Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Photo by Driely S. for Racked
Ask most jewelry designers to create a piece that telegraphs "badass" and they might whip up a weighty Wonder Woman-esque cuff, or a skull pendant. But Verameat's Vera Balyura applies her winding artist's logic to every design.
"Hippos are really dangerous but people don't think they're dangerous, and sharks actually aren't that dangerous but people think they're dangerous," Vera says of her signature "Hip-Shark" necklace. "And then it has a Tina Turner in its mouth, but it's a zombie Tina Turner. Beautiful women are dangerous, but especially if they're zombies and they're Tina Turner."
The model-turned-designer's lovably oddball line has blown up in the past two years, allowing Vera to open three more stores (a second East Ninth Street location just joined outposts in Williamsburg and L.A.), expand her jewelry offerings (she's been dabbling in stones), and launch a clothing line (standouts include striped dresses and a kitty-shaped bag).
Read on to find out how her line was discovered, her sources of inspiration, and the importance of having a power animal (Vera's is an Affenpinscher named Fred).
Tell us a little bit about your background! How did you get into designing jewelry?
I've always loved accessories and sculptures and little worlds, little universes. My grandfather did a lot of carving and soldering, he made miniatures. I remember looking at those, and I've always loved art. I love sculpture, I love Rodin.
I don't like the relationship people have to art, and to beautiful objects. That "don't touch it, set it aside, have it on your wall" mindset. I wanted to make something for myself that was really artful and really special that I could enjoy every day.
Did you go to school for jewelry design?
I went to school for photography. Since I had been working as a model, people wanted me to try fashion photography, but I was really more interested in fine art portraiture. I took some jewelry classes from a sculptor who did accessories. I had already started getting some momentum from my company, and he said I should just go with it.
It grew very naturally. I didn't have investors.
When did people start noticing the pieces you were making?
I was modeling at the time, and a stylist wanted to pull a necklace for a Nylon shoot. I was like, "I don't really have a collection," and she was like, "you should."
What did that necklace look like?
It was a piece that you can put on your thumb, it can be a guitar pick as well. It had a little design on the top, a little face. I was doing a lot of music at the time. Patti Smith's son Jackson was teaching me guitar.
So what happened after that stylist said you were onto something?
When I start something, I don't take it lightly. I made a ton of stuff in two weeks. It was really fast.
Nylon ended up featuring me as a designer to watch, and a lot of stores and galleries started contacting me.
It was a couple years before I opened a store. I had some time to see what people liked and I asked a lot of questions. I had people come to my house, and I'd do sales. They were always coming at odd times, men who wanted gifts for their girlfriends who were like, "Come on, let me in! I need this!" They were just calling me at all hours of the day. You know, "Can you meet me at Union Square?"
How do you come up with the ideas for your pieces? Like, for example, the hippo shark or the dinosaur eating fried chicken?
The dinosaur eating friend chicken was something that I wanted for myself. I love making chicken and I love t-rexes—I wanted one for a pet when I was little.
For the hippo shark, a friend of mine wanted the most badass necklace possible. I thought, hippos are really dangerous but people don't think they're dangerous, and sharks actually aren't that dangerous but people think they're dangerous. And then it has a Tina Turner in its mouth, but it's a zombie Tina Turner. Beautiful women are dangerous, but especially if they're zombies and they're Tina Turner. She's holding a bone and she's hitting it over the head. She can't be stopped, even if she doesn't have a head.
It's all kind of organic, it's what I feel like making. I work by series, not by collection. So I'll do a monster series, or a power animal series, or a cat and dog series. The animal pieces are very personality-driven. They all have so much personality in their faces. It annoys me when jewelry doesn't have movement or personality. It should be an heirloom-quality thing that shows a lot about the wearer. If your kids find it someday it should tell them something about their mother.
A lot of your designs have an anatomical theme.
I love anatomy. My grandma was a surgeon, and I was in AP Human Biology. I took figure drawing for four years, and I love drawing the human body.
Blood and stuff doesn't really bother me. I think it's really interesting and beautiful.
The pieces are really heavy! In a good way.
I don't solder anything, everything is one piece. They don't break easily. I make sure the little details are taken care of. I feel bad if my customers are mad, I never want them to feel like they wasted money.
What are your price points?
Mostly everything is $20 to $380, but we do have some pieces that are $600 to $2500.
How did you decide it was time to open your own store?
I realized that I wanted it to be an experience. When you go into a store, a lot of times it's not that fun. There's no art aspect to it. We have the Fred and the Yummy. It's like a power animal.
Are Fred and Yummy your pets? Are the mannequins in the window modeled after them?
Yes, the dog is Fred, who is kind of like my power animal.
Can we talk about power animals?
I'm part Native American, and I love the idea of power animals. They make you stronger, they make you realize certain things about your life. If you think of an animal, that means something different than if the animal comes to you. Both things have happened to me. Hummingbirds are always coming to me. My friends think it's bizarre. I could be at a restaurant, I could be in the middle of nowhere, and all of a sudden there's a hummingbird trying to sit on my shoulder.
How did you know Fred was your power animal?
I had researched every type of dog, and I thought the Affenpinscher was so beautiful. It looked like an Ewok or a little gremlin. I found a rescue for Affenpinschers and I was talking back and forth with them for like five years. I wanted one with a lot of personality, one that I connected with.
One day I was at my friend's house and I was like "Oh my god, I think my dog just came into the world." So I called the lady and I was like, "Did you just get a new dog?" And she was like, "Yeah, one of the dogs I just got was pregnant with puppies and it had this puppy."
She sent this photo and Fred was sitting on her hip, her head was cocked, she was smiling with her bottom teeth and, like, working the camera harder than I've ever seen a dog work the camera. She's obviously a model. I knew that she was the perfect dog for me. I have a brand and I wanted an animal that would enjoy that type of lifestyle.
You launched a clothing line recently!
I've been wanting, in the back of my mind, to expand the line. When I saw this space, at 305 Ninth Street, I thought it was the perfect opportunity. I'm more of a doer, I don't overthink things a lot.
How do you come up with your clothing designs?
It's just things I want, or things that I have a hard time finding. Like our silk cat dress. I love embroidery, and this cat is licking its little bum and its little bum is a heart. And it's kind of funny but the quality is really good—you can wear it at night, during the day, to sleep, whatever you want. I can rarely find stuff that isn't crazy-expensive that is beautiful and has a fun detail.
We also have these really comfortable cotton dresses. We work with this mill upstate. It's run by this really nice older guy. I love sparkly things and he had this beautiful gold thread that ended up in a few of the pieces.
Our kitty bags came about the same way. I wanted a purse that was light, and I couldn't find anything. You can fit everything you need in it—your phone, your wallet, your lip balm, your keys, and that's it.
Do you have a best seller?
Our hands are really popular. One is modeled after James Dean's hand. I used to watch a lot of his movies. We also do a female hand of god, because it's just as likely that god would have been a woman as a man. I love the nurturing element, the feminine energy.
Our "Mystery Hugs" ring is really popular, too. They're two hands hugging your finger, and they're creepy monster hands but they're really sweet.
How would you describe the Verameat girl?
She's practical but still arty. People who love art and are positive. A lot of our customers are really excitable and fun. They're professional but they have creative jobs.
You have a store in L.A. now. Are there things that sell better there than in New York?
People have been asking for gold stuff. We do these little dot rings, and we're starting to use stones more. That's part of why I opened this second East Ninth Street store—the original one at 315 is almost too small.
And you have a shop in Williamsburg. How did you decide on that neighborhood?
I love Williamsburg, I used to live there. At the time, eight years ago, the rent was really cheap. I was helping my landlord build a photo lab in one of his buildings. We became friendly and a few years later he had a store available just outside of the Bedford mall. He asked me if I was interested because he knew that I had a business. It was such a good location, and he was willing to make it a bit larger for me.
I had a lot of customers who were like, "please let me know when you open a store in Brooklyn," so it seemed like the next logical step."
What do your Williamsburg customers buy?
People love the monster stuff and the more eccentric things, like the hippo shark. We have the dino baby who has beautiful hair and claw hands and a penis bone. She's ready.
Wait, a penis bone?
She's half-dinosaur, and some dinosaurs have penis bones. She would definitely have a penis bone. It's the dinosaur side of her.
I really love narrative. I love relationships and people's relationships to themselves and the world. I love thinking about if two animals came together, what would that look like. A lot of the pieces have stories behind them, in my mind.
You can tell!
Maybe I'll do it in a blog, or maybe I'll do it in little books that come with the pieces, but I'd love to actually write out the stories behind some of the designs.
Have you added any new shapes to your line lately?
We just came out with a hand chain. It's really simple and delicate, but not breakable. We did a really cool rose thorn ear cuff. I'm making a hand piece, too. Jewelry is wearable art to me, and I like pushing it.
What do you look for when you're hiring?
I look for creative, positive people who fit in with the rest of the team. We all work really closely with each other and ask each other for advice. It's not a solo business. I really look for someone who adds something that we don't currently have to the team.
I try to hire people who are brand ambassadors, and who already have the type of style that I admire.
What kind of style is that?
A little bit quirky, but still themselves. They know how to accentuate what they have and who they are. Not every girl that works at Verameat has the same style. Some are more feminine and elegant, others are more rock 'n roll.
I have a lot of sides to me, and a lot of these girls feel like part of my personality, but accentuated.
How would you describe the mood in fashion right now?
People want to have just one dress that looks amazing. They're looking for more unique designs. For jewelry, they're looking for heirloom quality. They don't want throwaway pieces as much.
What's in the works for Verameat?
I'm working on a movie called Salad Days. That's coming out in a couple of years, probably. It's me and Megan, who I work with—she was my first employee ever. There's a power animal aspect to it, and a witchy element. It's a road trip movie. We travel from New York to L.A., and it's a narrative film.
There should always be more female road trip buddy-movies.
Exactly! I love beautiful yet creepy stuff, and there are definitely some interesting scary-but-fun elements as well.
Time for the lightning round!
8am or 8pm?
Beer or wine?
Either sparkling wine or apple cider beer
Whiskey or tequila?
Cats or dogs?
Both. That's too hard.
Beach or mountains?
Favorite vacation destination?
Favorite neighborhood lunch spot?
Vera's, it's this bar on Fifth. The restaurant is called Frank's but I like to sit at the bar because it's not busy at all for lunch. They have a steak salad with kale that I love.
Favorite neighborhood happy hour spot?
Rap or country?
Rap. Snoop Dogg is probably my favorite.
Mad Men or Game of Thrones?
Game of Thrones
Coffee or tea, and how do you take it?
I love tea. There's a white rose tea at Tea and Sympathy that I like. I take it with a little bit of milk and honey.
Sweet or savory?
Introvert or extrovert?