An Artist You Should Know: Josh Wendler and Luana Coonen
The “Artist You Should Know” series highlights local artists before they exhibit their work somewhere awesome, it’s our way of supporting the creative community and helping to keep San Francisco a strange and wonderful place. Meet Josh Wendler and Luana Coonen, Bay Area goldsmiths and jewelry designers out to make the planet a better place.
The art of making jewelry has always fascinated me: it’s old, it’s badass yet incredibly precise, and it has a sort of inherent emotional aspect to it. However, I’m the first to admit that I knew little to nothing about it: jewelry is something that I have never really taken the time to truly appreciate. In other words, while jewelry is something that is dictated by society as feminine, as a cis woman, I never really latched on to it. I always equated it with sparkly diamonds, and unnecessary wealth, and an item that I am 100% sure to lose when I take it off to wash my hands or something.
It’s a bit embarrassing that I somehow lumped all of jewelry into this antiquated notion of adornments, more suited for a Victorian painting than what jewelry actually is. However, I’m actually glad that my exposure to the trade came at this moment, through Josh and Luana and through their art.
Luana Coonen and Josh Wendler are phenomenal examples of artists and humans: they respectively define themselves as goldsmiths and jewelry designers, and they are also very much in love. They live in the Bay Area where they share a (work) studio, seemingly spending their time either there, working, or exploring the savage nature around them, drawing inspiration and finding material work their pieces. As artists, they both bring incredibly unique perspectives to their work, and they are so immersed in their field that, at their young age, they have encyclopedic knowledge of what it means to work in this ancient trade in 2016. What’s more, they seem to be hell-bent on doing it in a way that will help the planet.
Josh Wendler is dark haired, given to a ridiculous sense of humor, and has a smile like he’s about to let you in on the best secret in the world. He is half Panamanian and half white, and he was raised on, as he calls it, a “bizarre” diet: “Uber American food, and super good Puerto Rican food, with obscure Panamanian soups I only recognize when I visit family.” He was raised in Colorado but moved to San Francisco because it was “impossible to deny the opportunities that exist in a city like (it). There are so many talented people doing incredible things with their skills, pursuing their passion in really intriguing ways, and creating communities that are capable of sharing valuable information and resources.” “Heck,” he specifies, “that applies to the Bay Area in general, not just the city.” His logo is a stylized, ethereal looking bird, “based off of a falcon, but stylized slightly in the fashion of the Egyptian god Horus.”
Josh draws inspiration from “various influences of nature, architecture, anime, and science fiction- my work is a cultural mashup, a lot like my own upbringing.” Some of his earlier pieces look like they run on steam, like a mixture between something out of an epic fantasy novel and a dystopian future, like the necklace or ring that you have to go find in the Cave of Wonders in Aladdin, if that cave were 1000 years into a utopian or dystopian future (not entirely sure which). The metal structures that encase vivid colored gems look like they are powered by the stone itself, and like they may, at any moment, get up and crawl away. Josh draws much of his inspiration from science fiction, in particular, books. His primary influence is “Dune by Frank Herbert, no contest,” which he’s read “cover to cover, twice.” The artist feels that Herbert’s “insight into the human psyche is uncanny, and the way he envisions people of the future adapting to their landscapes is both awe inspiring (the spirituality) and evident that he studied indigenous cultures to come up with the societal structures.”
Nowadays, he specializes in wedding rings, particularly, for men. I wondered what the field of men’s jewelry was actually like. He jokes that the reason why he got into that specific niche was that much of the existing jewelry is “just super lame.” “No personality, no story behind it, lacking connection or inspiration.” What Josh aims to do is to break social barriers and encourage men to not only focus on the engagement ring, but also on “a quality piece for them to wear for a lifetime.”
Josh is also specialized in a different type of ring, giving it a texture and feel that makes it look like it’s made out of bark, and like it was cut directly out of a tree. He explains that they are “actually wood bark texture taken from a photograph,” which he then uploads into his Computer Aided Design (CAD) program. “The process begins with the act of taking the photo in the woods,” he explains. “I like that part of the story.”
Luana Coonen grew up in Hawaii, and if you’ve ever visited any of the islands, you might understand why the reasoning behind Luana’s pieces and the stories of her adornments read like a romantic poem, half fairy tale and half tragedy. Luana herself is a waif of a human being, with sparkling eyes that look like they were the inspiration for most of J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters.
She moved to the Bay Area to attend college, and she fell in love with it “because of the proximity of nature to urban life, the jaw-dropping landscape, and culture of creative freedom.” Her style reflects her personal attraction to “thin, delicate lines, and natural curves of Art Nouveau style.” Three of the aspects that make Luana’s work so unique are her attention to the meaning of jewelry, her shrewd sense of business, and her attention to sustainable and natural products.
Luana is drawn to the nostalgic allure of jewelry, enjoying “researching the role of jewelry in different cultures & regions through the centuries.” Humans have always been attracted to adorning themselves,” she informs me, “whether it be body paint, headdresses, hairstyles, colorful clothing, or jewelry. Throughout history, many of the reasons which people adorned themselves is due to ceremony; to show status, or to represent a stage of one’s life (such as mourning, or a wedding). […] I am driven to dive deep into the question ‘WHY do we wear jewelry?’, rather than embarking on making objects which are simply ‘pretty’”.
She got her business acumen from watching her mother, who was a small business owner. She muses that she likes to “problem solve, and learning how to run a business is a great opportunity to do that.” She notes that this isn’t necessarily something many artists or jewelers know much about, so she actually gives courses to help her colleagues. “Years after opening a business, I realized that many of these business related topics are not coveted in a traditional goldsmith training program, so I’ve crafted business courses for jewelers, which could be taught to any craft-person. It’s to help jewelers get established quicker, and make less mistakes, I wish someone was there to help me do that in the beginning!”
She often works with “non-precious materials,” meaning that which many people overlook as everyday flora and fauna: lichen, butterfly wings, coral, flowers, and leaves, to name but a few. For this, she draws her inspiration from René Lalique, who was “the first jeweler to work with ‘non-precious’ materials (including carved horn and baroque pearls… very innovative at the time), so in the early 1900’s he really did the hard work of reinventing what is precious or not, paving the way for jewelers like me who work in that realm.” When she sees his work, her heart “flutters,” she admits, (I’m assuming, pun largely intended).
Like Josh, she also works on wedding rings, and for her, it’s touching for someone to reach out to her for such a project. Quite logically, she states that “working with a jeweler on the rings you will wear for your entire life requires a lot of trust and faith.” She especially enjoys designing an engagement ring, “as the bride-to be has no idea, so I’m part of a super-top-secret project!” she laughs.
My first question had to do with the wording of their trade (I suppose one always begins with what one knows). While they make jewelry, they’re not actually jewelers. I asked Luana for clarification.
LUANA: A silversmith is someone who works in large scale, creating teapots, saucers, tableware, goblets and the such. A jeweler can be many varieties, such as someone who sells jewelry, strings beads, distributes jewelry or does very simple bench work at a jewelry shop. It’s a large encompassing word, and does not refer to the exact technique someone works within. A goldsmith is someone who makes small scale work out of nonferrous metal (which means gold, silver, brass, and copper). It can be either jewelry or small scale sculpture, it simply refers to the refined technique of working precisely with precious metals and stones. Not all goldsmiths work in gold…it’s confusing.
RAE: How is being an artist in jewelry different than other art? For example, is it easier to sell your product for the right value, considering the materials you used?
JOSH: […] there is inherently a perceived value that people approach jewelry and precious metals with. This probably does work to a jewelry artists advantage initially when selling work. The labor involved, however, proves to be intense. No matter how you cut it, it takes a LOT of work to create something with decent finish and that will hold up over time. […] Making affordable jewelry is an art form in itself. See Julia Turner’s work for an example of amazing design sense, materials use, and still approachable pricing.
It’s to be noted that Josh and Luana’s work is very much worth the price, but this is not the kind of jewelry you buy without giving it any thought (unless you’re stinkin’ rich, in which case, would you like an adoptive daughter/on-hand journalist?). For someone who is so used to buying cheap, factory made products (not proud, but hey, I’m being honest), window shopping on their website was like the most beautiful punch in the face ever. Obviously the price that’s set reflects not only the amount of work, but the materials, too.
RAE: One of the hardest things as a freelancer and as an artist is to set your own price. Was this nerve-wracking, when you started? Meaning, did it feel strange to charge a customer so much money for one of your products?
JOSH: Yes, it was and is nerve-wracking. But you get used to it. You begin to understand in a more realistic sense of what actually goes into creating a finished product. And, most importantly, you begin to understand that your product is NOT for everyone. In fact, most jewelers I know are not their own target market. This is not a universal, but it is totally normal for jewelers and fine artists to not be able to “afford” their own work.
LUANA: When I started, yes. I didn’t know what I was doing, and figuring out a price was a very emotional endeavor. But when I started my business, a mentor of mine showed me how you price your work based on a formula- how to account for the materials you use, and hours spent making the piece, so now I do that, and it is much easier. There is no guessing game, I am just paid for what goes into each piece!
RAE: So was it difficult to get the money to get off the ground and to start using high quality materials?
LUANA: Yeah, that is one unfortunate part about our industry, the price of entry is high. It’s a bit of a slow growth process- you start small, and slowly start accumulating the tools and materials to create bigger and better pieces. For most jewelers, it takes years. In the beginning, I could not afford to work with gold, but now, years later, it’s a very common material for me. […] The good part about that is many of us get years of practice before we launch into working with really valuable diamonds and gold.
RAE: Both of you are very focused on making jewelry that is ecologically conscious. How do you do this?
LUANA: Being from Hawaii, I come from a very small place. A little island in which you cannot hide from what is in front of you. When you take your trash out to the curb, it does not ‘disappear’ to some unknown place, the dump is visible on the way to town. If you need to dispose of an old washer or dryer, it does not ‘go away’- it gets taken to the local recycler, where you may see it again- being worked on, or in the junk pile for years.
Being from such a small place is simply a microcosm for what is happening on a larger level on Earth. We should be responsible with the materials we use, and where they come from, and what we do with them afterwards. I may be a bit more obsessed than most people, […] but I love recycling everything, reusing things a million different ways, composing and mulching my scraps, and getting creative with excess materials. […] This is an important part of my personal life, so it naturally bleeds over into my business life. Once I learned about the precious metal mining process, I could not look away. I strive to be educated on how I can do my best to work with reputable sources for my silver and gold, and learn more about how I can have ‘green’ studio practices. […] When it comes to my business, I’ve drawn a line in the sand which represents my standards, and I don’t cross it.
JOSH: My main ways are through choosing recycled metals suppliers whenever possible […]. Another way is by focusing on lab created stones in my engagement ring series, such as Moissanite (a diamond alternative made from meteor material), and lab-created sapphires and emeralds. The latter are created from bits of mined material, put under intense heat and pressure, to “culture” new gem quality stone. The hope is to reduce the impact from new mining in doing so, however, I would say there is always room for improvement, so I am always keeping my ear to the ground for new technologies.
RAE: On the subject of mining stones…everyone knows what a ‘blood diamond’ is (I hope), but should there be more focus on all gemstone mining as well? What are some other issues with gemstone mining that you wish people were more aware of?
LUANA: It would be great if the awareness which has been brought to diamonds was brought mining colored gemstones, as well as silver and gold. […] I think the most important part is to become an educated consumer. People say “I don’t want any blood diamonds” but it should also be questioned: “where did those rubies come from? Where did that gold come from?” as many of these come from conflict-ridden areas, or ones that are impoverished, as well. It’s also important to know where your diamonds and gemstones are being cut, as many of them are cut in India, under not the greatest conditions. I only work with suppliers where they are cut and finished in the U.S., and I highly suggest checking out Ethical Metalsmiths, they have a very informative site if you’d like to learn more about the mining process. […] I appreciate having a relationship with the people and places my materials come from. It’s kind of like buying your vegetables from the farmer’s market, rather than ordering them online.
RAE: Do you have any advice for jewelers?
JOSH: Keep at it, do the best work you can! There are a variety of different schools offering different types of training for skillsets. Really think about the designs you want to create in the world, and begin by researching schools where the student work reflects the skills needed to create those items. That, and ask yourself do you want to do it for a LIVING? There is a huge difference between pursuing it as an interest (which you could be very passionate about), and doing it for a living. If you choose the latter, you will definitely need to sharpen business skills, and become at least semi-organized to handle all that comes with that. I feel a lot of people don’t take into account how much work that part takes.
Lu: Never stop making. When you feel like you’ve hit a wall or your creativity has dried up, just find an excuse to go to your bench and work with your hands. Any excuse, like making gifts for family members. Being back in the process will always make you feel close to your craft and get the ideas flowing again.
RAE: Do you have any advice for freelancers?
JOSH: There is often the perception of what one would spend time doing in a said profession, and then there is actually what you can do to pay the bills. You have to be realistic about it and consider the odds. It may take years of having side jobs to provide steady rental income while you pursue your ideal career on the side. There is no formula or set path. Some people get lucky early on, but that’s definitely not the norm.
LUANA: Join the Freelancers Union!
RAE: What is the most intense and badass injury you’ve gotten from making jewelry?
JOSH: Hmmm. Slicing my finger open in class my second year in college. I pulled an all-nighter and tried to use a drill press, not thinking completely clearly. The metal I was holding got stuck and began to spin on the drill, turning it into a blade. That sucked!
…still finished my piece for critique though.
LUANA: Oh gosh, I wish I had some epic story, but usually it is just small burns or nicks on your fingertips. I’d say the most random occurrence was when I chipped a ruby, and the little ruby fleck flew into my eye. I was really worried it was going to scratch my eye, but it all worked out ok!
If you want to learn more about Luana and Josh’s work, visit Josh’s website and Etsy shop, and you can also take a look at Luana’s website and blog! She even has a fancy video showing you what she does and how she works, if you’re interested in the details of the trade.
UPCOMING LUANA COONEN EVENTS!
SF ETSY HOLIDAY EMPORIUM
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 26th @ 12pm to SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 27th @ 5pm
ACADEMY OF SCIENCES HOLIDAY NIGHTLIFE
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 8th @ 6pm-10pm