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Lots of designers toss around the word "eclectic" when describing their lines. But while they might mean it in the "My summer collection has solids and stripes!" way, Nora Kogan's off-kilter sensibilities run deep. "I'm like a butterfly," she says. "I flit from this to this to this."
Take a lap around the jeweler's new Williamsburg shop and you'll find sweet moonstone necklaces and emerald drop earrings cozied up next to knuckle-dusting enamel scorpions, evil eyes, and her latest hit—solid gold boob rings with diamond nipples. "People sometimes think my jewelry is costume because it's so ridiculous," she says. "It's like, 'Really? Diamond nipples?'"
We caught up with Kogan to talk about her upcoming collection (the theme is bondage—but not the 50 Shades of Grey kind), her fascinating resume (she's been a radio announcer, a diamond sorter, and a performer in a Japanese circus) and her favorite childhood toy—her Russian grandmother's Faberge egg.
Were you into jewelry growing up?
Oh my god, yes! My mom used to collect jewelry. I'd take my mother's jewelry out once a week and spread it out on the bed. We had a neighbor who was an opera singer, and she let me look through her costume jewelry. It had to be big for the stage. I was in heaven.
I was born in Russia, and my grandmother had a Faberge egg. I thought it was the most incredible thing. As a six-year-old, I wasn't aware of what it was. I just thought it was beautiful—it had little sections and icons and it was painted inside.
Wait, your grandmother let you play with her Faberge egg?
I was a super-careful child! I wasn't allowed to take it out of the house for show and tell, but I was allowed to play with it in the house.
There's a really unfortunate story to that egg, though.
Oh no! What happened?
When we were living in Russia, if you were taking something out of the country that was very expensive, you had to pay the government a duty that was the exact price of the item. If it was a thousand rubles you had to pay a thousand rubles. The Faberge egg was priceless—my parents couldn't afford to pay the duty to take it out. Initially, they thought they'd smuggle it out. They smuggled a lot of my mom's diamond jewelry out in a little radio.
In Italy, a friend of my parents' friends said "We can get this egg through to you, we have diplomatic connections." And it was just a con. My grandmother gave the egg to someone in Russia and that was the last she saw of it. I was angry about it for years. I had nightmares. It was an amazing treasure. It was the first object I was really attached to.
How old were you when you moved from Russia to Australia?
I was nine years old. I spent my childhood in Russia, and then around 20 I started traveling. As much as I can call myself Russian, or Australian, I can also call myself a New Yorker because I've spent just as much time here by now.
Did you study art?
My parents were worried about me becoming an artist. They didn't let me go to art school. So I studied economics, and for someone who can barely add two and two together, it was a big mistake. I swapped from economics really quickly, and then studied Russian literature in university. After that, I ended up studying goldsmithing and getting a full-on jewelry degree.
Did you go straight from getting your undergrad degree to art school?
No, I spent about ten years living between New York, Japan, Israel, London, Thailand and Paris. I did a lot of odd jobs.
What sort of odd jobs?
I worked in a circus for one night in Japan. I was a dancing girl in the opening number. We only had four hours to rehearse, and no one took into consideration that I was Australian and the costumes for the Japanese girls were a lot smaller. So we rehearsed the number and the Japanese costume did not do it for me. I ended up having this gaping hole in the back of my dress—I spent the number trying not to turn around.
I worked as a radio announcer, I worked as an emcee. I did voiceover work. I taught English.
Do you remember some of the first pieces of jewelry you made?
I got into it because I had a really good friend in Melbourne who was a jeweler. Sitting at his bench and watching him demystified the process. I was interested in a really practical way.
I think I designed a pair of earrings for a friend's birthday. They were hoops with Italian poetry engraved on them.
How did you go from making jewelry for your friends to starting your own business?
At the time, I was with a girl who was from New York. We were living in Australia, but she wanted to go back to New York. I ended up working for a diamond wholesale company—I was a diamond picker, a diamond sorter. I learned at every juncture. In every industry, there's so much to learn. I just absorbed it.
I was shopping at a boutique in Nolita, Erica Tanov, and the salesgirl noticed the ring I was wearing. I told her I made it, and she asked me to rework her engagement ring. I was like, "Sure!" She ended up putting my designs, which were under the name St. Kilda at the time, in her showroom, and they sold right from the get-go. Really quickly I had 25 accounts.
What have you been inspired by lately?
The latest collection, which is going to come out really soon, is inspired by bondage. I was quite inspired by my time in Japan. I've always been into Yakuza and tattoos and Japanese subcultures. The pieces have a lot to do with shibari and classic Japanese bondage techniques.
You work with a lot of enamel, which you don't see a lot!
I've wanted to work with enamel for years and years. Even though I went to jewelry school, and I'm capable of doing it myself, I don't do a lot of my own enamel work these days.
All of my jewelers are Russian. It's not even because I'm Russian—Russian jewelers have this really incredible artistic training. It's a five-year program with fine arts and life drawing. The woman who does enameling for me works for the main restorer of Faberge eggs in the world. I'm really, really lucky. They all think my designs are really funny and bizarre. They're like, "Really?"
Who is your customer? Who is the Nora Kogan woman?
My customer is every woman. My collection is eclectic. I'm like a butterfly. I go from this to this to this. My customer is attracted to beautiful things, but still has a sense of humor. She's adventurous in her choices, she's not afraid to wear a conversation piece.
People love your boob rings! How did you come up with that idea?
My wife came up with that! We were in Philly one weekend, and we walked into a Jonathan Adler shop and he had this butt lamp. I was like, "Oh my god, this is so refreshing." And my wife said, "You should do a butt ring!" I was like, "Ah! You're right! I should do a butt ring and a boob ring." And that's how it came about.
Obviously, I love the female body. And I love tits and ass and everything. I thought how cool would it be to make it with diamond nipples. People sometimes think my jewelry is costume because it's so ridiculous. It's like, "Really? Diamond nipples?"
They're heirloom-quality boob rings.
It's like a little piece of sculpture that you can wear.
Do you have a best seller?
I think my best sellers are my "Loved" and "Mama" rings. As much as pieces like the boobs and the butt and the lips are fun, not everyone wants that attention. But the "Loved" and "Mama" rings—women appreciate that sentiment.
Are engagement rings a big part of your business?
A huge part of my business. I can't even tell you. I love it. I love that people come to me, and I get to be part of their special day, their special moment. Engagement rings are my favorite things to design.
Your scorpion rings are amazing.
My dad was a Scorpio, and he had this huge gold scorpion ring with onyx. My dad would let me wear it. After he passed away, I'd wear it a lot and I got comments on it every single day. I thought, "I'm a jeweler! I can't be getting so many compliments on a piece that I didn't make." So that was the inspiration.
What are your price points? How much does an entry-level piece go for?
My little silver snake rings are $90.
What do you look for when you're hiring?
I look for people with enthusiasm and creativity. I like people who are easygoing. You have to have a passion for something, it's hard for me to work with someone who isn't into it. I want them to participate and enjoy what they do.
You just moved your shop from Park Slope to Williamsburg!
I always hang out in Williamsburg. Even when I lived in Park Slope, Williamsburg was the place I'd go for coffee or dinner. My lease was coming to an end, and my business partner and I said "We really need to have a store in Williamsburg." Literally, the first time we drove out, we saw this fantastic space. I called the real estate agent and it all happened within three weeks. It was serendipitous.
Time for the lightning round!
8am or 8pm?
Beer or wine?
Wine. Or vodka.
Whiskey or tequila?
Cats or dogs?
Beach or mountains?
Favorite neighborhood lunch spot?
Favorite happy hour spot?
My dock with a cocktail.
Rap or country?
Mad Men or Game of Thrones?
Game of Thrones
Coffee or tea?
I can't live without my coffee in the morning, I think about it as I go to sleep.
Sweet or savory?
Introvert or extrovert?