece?
Brent: It’s hard to say because I do so many color ways. There was this gypsy cuff I made that was expensive…$15,000, so I just made one. Then I got a lot of interest and then we got several special orders. They are made to order because every person’s wrist is a different size. So that surprised me. It’s a very cool piece because each one of the coral hearts is a different shade. So even if someone brought me the bracelet, I could figure out the owner or store based on the color of the stones.
Melissa: What’s next on the horizon? Would you ever consider doing a pop-up shop? Other collaborations?
Brent: I am working hard on the next collection. These days I am figuring out the best way to release collections, is it Instagram or the traditional editorial route? There are so many more opportunities. I feel like it’s every day, it’s changing. You are really in control of your own brand. That can be both really cool and weird plus exciting and scary. Because you question, will it be well received…