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Linda Vogel's office is tucked away in the grim, gray corner of an unremarkable hallway in a nondescript building on a busy block in the Diamond District. Vogel herself greets visitors via a peephole in the door before buzzing them in to her combination workshop and showroom. If you didn't know it was there, you'd be hard pressed to find it. She does no advertising, and has no website nor any other social media presence to speak of.
Even so, Vogel has managed to keep her custom jewelry business in operation since 1982 by word of mouth. Without a logo, her craftsmanship and personal attention has long been her calling card. "What I do for a living isn't work," she says, "It's a passion."
On the other side of the door is her compact, pleasantly cluttered studio crammed with spare pieces, a well-used smelter, and various chemicals. If it were not for their small size and precision, they could be tools of a carpenter or a mechanic. From here she turns out custom jewelry for designers, artists, and private clients. While the surroundings are less-than-glamorous, for Vogel owning her own business is the fulfillment of a lifetime of ambition.
"It was something I wanted to do since I was thirteen years old," she explains, adding that her interest goes beyond the ornamental. "I always liked taking things apart and putting things together. I loved working with metals, because you could form them and reform them...even the breaks were interesting to me." She picked up the basics with private lessons in high school, design courses in college and studies at a technical school in Strasbourg, France.
Even with her early start, realizing her ambition wasn't easy. Upon her arrival in New York from the Midwest in '77, the male-dominated industry was not exactly throwing its doors open to the young upstart. One man went so far as to advise her to observe carefully and not hope for too much, or as he put it "steal with your eyes, because no one will teach you." Undeterred, she put off graduate school when she found a job working for a newer breed of boss. "I got a job working for a young designer, because in the late seventies there were a lot of young designers popping up and they needed help."
It turned out to be a good fit and grad school fell by the wayside. Shortly into her career she even found herself working with some of the old guard, who had at first put her off. "I was a lot different from a lot of the other people who were here, because I was from the Midwest. I was friendly and I smiled and I wanted to learn things and I wasn't loud and a lot of the older men liked me, because I wanted to learn so much."
She honed her skills and worked hard, but her first big break as an independent designer actually came in the form of a case of mistaken identity. A woman accidentally confused her with another craftsman and asked about some custom orders. Rather than dismissing the opportunity, she went ahead and grabbed the work (while correcting the confusion, of course), built a workbench in her studio apartment and began to take commissions. The initial phase of building her business was not exactly easy, since she was still working her day job, but after a couple of years of near round-the-clock molding, soldering and designing she was ready to head out on her own.
In those days, new clients came by recommendation or because they admired her work. Today, it remains the same. She explains, "Occasionally, I'll get calls from people who say they saw someone walking down the street and (they) stopped her and she gave me your name. That happens often." While she's happy to work with a variety of customers, she can be selective about allowing people into her atelier for safety reasons "I'm very careful about who I let in, because of the nature of the business," she explains, "but it's kind of evolved in that way."
While she's discreet about her clientele and what they spend, she is happy to share some of her favorite projects over the years particularly a brooch made for a visually impaired client that reads "I Love You" in braille. She explains that often, "people hand me a piece of something and say ‘I can't wear this, what can you do to make it wearable?' A customer of mine's mother went to a garage sale and picked up the ugliest thing that she thought no one wanted, and it turned out to be it a very, very expensive rose cut and real diamond and pearl part of a necklace."
She's regularly asked to work on with pieces from museums, "but," she insists, "real antiques where there's restoration involved; I don't reproduce." She's also collaborated with fashion designers and even with modern artist, Richard Tuttle, who wanted a portrait of his wife in necklace form. But, she demurs "when I worked with him on that, I was basically just the machine making it. I had to advise him on how things went together, so we could work it in such a way that it was a wearable piece."
Because her business was built pre-internet on opportunity, referral and hard work, having a website wasn't part of her initial plan. However, with the dynamics of the field changing the way designers and clients find each other, she's now considering how to make her foray into creating a digital presence. While she doesn't currently have a website or even an Instagram or Facebook page for her business, she's not opposed to it. It's just become an issue of finding the right match. "I don't want (a site) that has one thing that I've done in nine colors, because that's not me," she explains. "(T)he one reason why I would consider one in time is that people can't find me and they don't use phone books. " She admits that she worries about losing sales if she can't be found.
"This path is over. When I started out I really had an apprenticeship mentality, because that's how it was taught" Vogel says. She fears the days of the famed Diamond District and its craftsmen itself may be numbered. "It's a dying art, the way I learned and my generation learned. We're sort of the last generation that's going to be here. There's no reason: work is dying out, interest is dying out; the overhead is too much money to stay alive. "
It is, after all custom work, she says, that drives her as an artisan; explaining she's just as inspired by people as she is by the medium, "(It comes) from the materials, but also how the person is and the person's personality." In turn, that's also why clients seek her out—they want something that can't just be picked up in any mall. "I get a very unique, eclectic crowd. People get it if I do something a little bit different." They're also driven more by occasions (weddings, anniversaries) than by trends, although, they are affected by the ups and downs of the gold market. "I used to have customers who would pick up work, drop off work, pick up work, drop off work, pick up work, drop off work. I always had something going on for them."
Currently, Linda Vogel observing an overall change in the jewelry industry as a whole. Formerly run by family businesses and small design houses, the market is increasingly dominated by large chain stores. Additionally, people are not going into the jewelry in the same numbers or buying the way they used to, which she fears will lead to a generation of "generic" pieces. But as difficult as it is to maintain a small business in New York, she has no plans to retire or move on to another, cheaper city any time soon, adding if she wasn't fabricating every day, she'd still be digging into her boxes of materials to create for herself, musing "My work isn't work. It's never been work. It's always been my outlet."