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STRONG | Maker of the Month: Catherine Zadeh

STRONG | Maker of the Month: Catherine Zadeh

In Catherine Zadeh’s Midtown Manhattan high-rise studio, there is a small showroom just off the hallway leading to several offices with views of bustling Fifth Avenue. Against the walls are heavy, metal tables with thick, leather handles upon which sit glass display cases filled with jewelry. Behind the glass, the necklaces, bracelets, and rings are delicately arranged on light canvas stands. In the center of the room, there are four small chairs and a couple stools which act as tables. On this makeshift table is a black-gray water buffalo horn rough with creases. And on the walls, there are large fashion photographs. One photograph has a young woman emerging from a pool, her hands on her shoulders, putting her forearms forward, bracelets on her wrist. It is an almost defiant pose, as if she is declaring herself.

Studio scenes at Zadeh NY

But Catherine is her own display. She lifts the pendant hanging from her neck up for inspection. Casual yet magnetic, she is wearing white jeans and a white t-shirt, and the sunglasses on her head are almost hidden against her dark hair. On her right wrist, she is wearing several dark, leather-like bracelets and on her left, a rectangular watch. She dresses simply, she says in a warm, textured voice, in order to “make my outfit a canvas for the jewelry.” In her hand, her pendant is a dark wooden wheel, at intervals on its circumference are silver staples pointed like sunrays, and there’s a hole at its center rimmed with diamonds.

Catherine was born in Tehran, Iran. During her childhood, her family relocated to Paris where she eventually studied Business at Paris Dauphine University. From Paris, they moved for the final time to the United States where they made New York City their home. After her children were born, she grew a little restless and began to design and make jewelry for herself. One day, a friend saw her work and asked if she would make a piece for his wife. She did so, and over time he asked for more gifts to give his wife. Eventually, he came back seeking jewelry for himself. She made him a pair of cufflinks, and he suggested she should sell them to stores.

From this kernel of encouragement, Catherine decided to “start at the top.” She began calling buyers at Bergdorf Goodman. For three months she had no success but refused to be dissuaded. After leaving what she describes as a “strong message,” she secured a meeting to have her jewelry viewed. She brought with her 20 pairs of cufflinks to show, but was told that the buyer was “stuck in a meeting” and surmised she had been stood up. Catherine was visibly upset, but as fate would have it, the buyer’s superior happened to be standing there, and Catherine jumped at asking him for an opportunity to have her jewelry considered. He agreed and, upon inspecting her cufflinks, said, “Welcome to Bergdorf Goodman.”

Press play to watch "A Day in the Life of Jewelry Designer Catherine Zadeh" Video by Vanity Fair, 2015.

Catherine considers her jewelry the “physical manifestation of who I am.” She is self-proclaimed stubborn and observantly strong, and so, too, is her jewelry. It is meant to be worn, without ever needing to be taken off, for a lifetime. It can be worn in the shower and while swimming. Catherine has always sought out the strongest, most durable materials. On her right wrist, she wears three bracelets: a leather one, a parachute cord macramé one, and one made of water buffalo horn. These materials were chosen for their strength and resilience, for their ability to be worn. Some of her pieces also incorporate tagua nut or vegetable ivory, a very dense, hard material that resembles animal ivory. It cannot be cut with a knife, instead a hacksaw or file must be used to shape it.

But her pieces made of water buffalo horn are particularly special. Catherine had always adored the elephant hair bracelet worn by the French actor Alain Delon. Seeking a sustainable way to recreate his bracelet, she met an artisan who, while living in the Congo, had learned to carve buffalo horn into fibers like that of elephant hair. The use of the horn is sustainable because the water buffalo is farmed for consumption, and the horn is usually discarded.

Each individual buffalo horn piece takes a week to make. The horn must be sliced carefully, the fibers cut to slightly different lengths so that they can fit neatly together when folded into a shape for a wrist. The horn is still so tough that it must be placed in boiling water before it can be shaped. Once dry, oil is applied to the fibers which darkens the horn almost to black. By wearing the horn over time, the oil rubs off, and the oils of the skin soak in, returning the horn to its natural rugged, black-gray, almost brown texture, still strong yet taking on the patina of time.

For 20 years, Catherine designed jewelry for men only. For many of those years, female admirers of her line would ask, “Does this come in women’s sizes?” So, she eventually began making jewelry for women, too. In doing so, she changed very little stylistically, for her aesthetic has always exuded elegance and simplicity, ideals that are genderless. The knots of her macramé parachute cords or the open ends of bracelets recall the twisted gold of Gaulish torcs: warrior symbols worn by both men and women, to signify power.

Photo: Catherine Zadeh

Jewelry may be integral to Catherine’s life, but family is everything. Several years ago, Catherine’s daughter Chloe, the middle of three, told her that designing jewelry was “so easy.” Catherine challenged Chloe to design for her. Chloe agreed but quickly came to regret this decision. After exclaiming, “I don’t know what to do,” she left a mess of papers filled with half-drawn designs. Sorting through the scribbles, Catherine recognized something clear and beautiful that her daughter had discarded: a shape like an hourglass or a stirrup. From this Catherine was able to extrapolate a whole collection.

There have been times when women have seen her jewelry as incompatible with themselves, but, once they tried her pieces on, Catherine notes, these “women see another side of themselves.” They see themselves strong. Her youngest daughter, Celine, says that her mother always taught them that “validation comes from within.” Strength, for Catherine, is a complex notion, one that is tempered with vulnerability. “Strength is not being afraid of failure...it is having the courage to cry when you are upset.”

To make her buffalo horn pieces, Catherine still employs the original artisan who now lives in Canada, but every other part of the process of making her jewelry is carried out in New York State. She employs weavers and jewelers from all over New York. Catherine Zadeh says that, without moving to New York, she “would not be who I am. This is the apex of the world.”

Her New York State of Mind is “Daring.”

Click here to see more of Catherine's designs.


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