Jill Martinelli and Sabine Le Guyader started making deep impressions as teenagers, never expecting that hand-casting dental prosthetics would lead to successful careers in jewelry.
Now the Massachusetts College of Art and Design graduates behind the sought-after Lady Grey jewelry line are making another kind of impression.
Like making Beyoncé smile with their thought-provoking creations.
The pop superstar has taken a shine to several Lady Grey pieces recently, most prominently a four-finger lattice ring from their spring 2014 collection.
“She’s worn them on stage and then in real life too,” said Martinelli, still gleeful about a Beyoncé Instagram post of the singer’s ringed-hand spooning a bowl of soup. “It’s exciting to see anybody wear our pieces, but you know with Beyoncé it has to go through so many people to get to her.”
Martinelli and Le Guyader never imagined a celebrity following (Rose Byrne and Chloë Sevigny are also fans) when they started working in separate dental offices during high school. Le Guyader, who grew up in Fall River, spent summers working for her dad, a dental technician who taught her to sculpt wax moldings for mouthpieces.
“He does a lot of waxing and castings so that’s when I began playing around,” said the 30-year-old. “I figured out there was a lot of similarities to what I’d been doing with my father and jewelry.”
By coincidence, the same scene was playing out more than 1,000 miles away in Coral Springs, Fla., where Martinelli, who was living in nearby Parkland, worked in a local orthodontist office during high school.
“I was welding, wiring braces for molds. You do spot welding in the back of the mouth. I was making molds and models of things,” she said.
It was during Martinelli’s sophomore year (Le Guyader was a freshman) at MassArt when the women met and immediately bonded. It was instant chemistry, and the pair started working on pieces that Martinelli described as “darker.”
“We did a lot of rotten branches, and it was all very oxidized,” she said. “We were making ugly jewelry intentionally. The opposite of what jewelry should be, but beautiful.”
MassArt instructor Joe Wood recalled their obsession with the mouth.
“They were both orally fixated,” Wood said. “Sabine was fascinated by the look of investigating grotesquerie and prosthetics and body parts.”
Wood, who chairs the fine arts/3-D department, recalled experiments with “the ideas of what is wearable, what is pleasurable.”
“We look at our expectations of an idea and the parts we take for granted, and start not taking the parts for granted. Part of the benefit of those investigations, of playing around with provocative imagery, is they’ll run into something that piques people’s interest, and then they have to figure out a way to get consumers to deal with it,” he said.
Success at the school’s annual Christmas sale prompted sales to local boutiques and galleries including the former Newbury Street shop Matsu and Scoop NYC.
Jennifer Kopek, buyer for women’s accessories at Scoop, picked up the line in 2011, praising Lady Grey for maintaining a modest price point ($200 to $315) for something handcast in their Brooklyn studio.
“It’s still costume, but the great thing about their line is it’s all handmade,” she said. “It adds a lot of value to their collection.”
After graduating, Martinelli and Le Guyader headed to New York to set up shop in Brooklyn’s artsy Greenpoint neighborhood. Inspired by everything from equestrian hardware to Egyptian symbols, the jewelers said the brand is about making progressive design wearable in the real world.
“It was pretty organic how we’ve gotten to where we are now,” said Martinelli.
In the six years since its launch, Lady Grey has grown its retail base to include 35 outlets worldwide, including an e-commerce site (www.ladygreyjewelry.com). While the duo gets help with casting, they have their hands on all 500 pieces they produce each month. Most of that number is made up of subtle styles such as drop gold hoops and an almond-shaped silver ring with sodalite, a deep blue mineral. But conceptual statement pieces also have their following.
“Some of our most successful styles are these cage and lobe earrings. The lobe earrings mimic the shape of your ear, and they clip on in gold,” said the 32-year-old Martinelli, in a telephone interview from Lady Grey’s Brooklyn studio. “Those are pieces you would think would be tricky to sell, but they’re the most successful. It’s [for] a woman who’s a little braver.”
Which brings us to Beyoncé, who picked up her first piece of Lady Grey at Curve, a New York boutique, three years ago. More recently, the songstress bought an arc cuff and the aforementioned lattice ring, pieces inspired by Catholic church iconography (the lattice calling to mind a confessional door). Martinelli isn’t sure photos or mentions of Beyoncé wearing Lady Grey sell more jewelry. But it does help sell the line to retailers.
“We do see a little bump in business. When you’re trying to push something, you can say, ‘Well, Beyoncé wore it,’ ” Martinelli said.
The high-profile attention is invaluable — “people are going crazy over the ring,” said Kopek — but Martinelli said she is grateful anytime she sees someone wearing Lady Grey, especially the rings.
“I can never wear the rings. It’s just impossible to maintain because our hands are working on every single piece,” she said. “It’s embarrassing. People say, ‘Let’s see.’ And I just think, ‘Oh, don’t look at my hands.’ ”Jill Radsken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.