The world of fine jewelry is more refined and exclusive than any part of the fashion industry—and Marla Aaron is here to break the mold. Since beginning her namesake label in 2012, Aaron has been redefining what “fine jewelry” means through her transformative and whimsical pieces and projects (she’s even made a jewelry vending machine!). We spoke with her about her signature lock pieces, the importance of parenting, and why jewelry has taken center stage in the last year for accessory lovers everywhere.
How did you get started as a jewelry designer?
I began slowly and “on the sly” while I worked at my other job, on my lunch hour, and late at night. I was always passionate about jewelry, but some time around 2003 it became a true obsession and I spent my spare time dreaming about this idea of jewelry as literal precious tools. I didn’t have the courage to leave my job and truly do it until 2012—so we are not talking about an overnight success situation….
How did you know fine jewelry was your specific calling?
Oh goodness….a calling is such a grand word, isn’t it? I think a lot about jewelry, but I’m also really thinking a lot about all kinds of objects and ideas that are totally unrelated to jewelry and that informs our designs more than anything else.
Locks are a major element of your brand and designs—why is this?
I think the Locks were just the beginning for us and they struck a chord across a broad swath of humanity—because it speaks to the idea of holding on to, locking onto, that which is precious. We’ve taken our initial idea of the Locks and transformed it into many other types of pieces, rings that are also locks, bracelets that contain secret messages, charms that swivel, earrings that turn into charms, and games that are jewelry like our Pins Charm. The Locks were merely the jumping off point to a world of ideas that we are still exploring—I’m nowhere near done.
Your “Lock Your Mom” project is a brand tradition for Mother’s Day. Tell us about it.
It began simply enough because I was a single mom when my son was little, and Mother’s Day always felt a bit bittersweet when he was too little to really understand what all the “momcelebrating” was about. Being a single parent can be lonely and it feels lonelier somehow on days like Mother’s Day. At a certain point, I realized that this feeling was in fact universal and cuts across every sociodemographic group or culture—rich or poor, parenting alone can feel lonely. I wanted to do something small—to let them know how great they are. I decided on a silver heart lock with an exclamation point for the “!!!” of motherhood. This year, this extremely complicated time when the struggle of parenting was even bigger with the pandemic, we were able to give out 1,500 of them. The locks come with a simple note, “Somebody knows you. Somebody loves you. Somebody told us.” That’s the whole point….This project touches every single person at our company and our partners—reading the letters we receive from people nominating single moms in their lives, women (and men!) nominating themselves, is an emotional experience.
You’re known for your whimsical brand projects, from making earrings out of Fordite to putting jewelry in a vending machine! Where does your inspiration come from?
I think of everything we do as project and I don’t think about us as a “brand”—in fact, that word feels too established. By calling our work “projects,” it means they are all works in progress and can change and morph—like our earrings that are convertible. Like incorporating car paint with 18K gold, turning a working pulley into a piece of jewelry, or being inspired by the way a toilet paper roll fits into its holder and allowing that to inform our Trundle Lock Series of convertible rings. Everything is a project and the starting point is often unexpected.
When did you know you had “made it” in the jewelry world? Was it one of those “pinch me” moments?
I will let you know when I think that’s happened.
What are some of your favorite moments from your career?
When I saw someone—just a regular person—walking down the street wearing one of our Locks. Doing the jewelry for Roland Mouret’s London show in 2019, unveiling our first vending machine as an installation at the Brooklyn Museum. But probably my most favorite memory is when I was still working out of a tiny room with 2 employees out of my house. I was visiting our longtime workshop and the owner handed me an envelope and I asked him what it was, and he said, “It’s a lease for the space next to me here. Either you take it or I’m taking it, but I need more space so you must need more space.” He had signed the lease for me. We have since moved and he’s subsequently taken over that space. It was such a vote of confidence in me and our work.
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What are some of your favorite pieces you’ve designed?
They are all my favorites, but the ones that were the biggest headache will always be my favorites—the Myriad Lock which opens with a gentle pinch, the DiMe bracelet we made with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 engraved on the interior and the exterior entirely engraved with images from that sonnet. Many of our one of a kind pieces that are in private collections are my favorites. But I truly do love them all.
You’re known as a “disruptor” in the jewelry field. Why do you think this is—and what does being a “disruptor” mean to you?
When you don’t know the rules, you can’t play by them. You are unbound. I don’t feel we are disrupting so much as making our own place. When I started the company in 2012, industry folks would look at me like I was crazy, wanting to make claspless chains. When I would bring the locks to different workshops on 47th Street, many turned me away. Now, if you type in my name in the search bar on Etsy you will be assaulted with pages and pages of copies of our work (that’s a whole other problem, by the way, that the fashion industry is all too familiar with). My point is, our work struck a chord. I still feel we are finding our way.
Jewelry’s become extremely popular during the last year. Why do you think it resonates with so many people?
We launched our Fiddling Series in the middle of lockdown during the pandemic. The pieces all had movement in common. They are made to be played with, which is what people do with their jewelry to one extent or another, especially when they are anxious. Fiddling with your jewelry can be pretty comforting. It also doesn’t hurt that jewelry is portable, personal, and precious. I always say jewelry has one job really, and that’s to bring joy to people—this year, we needed more joy than ever. That’s my best explanation.