Deep in Manhattan’s Alphabet City near Avenue D lies the perfect jewelry maker’s studio–Collette Ishiyama’s studio, to be precise. Sunlight streams through huge windows overlooking the East River, highlighting an array of jewelry-making tools and machinery amidst old photos of Collette’s grandmother that remind her of her Japanese roots.
The artist debuted her first line, “Emerald City,” in February 2011 [think art deco, Samurai warriors and Egyptian burial jewels] and is now releasing her second line called “Isis.” The sophomore collection elaborates on her original design, paying tribute to Egyptian goddesses, immortality, mythical snakes, lions, and ancient felines.
Collette’s bread and butter is working in brass, but her jewelry’s signature touch is the stingray skin she incorporates into most pieces. “The beads are actually more like bone than leather,” she explains, alluding to the material’s unique surface which she refers to as a “black disco ball”.
Given her impressive skill, it’s surprising to discover Collette was not always making jewelry. After high school she had dreams of joining the Peace Corps, but since she was too young to apply, she instead ventured off to volunteer for the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) which is part of AmeriCorps.
As an NCCC team member, Collette moved all over the country–Washington D.C, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio. After a year bouncing around, she settled in Jacksonville, Florida for another twelve months working for Habitat For Humanity.
With her humanitarian goals satisfied, Collette ventured out of the South and landed in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn to study painting. In 2009, she decided to take a break from school and assist jewelry designer, Janet Cadsawan, with whom she discovered her love of metal-working. “Janet was so supportive,” Collette recalls with a smile. From there, the designer managed production for silversmith Jill Platner before starting her eponymous line in 2011.
“There is something so interesting about the concept of an afterlife,” says Collette, whose first collection “Emerald City” channels Egyptian influences and strikingly resembles New York’s own Chrysler building. “How can you not be inspired by it?” she asks of the iconic landmark. “It’s like an art deco hypodermic needle in the sky.”
Collette’s newest line “Isis” expands on her fascination with Egyptian mythology. The collection is inspired by many sources, most uncanny amongst them being the ‘90s film Death Becomes Her, which tells the story of two women seeking eternal life. In fact, the collection’s “Snakes On A Vase” earrings are directly inspired by the film’s integral glass vessel of anti-aging potion.
In ancient Egypt, cats were revered animals and received mummification after death just as humans. As such, Collette decided to feature the feline in “Isis”–her Persian cat Ponyo actually serves as the model behind the appropriately named, chunky brass “Ponyo Ring.” The new collection also plays home snakes and lions. “It’s sort of a faceless lion sparked by a painting by Salvador Dali,” she elaborates in reference to the “Plain Mane Collar.” And the snakes, well, there’s nothing more Egyptian than the mythical serpent.
Although references to the Egyptian afterlife may seem dark, Collette believes there is something romantic about the mythology.“I guess I see the want for immortality as an obsession with life and a desire to continue–not as a macabre fixation with death. With that being said, it does interest me that my jewelry will actually outlive me.”
Beyond “Isis,” Collette is also doing a collaboration with the site Of a Kind, which supports and promotes “on-the-rise” fashion designers. “I’m flattered and excited to be working with Of a Kind–they’ve got a really impressive roster of young designers and articles that are smart and insightful. They commission limited edition pieces; the concept of rarity is so, well, rare, and I love what they are doing.”
When it comes to other jewelry designers, Collette named a few artists that inspire her [Polly Wales, Philip Crangi, Eddie Borgo], but in general, she doesn’t really follow trends. “I sort of live under a rock, but I like it.”