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Jewelry brand AZLEE launches its new “Staircase II” collection next week. The line was founded by Baylee Zwart, informed by her experience working with fair-trade non-profits, time spent in the sustainability and design department of Toms Shoes, and engaging with artisans on the shores of Lake Atitlán.
AZLEE delivers a balance of minimal, artistic aesthetics with high quality materials for a unique take on timeless gems. All pieces are made by hand in its Santa Monica-based atelier by master craftsmen and anchored in a desire to create products that last several lifetimes. By supporting local economic development, donating proceeds to various organizations, building an ethical supply chain, and allowing customers to create bespoke pieces, AZLEE is continuing to support both idiosyncratic design and a responsible workplace.
Ahead of the new collection launching next week, Whitewall spoke with Zwart about using 100 percent recycled precious metals and a slower pace amid the pandemic is impacting design.
WHITEWALL: How did your upbringing influence your idea of the feeling you’d put in place at AZLEE?
BAYLEE ZWART: Growing up in California I've always had this deep connection with the ocean and a deep investment in its health. So when I started AZLEE I knew right away that I wanted to combine my deepest passions, which are the health of the ocean and creating jewelry that lasts a lifetime.
WW: From there you worked at Glamour and Allure in New York, then moved to Guatemala to work for a fair-trade non-profit with local artisans. Can you tell us a bit about your time there and what you learned?
BZ: Living and working in Guatemala was the first time in my life that I felt like I was in the exact right place at the exact right time. I learned how empowering minimalism can be, how when you have only as much as you need life is actually a lot less stressful and more enjoyable. I learned how much I love being out of my comfort zone and learning, it was a very transformative time for me.
And then I happened to find jewelry while living down there, and started studying metalworking to make jewelry. It all couldn't have been better timing because I had gone down there not knowing what was next for me, and by the time I left, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life career-wise.
WW: Do you feel your background in the editorial world helped you understand not just aesthetics and branding, but where the jewelry market is moving?
BZ: I honestly wasn't strongly involved in jewelry during my time at the magazines, but I did learn a lot of the ins and outs of the industry during that time. It helped me understand how editors think and work. And it helped me understand the hierarchy of the fashion industry which I think it helpful to know as you try and navigate it.
WW: After moving back from Guatemala, you worked in design and product sustainability at Toms Shoes, and developed AZLEE’s first collection while still there. What did you take away from your time at Toms?
BZ: I couldn't believe how many resources Toms invested in giving responsibly. It was truly inspiring. I learned how to incorporate nonprofit values in a for-profit business. Everyone there was so accessible so I was able to meet and have coffee with anyone and pick their brain about how their job works so that I could kind of holistically learn how a business operates.
I also dove into sustainability ther,e which really laid the groundwork for me understanding the different aspects and approaches to sustainability for a business. There are so many different directions you can go with sustainability so Toms help me lay the groundwork for that and help me on a personal level determine how to prioritize the various elements of sustainability.
WW: What is your approach to jewelry design today?
BZ: I've always sought to make pieces that felt interesting enough to catch your eye but approachable enough to wear every day, that's one of my greatest interests when designing is how to balance those two desires. The other thing I constantly find myself trying to balance is a softness mixed with an edge. I love balancing the two. One of the things I'm most inspired by is materials, and finding really unusual materials to work with that just aren't commonly seen in the marketplace and then keeping the design elements very clean and minimal so it stands the test of time.
WW: What's an average day in your life as a jewelry designer and business owner like?
BZ: We are very hands-on with our jewelers, so our day-to-day greatly revolves around our jewelers, our clients, and our retailers. Our Atelier is in Santa Monica, and we make everything locally. We run back-and-forth between our jewelers and the Atelier. To source our rare-cut diamonds and stones, I work with different collectors all over the world, so I am often reviewing stones that have arrived and sitting with them to really feel and understand them before we propose them to clients.
WW: Key facets of the brand's mission in relation to sustainability include supporting economic development, donating to organizations, and building an ethical supply chain. What is the brand doing today to aid in those missions?
BZ: I am always trying to learn more about what problems plagues our industry. A focus for us right now is heavily weighted around offering clients vintage and post consumer diamonds as though our diamonds are sourced ethically, we are working on taking that one step further to being able to offer more post consumer or vintage diamonds which require no new mining.
We are also trying to figure out better ways of engaging our clientele with the nonprofits that we donate to every year, and how to communicate all the incredible work that they are doing in a more effective and regular way in our messaging. We've recently shifted to using almost 100 percent recycled precious metals we're all of our pieces which of course requires no new mining and is very exciting.
WW: AZLEE has designs that evoke motifs and silhouettes from the French Art Deco era and ancient civilizations. Why are these eras inspirational to the brand?
BZ: I have always been fascinated with ancient civilizations, artifacts and art so using those as a reference came very naturally. And then the way that I design has always been very linear, clean and geometric, which naturally nod to many of the elements signatures of the art deco era. Fusing the linear with the more soft and romantic elements from the different eras has become one of my greatest joys and challenges when designing.
WW: AZLEE also allows customers to create bespoke jewelry with the brand. What could a prospective customer expect when working hand-in-hand? What's this process like?
BZ: The process is incredibly collaborative, we create the pieces with the client from the ground up so every element is highly considered. I work directly with the clients myself to make sure that the process is intimate and their vision and deepest desires combine to make the finished piece. We offer our clients access to one of a kind stones that no one else in the world will have.
WW: Has anything changed for your brand amid COVID-19?
BZ: The pace has changed, which has been incredibly liberating. We've always operated strictly on the fashion calendar and it can be quite stressful. Now we have the opportunity to redefine the pace which has been incredibly liberating. I think what that looks like for us is slower, more thorough, and more thoughtful, with the goal of creating small works of art in every piece.
WW: Next week, you’re launching “Staircase II.” How would you describe it?
BZ: It's much more playful and spontaneous, which I think is a reflection of 2020. I wanted something not so serious, and something that felt deeply indulgent.