Eco-minded jeweler Nettie Kent makes a name for herself in New York

Though jewelry artist Nettie Kent will always stay connected to her West Tisbury roots, she is a Brooklyn girl now. — Photo by Gwyn McAllister

Jeweler Nettie Kent has the eye of an artist and the inquisitive nature of a scientist. She likes to know as much as possible about her materials, and in crafting her unique metal, leather, and raw gem jewelry, she keeps in mind both style and substance and makes every effort to use sustainable materials and practices.

Now living in Brooklyn, Ms. Kent, a West Tisbury native, has a small, thriving business. She works out of a studio near her home and sells to a number of boutiques and shops in the New York area and other spots throughout the country.

While sustainability issues may not be something most people would think about in jewelry making, Ms. Kent has found that there are many ways of both sourcing materials and crafting the finished products that are ethical and eco-minded. But that has taken a fair amount of research.

For example, she has all of her metal casting done by a small, family-run business that works with chemical-free practices, and she does all of her own finishing work by hand. She buys minerals from a former old-time miner in Colorado and crushes them herself in a mortar and pestle to create beautiful pieces that have a rough look with just enough sparkle and shine.

Having been born and raised on the Vineyard, it’s not surprising that Ms. Kent both respects and loves nature. Her designs are often informed by the natural world and her shapes and textures tend to have a raw, organic feel to them.

Ms. Kent’s 2014 spring line is called Seven Sisters — named for the star cluster also known as the Pleiades. “The constellation was used a lot in agriculture,” Ms. Kent said. “Farmers would determine planting seasons by it.” Some of the pieces in the collection are named after women in mythology, i.e. Camilla, an Amazonian warrior. Others have appropriately celestial references, such as True North.

Ms. Kent works almost exclusively with highly polished brass, which has the shine and color of gold but is affordable. She carves the wax into a model, then it is made into a mold from that wax carving.

Rather than using the more common process of chemical cleaning, Ms. Kent painstakingly finishes each piece by hand: saws off the sprues, tumbles the items with different grits, and gives a finishing polish. “It’s so much work,” she said, but taking the easy way out is not an option for her. According to Ms. Kent’s website, “Our work is a culmination of organic forms, unique designs and an ethical approach to jewelry making that emphasizes sustainable design and sourcing recycled materials.”

Many of the new pieces include a setting of rough gemstones. Ms. Kent purchases chunks of black tourmaline, a black sparkly gemstone, and undyed lapis, which has a light blue color, and grinds them down into a sort of sparkly gravel that is then set into rings, earrings, cuff bracelets, and pendants. The finished pieces benefit from the brilliance of the stone but have the look of minerals in their natural state. The bright bronze settings show off the crushed gems to full advantage.

Arrow-shaped outlines play a big part in the new line and are featured in bold necklaces, wrap-around rings, bracelets, and large earrings. The shapes combine the symmetrical lines of geometrics with a rough, hammered look. The young artist’s work can be described as a mix of ancient artifact and urban modern.

Growing up in West Tisbury as the daughter of popular local artist Doug Kent, she was immersed in the art world at a young age. “I always thought that I would be a painter,” she said. “I guess that’s only natural growing up in my dad’s studio.” After dabbling in theater, Ms. Kent decided to pursue the visual arts. She attended Hampshire College in western Massachusetts where she focused on public art. She painted murals in Holyoke and eventually travelled to Mexico to study mural painting and pottery, and to Italy to learn fresco painting techniques. However, she never felt entirely comfortable with painting. “I was terrible at being alone in my studio,” she said. “I just wasn’t doing the right art.”

It wasn’t until she settled in New York City that she discovered her true passion. She spent some time working for nonprofits around the city, doing “inner city, save-the-world type work,” as she refers to it. “It was amazing. I had some good times and some terrible times. Within a year I was burned out.” Ms. Kent landed a job working in retail for jeweler Jill Platner. “Every chance that I got at that point I hung around production,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is so cool. Working with metal and fire.’”

She took some courses in wax casting, started experimenting on her own, and apprenticed with other jewelers. “I threw myself into the jewelers’ scene here. I got to become acquainted with the business — things like who the casters are. I brought what knowledge I had back to the Vineyard. It was so cool surfing, landscaping, connecting with nature.”

What was intended to be a short break turned into an extended stay. However, Ms. Kent had the time to experiment and hone her skills in jewelry making. After three years, she and her boyfriend, Colin Ruel, decided to relocate to Brooklyn. Mr. Ruel, who had made a name for himself as a musician, decided to refocus his creativity into his work as a painter. The couple now share a studio close to their apartment in Brooklyn.

“I came here with a mission,” she said. “I decided that I’m not moving back to New York not to make it happen. If you’re going to be here you’ve got to hustle.”

So far her hard work is paying off, and she has gained a loyal following. Her work can found in a number of outlets and on her website, Recently she and a handful of other fashion designers and jewelers rented a space in the West Village and set up a pop-up shop and small trade show for one month. The experience was positive. Ms. Kent was able to form relationships with new stores and gain new customers.

She is very happy with her new community in Brooklyn where she has connected with a number of other artists and designers devoted to sustainable design. However, Ms. Kent maintains a strong connection to the Vineyard and her work reflects her rural roots. As it says on her website, “Summers on the beach and winters in Brooklyn influence all of Nettie’s designs.”

On the Vineyard, Ms. Kent’s work can be found at The Green Room in Vineyard Haven.