Seven years ago, when Page Neal and Anna Bario decided to relocate from New York and San Francisco respectively to work on a sustainably-minded line of jewelry, they chose Philadelphia because it was both affordable and close to New York City. “The decision to move here was a complete whim,” Neal told me over iced tea in her kitchen when I visited her South Philly home earlier this summer. “I didn’t know anyone and neither did Anna.” But the gamble paid off: The city, it turned out, had a thriving jewelry district where casting, engraving, and stone-setting workshops have sat above storefronts for generations. “It’s an amazing place for makers because small-scale manufacturing is really accessible,” Neal says. (The city was also a boon for Neal personally: She met a guy, got hitched, and became a mother.)
From the beginning, Bario-Neal was motivated by material activism. “We were interested in finding how we could have a positive effect in the way we made, “ she explains. “We wanted to be stakeholders in new initiatives, and to promote a level of material awareness and activism in the industry that was not, at that time, present. We wanted to be early adopters.” All materials used by the brand are traceable and fairly traded, something the majority of the jewelry industry cannot lay claim to. The approach limits the speed at which they can develop, however: “Every time you introduce a new stone, there is so much more to learn.”
2008’s recession led the pair to step into fine jewelry, and they ended up liking it more than they anticipated. “People care so much more when it’s a fine piece as they’re more invested in the design and the materials.” Have they had any unusual requests? Neal pauses before answering: “Making a ring out of human ashes, and one out of human hair!”
Both designers are creating outside of the brand: Bario is a musician and has been exploring ceramics; and Neal has been studying Integrated Product Design part-time at the University of Pennsylvania. Comparing her two fields, she says, her jewelry practice lends itself more to experimentation: “With furniture it can take a year working on a piece to design all the components. With jewelry you can play a lot without investing too much. I love the accessibility, seeing other people wear it, and how instantaneous it is.”
Bario recently moved from Philadelphia to New York, where she works from a bench at their city showroom; since Neal’s baby was born late last year, she is mostly working from home. “We talk every single day,” says Neal. “I feel like we talk more now that she’s not in Philly!”
Like most ceramic artists we know, Julianne Ahn didn’t originally train at the wheel. “I went to school for undergrad in textile design, and then I got an MFA in the Fiber Materials Studies department at SAIC — which is a way more conceptual major,” the Philadelphia-based designer told us when we visited her studio this winter. “I did that on purpose to complement my undergraduate degree, which was about technique and craft-making. Somewhere in the middle, I’ve managed to find a balance between concept and design.”
Just walking into Bodega Gallery in Philadelphia’s Old City and being greeted by one of its five cool, young founders — or browsing its online archive of past exhibitions, which is peppered with names like Sam Falls and Travess Smalley — you could easily file it alongside similar edgy, high-brow art establishments in cities like L.A., New York, or Paris. And then you find yourself conversing with a few of said cool, young founders (all of them artists themselves and graduates of Hampshire College), and you hear them say things like “stuff is for sale if people want to buy it, but that’s not the driving force,” or “this is just a space — everything happens around it, and nothing happens at it,” and you realize that the economics of a place like Philly can be even more freeing for projects like this than you’d imagined. Bodega really is just a space, one that's run by Elyse Derosia, Ariela Kuh, Lydia Okrent, James Pettengill, and Eric Veit, but where it feels like almost anything could happen.
If you think about it, most ceramicists are obsessed with perfecting the clay — wedging it to get rid of bubbles, erasing seams that might come from using a mold, shaving off excess little bits. Jessica Hans is not that ceramicist. Her pots and planters are lumpy and misshapen. They have uneven mouths and aggressively irregular textures. When we visited her sunny, third-floor studio, on top of the South Philly row house she shares with her filmmaker boyfriend, our first thought was that her ceramics all looked like they’d walked out of the prop closet from a Tim Burton movie. (Which, if you read our site with any regularity, you know is one of the highest compliments we could give someone. We’re pretty into weird.)