Real Talk with Nicholas Varney

The artisan jeweler discusses inspiration, materials, and more

Nicholas Varney. Photo by Capehart
Nicholas Varney. Photo by Capehart

When and where did your love of jewelry design begin?

On a trip to Gstaad, Switzerland, when I was 11 years old. My father and I went through that beautiful town and bought a ring for my mother that he ultimately gave her on Christmas morning. The combination of travel, grand luxury, and the loving environment that it engendered was a very strong hook for me. 

What’s a favorite nontraditional material you like to work with?

The two stones that I use most are natural pearls and agate (I would consider those to be nontraditional). They appear in the vast majority of my recent work. We also work with chicken eggshells that I source from my own chickens on my farm in Dutchess County, New York.

Varney uses such materials as pearls and agate
Varney uses such materials as pearls and agate.

If you could design a piece of jewelry for anyone, who would it be?

In the real world, I have created pieces of jewelry for my godmother, Barbara Eden. She’s a wonderful model and inspiration, such a kind and beautiful woman. I was able to play upon the theme of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves in the pieces that I’ve made for her. Beyond that, Ginger from Gilligan’s Island would be a favorite because I’ve always had an attachment to Old Hollywood and the tropics. Many of the pieces I’ve made recently have included petrified palm tree and natural pearls. I think that show is a great setting for some of the materials I like to use. 

Ring by Nicholas VarneyWhich design icons have influenced your work?

I wouldn’t say David Bowie is necessarily a design icon, but he’s a theater icon, and the way I see it, theater and design are interchangeable. Bob Fosse as well. The way he changed the perception of the human body on stage is a major influence. Really, iconoclasts in general. Miles Davis and his unique ability to put sensuality and romance in jazz music was a revelation to me. 

What is your favorite travel destination and why?

My favorite travel destination is Istanbul. I’ve made a point to imbue my jewelry with a distinct yin-yang feel. The body of work, I hope, possesses a range of interests. I emphasize the obvious precious stones that we have all come to think of when dreaming of jewelry, but as important are the more modest materials that are rarely or never included in the vernacular of ultra-fine jewelry. It’s the conflict in the pieces that, I believe, makes the work relevant at this point in American history. Istanbul is a city, because of geographic location and its own history, that has that inherent conflict of influence present in all its art forms. It’s a magical place. History is very important.

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