Welcome back to How It’s Made, where each month, we’ll be going behind the scenes with your favorite brands to find out how their most popular products get produced. For our second installment, we headed over to Catbird's headquarters to find out exactly how the company's "it" girl-approved rings come to fruition!
Ask the coolest girl you know where she gets her jewelry and she’s bound to respond with Catbird, especially if she calls New York home. Best known for its delicate knuckle rings and whimsical opal pieces, the Brooklyn-based label was founded by Rony Vardi in 2004 when she opened a Williamsburg boutique of the same name. Sold alongside a carefully curated selection of gems by designers like Pamela Love and MANIAMANIA, it’s the store’s in-house designs that get the biggest draw, offering shoppers that enigmatic Brooklyn intrigue so many today covet.
To celebrate its 10th anniversary last year, the brand debuted the Swan Ring, a subtly carved band offered in yellow, rose, or white gold and set with the tiniest diamond eyes (conflict free, to boot). As a Brooklynite myself, I can attest that it’s now one of their most popular items, so I set off to find out exactly how the special gem gets made!
Scroll down to explore Catbird's headquarters and find out what goes into making the company's uber cool rings.
Vardi (left) runs the Catbird operation with her co-creative director and general manager Leigh Plessner. Based out of the Artisan Building in Williamsburg for the last three years, Catbird now employs 51 people—20 of whom work as jewelers in the company's in-house studio where all of Catbird's namesake products are made.
Their headquarters is an airy, calming escape from the industrial bustle just outside. Everything seems washed in a light shade of pink, but the girlishness is interrupted by the all-black-everything style of their employees and the tongue-in-cheek artwork on the walls.
Bowled over by the giant moodboard in the company's office, I have to ask the duo where they look for inspiration. “I can’t look for inspiration,” Plessner tells me. “It’s sort of like when you need a fancy dress [for an event] and all the fun is gone because you need it, so the hunt is no longer leisurely and delicious. I like to slowly accumulate [ideas] from books most of all, [as well as] language and movies. I’m also always inspired by the way our team styles our jewelry.”
And what about their brainstorming process? “It’s so free-flowing,” Plessner explains. “Sometimes it’s a word we get stuck in our heads, a personal desire for a piece, or a vision of gold glinting in a shape we haven’t seen before. It’s like we have a sticky, tangled spiderweb to tug at, to gently unknot, to find the piece that’s hiding underneath. But, above all, the process is very collaborative and happens with a lot of shorthand.”
Curious about the Swan Ring’s origins, the women tell me it was inspired by the ouroboros ring, which evokes an ancient symbol of a snake circling back in on itself. “The swan, in its beauty and mythic contradictions, is our spirit animal, of sorts,” they explain. “We wanted to do our own version of [that ring]—to thine own swan be true.”
Catbird's jewelry studio is conveniently located right next to its main office.
With the inspiration for the ring locked down, they had their senior art director, Catherine Cieslewicz, complete multi-view sketches of the swan folding in on itself. These were then passed to Candice Lathrop, Catbird's studio manager, for her to use while hand carving a model of the ring from wax.
Jeweler Sara Cochran walks me through everything the process entails: “For making a wax model, we use wax-working tools. They're steel tools that have funky shapes and nice, fine edges. We use a wax pen, too, which has a heated metal tip to melt the wax for shaping or adding on. Once the wax model is nearly done, we use burs and the wax-working tools to carve out any thicker areas of the model to minimize weight.”
Once complete, they cast the wax model in metal and use it as their master model. It’s usually left with a little extra metal at the bottom, called a sprue, which they’ll get rid of using a jeweler’s saw. Sara continues: “We’ll then file off any remaining metal from the sprue with a steel file and move on to sandpaper mandrels that we use on the flexible shaft. The flex shaft is a power rotary tool operated by a foot pedal, and we use a lot of different attachments on it for different purposes.”
Once the sanding is complete, they’ll further polish the ring using several levels of abrasive radial bristle discs. “The bristles are abrasive at the ends, and are great for the [crevices of the] swan ring in particular,” Sara explains.
The last step entails setting the diamond eye into the ring: “Using the flex shaft, we’ll create a seat in the metal with setting burs—cutting heads that match the size and, generally, the shape, of the stones we're setting. Once the stone fits into the burred seat, we’ll use a graver (a sharp, thin steel tool) to push the surrounding metal toward the stone. This is done on the opposite side of the stone, and then both areas where the metal has been pushed by the graver are made into ‘beads.’ A beading tool is use to shape and burnish the pushed metal into a little dome: the bead.”
The last step entails a final polish using an unstitched muslin buff, also on the flex shaft. “This brings the metal to a brilliant high polish,” says Sara. “Then we’ll clean the ring of the polishing compound using an ultrasonic cleaner, and a beautiful swan is born!”
The finished product, in all its glory, will then be shot in-house for the company's website and packaged to be sent to the next lucky customer with a Catbird craving.