Glitter Trotter: Kristina, thank you for joining me today! To get us started, can you tell me a bit about yourself?
Kristina Skobina: To be honest, my bio is not very remarkable. I was born in Irkutsk, Eastern Siberia, Russia; and I’ve lived here my entire life. I am a trained gemologist. For those, who do not know – gemology is a science of identifying, studying, cutting, and valuating precious stones.
GT: Where did you go to college?
KS: Here, in Irkutsk. I graduated from Irkutsk Polytechnique University. I am also trained as a ceramics sculptor; and I believe this latter training has had a significant impact on my work as a jewelry designer and jewelry maker. For example, I prefer to work with metal when it’s most flexible and moldable, when it’s sort of “alive” and follows the lead of my hands. As a result, many of my jewelry pieces look like tiny, wearable, ergonomic sculptures. I think this is what actually constitutes wearable art.
GT: Aside from designing jewelry, which we will talk about in a minute, what are your passions? What do you like to do, when you are not in your studio?
KS: My passions grow and change as I grow and evolve as a person, so they have been different in different period of my life. But when it comes to passions that influence my work, I would say martial arts have had a profound impact on me personally and on my subjective perspective on aesthetics.
Yet, this is not the only subject that interests me. I am fascinated by anthropology; I like learning about arts and crafts of different cultures and different historical periods. In fact, when designing a new collection, I often start by studying ornaments, color combinations, and the meaning they carry during a particular period in human history. This exploration guides me to better understanding of global aesthetics, and helps me define my own approach to the collection.
In the past few years, I’ve developed interest in interior design and home décor. I think it started, when I was decorating our studio; then it spilled over into my personal life making me re-think all the spaces, where I live and work, so they are aligned with my vision of beauty and comfort. Now this interest is taking our brand into a new field of luxury living and luxury gifts. With our jewelry, we are creating wearable art; our gifts are more of functional art. It’s a combination of creative aesthetics and practicality. A good example would be a set of mother-of-pearl goblins or a set of bronze barbeque sticks. This is still a new sector for our brand; and also new clients – outside our loyal jewelry lovers.
One more interest to mention, probably, has to do with designing clothes.
GT: I did not know you are also venturing into clothes design! This is amazing!
KS: I would say it sort of happened to us. You know that it’s impossible to showcase jewelry by itself; well, it is possible – but it would be boring. So, when we present our jewelry at various shows and exhibitions, we typically design clothes as well – to ensure that the entire outfits are visually aligned and appealing. Recently, we started offering clothes design as a service to help clients prepare for a range of events from a photoshoot to a runway defile to a corporate event. We have already done several such collections; it does feel like an area for us to explore further.
GT: I bet your friends would describe you as a person of many interests and even more talents.
KS: Funny enough, my friends would probably describe me as a “lady in black” because I tend to wear dark colors – black or dark gray – all the time.
GT: And why, if I may ask?
KS: I think I have enough exposure to bright colors, and complex structures and textures, when I create my jewelry. Wearing plain cuts and monochrome looks helps me stay balanced, stay in alignment with my inner self. Calm, soft colors and outlines help me maintain emotional sobriety, which is not easy for a person, whose brain is always buzzing with creative ideas.
The last fun fact about me -- I am an avid biker. I have a really big, really heavy, and very rogue-looking black motorcycle. This seems to be the very feature that makes people – clients and journalists alike – really excited. I guess, it’s the juxtaposition between the fine, tender jewelry that I make, and the image of a rough-n-tough biker.
GT: Wow, this is exactly what I had in mind when you mentioned that your bio is “unremarkable”! You are really modest! Now, let’s talk about your brand “Sophia” and your company. When did you start your business?
KS: An honest answer to this question is – I did not start a business. The word “business” assumes a particular structure or maybe a series of effective decisions and planned actions – all with the main goal of earning income and making a profit. I started making jewelry, probably, in middle school – just like all other girls. I made beaded friendship bracelets, little ribbon things, some pendants maybe – small things. But unlike other girls, I got a lot of praise for those little things, which kept me going. By the time we were in high school, all other girls moved on to new hobbies; meanwhile, I realized that not only my friends but their mothers and friends of their mothers were wearing my jewelry. This was the first learning moment for me, probably – when I saw that I did not just have a group of admirers, but rather an established group of clients, who appreciated and bought my hand-made jewelry. Imagine, I even went to a few nearby towns (Shelekhov and Angarsk) to deliver my pieces to the clients.
GT: So, that’s how the story began?
KS: You could say that. So, time went by, and I switched from beads and ribbons to clay, ceramics, and paper – and other materials that I could afford to buy for the money I earned from selling my jewelry. Even at that time, however, it was not a business; it was still a hobby, although the circle of my clients now grew far beyond the circle of my friends and their parents.
GT: Why did you chose jewelry and not something else like...
KS: like painting?
GT: Sure, why not. So, why jewelry and not painting?
KS: I believe it’s because jewelry-making encompasses a number of things that have always appealed to me. First, it’s the interaction with the raw material. I am very comfortable working with wood, metal, ceramics, clay, and other materials. I am very quick to learn various techniques and almost as quick to get the results, i.e., the products I am expecting to produce. And second, I believe that jewelry pieces are not as self-contained as a painting is. Jewelry requires a particular context to come alive – it needs humans with their unique personalities and sense of style. In other words, when I am making jewelry, I am integrating the context into a particular piece – creating a combination of a wearer’s personality, their choice of clothes, lifestyle, and many other factors. So, my jewelry pieces carry the mundane as well as philosophical, emotional, and mystical elements.
GT: So, you started with beads, then ceramics, clay and paper. When did you start working with metal?
KS: After the initial period of “hand-made” production, I realized that the materials that pre-define the shape of the final product are stifling my creativity. In other words, if I buy pre-made materials, I am looking at producing specific products, which are a good fit for these materials. But when you work with metals and gemstones – the choice of the final product is yours. Unlimited possibilities – this is what attracted me to the idea of working with metal jewelry. Another factor was, metals are a better fit for ambitious projects, not just big projects – but lasting, legacy works.
Interestingly, when I told my then customers that I was going to make silver jewelry, they were not amazed. I think their first reaction was probably, “Now her jewelry will be more expensive!” I also believe they really liked the hand-made feel of my original jewelry line. So, I lost some of my clients. And to gain new ones, I set out to have my very first solo exhibition.
GT: Ambitious, no?
KS: Of course! But at the time I was not driven by ambition alone. I wanted to scale -- make a lot of different pieces, see them on people, see the reaction of complete strangers to my work. And I really wanted to create a story, a coherent collection of many pieces. It was very exciting! I created 80 pieces, and most of them sold out almost immediately. This was 2014. And this is when the word “Sophia” first came up -- after that first exhibition.
But even then, I was still not thinking about Sophia as a business. I just realized that after the exhibition, I gained a lot of new clients, and it was no longer possible for me to continue making jewelry for all of them on my own. It was time to hire help. And as my team continued to grow, we bought new equipment and new materials, and shifted to more sophisticated designs... This is how – by taking one small step at a time, responding to the needs of our clients, and our own desire to learn and grow – we became a big (at least by Irkutsk standards) company. Imagine, for the whole of 2014, my constant partner and almost my “bible” was a catalogue of equipment for jewelry makers and jewelry stores; it was a huge book, which helped me learn more about the jewelry sector than any tutorial.
GT: Speaking about collections, how did you come up with the theme for your very first collection? Where do you find inspiration for your current collections?
KS: I am always looking for that “happy place” where I can make pieces that allow me to express myself and excite my clients, pieces that will not be collecting dust on the shelves. Such collections can only happen through a perfect alignment of the creative capacity and creative interests of a designer.
You’ve seen my collection “Michi no Kami” – “The Spirits of the Road”. This collection was created at the peak of my immersion in martial arts. My more recent collection --“A bird that sings” – is my professional CV; it is a compilation of jewelry pieces in which we used the most interesting creative techniques from all the work prior to that collection.
KS: Yes, I got used to speaking on the behalf of our brand; there are many actors behind Sophia these days. I am still the only jewelry designer, but each piece is a creation of several people. Hence, “we” and “our”.
GT: What about your current collection “The Burning Heart”?
KS: This collection is a response to the dramatic events of the last year, or even a year and a half.
GT: Do you mean the pandemic? How did your brand deal with this crisis?
KS: We were lucky, our brand went through the crisis with relative ease. But we saw the lives of people and businesses around us change dramatically. There have been so many examples of true humanity – selflessness, mutual support, courage, strong will, decisiveness... You know how they say, “It’s only in the darkness that you can see the light”.
Our idea for The Burning Heart collection was to showcase that jewel treasures are a representation of true treasures of humanity. There is a reason why jewelry and magic stones routinely appear in myths and fairy tales as references to courage, energy, and power. Jewelry, specifically gemstone jewelry, have been carrying this archetypical meaning for a while. And in this collection, we are making an emphasis on gemstones. Most pieces have stones in them; some pieces are a bit exaggerated, they are almost too loud in a Persian-fairy-tale manner. They are rich, and a bit pretentious. And this was our conscious approach, a clear reference to the treasures that we find and appreciate in the “darkness.”
GT: Why do you produce your jewelry in Irkutsk? In Siberia?
KS: There is really no valid reason for us to be producing our jewelry elsewhere. The creative, human, and financial resources to which we as a brand have access here are very attractive, and probably unprecedented for a jewelry brand. And of course, our clients are one of the biggest reasons as well. We work with individuals, retailers, large buyers and creative organizations from all over the world. So, it makes sense for our brand to be based in Irkutsk
However, we are not a little brand in a small provincial town. Our core clientele are in large urban areas, in Russia and abroad. And we are starting to see a strong emerging international “story” or Sophia as well. I am personally very interested in understanding and exploring European markets. Through our exhibitions, we meet a lot of clients with traditional European values, including appreciation for handmade and authentic pieces, concern about climate change and eco-system, interest in human history and humanity. The clients that we work with in the FSU regions are quite similar, for example, we work a lot with Kazakhstan – and not with ethnic Kazakhs but rather with Europe-oriented groups, fluent in English and Russian.
GT: How do your clients find you?
KS: We have a marketing strategy, which focuses called brand ambassadors, in particular, members of diaspora communities. For example, many of our clients in France and Germany are Russian women, who moved there for education, work, or marriage. Most of them are members of small and tight diaspora communities. When one person in the diaspora buys our jewelry, they tell others, who also reach out to us. It’s really rewarding way of growing our brand presence because working with small communities is a true test of my viability as a designer and the values and aesthetics of our brand.
GT: Any surprising clients?
KS: Recently, we’ve seen a lot of interest in our work from China – older man and women, but especially men, who seem to share our appreciation for the aesthetics of natural gemstones. They are also very fond of bronze, which is one of our favorite metals.
Overall, in all countries where we’ve managed to showcase our brand, we found a lot of interest, both commercial and aesthetic. I think what helps us to grow our client base is the fact that we have a very definitive image of our brand’s friend: it’s not a very young person, because to appreciate our pieces for what they are – small artworks – a person needs to have some life experience, some knowledge about art, good taste, and financial resources.
GT: Have you noticed any differences among your clients from different countries?
KS: Well, about our clients from different countries... What I want to say, it is not that our clients from different countries are different. The thing is, our jewelry carries a very specific, very unique appeal as I mentioned earlier. And in most countries, there are people, who respond to this appeal, to our message and aesthetics; there are just fewer people in some countries and more in others.
We are not very effective in our work with celebrity endorsements, yet the drummer from Metallica wears our bracelet, and Laura Fabian owns a jewelry set designed by our brand. There are quite a few celebrities, who found our brand on their own and are endorsing our products because they truly love them, not because they are paid to do it.
But we love all of our clients, regardless who they are or where they are from. For example, among our clients in Irkutsk is a very prominent military official. Every holiday – be it Women’s Day, Valentine’s Day, or Christmas – he comes to our studio to buy presents for the three women in his household: his wife, his mother, and his daughter. For the daughter, the present has to be the most expensive but not flashy, so it does not look expensive. For the mother, the piece needs be lush but elegant. For the wife, his choice is always the boldest and trendies piece, but it is usually one of our typical best sellers. So, we are working with an advanced user, who has a good taste and a good idea on how to please every woman in his life, and maintain peace and harmony in the house.
Here is another cool client story. Some time ago, I went to a really large jewelry exhibition in St. Petersburg. There, I met an elderly lady, who really liked our jewelry and bought a broch. The next day, she came back and showed me a piece of jewelry in a black velvet pouch. It was a piece of Scythian jewelry that her late husband, an archeologist, brought her as a present from his excavation expedition in Kerch. The broch that she bought from me and that I created without any prior knowledge of Scythian aesthetics, were an almost exact match of her historic piece of jewelry. Both the lady and I were truly amazed by this coincidence.
GT: Wow, what a great story! You said, you were offered a position as a ghost designer for another brand, is that right?
KS: Yes, I had a number of offers to move to Moscow, as an independent jewelry maker and as a ghost designer. I even had an offer to become a buyer for a large brand. However, looking at the key trends in jewelry-making industry in the recent years, I believe the best decision for our brand would be to stay in Irkutsk, where we are comfortable, and use the internet and media space to build reputation and access to global markets.
GT: Any interesting trends you can share with us?
KS: There is an interesting “mixology” trend in jewelry-making these days, which is coming back from the 80s: for example, we are mixing gold and aluminum, metal and ceramics, and similar non-mixable materials. I love this particular trend, but to be honest with you, I am generally not interested in short-lived seasonal trends for metal colors, seasonal themes, or textures. I am more interested in deeper conceptual trends that are related to overall life strategies, for example, the trend towards mindfulness and conceptual thinking. At a micro-level, this trend requires a more purposeful approach to understanding the history of a particular piece of jewelry, i.e., who the author is, what collection the piece belongs to, what was the inspiration for the collection, what was the historical background of the collection, etc. At a macro-level, I see this trend to be part of the renewed interest in vintage jewelry. Have you noticed that more people are buying books about jewelry these days? This is also part of the mindfulness trend. We live in the society of excess, where material goods are easily accessible but the moral direction is lost. So, people are trying to find meaning by reflecting on the experiences and wisdom of the previous generations, looking at today through the prism of the past.
GT: How is your work impacted by this trend?
KS: We offer our clients concept jewelry, which is linked to positive visual or philosophic ideas. Sometimes, we appeal to our audience’s emotions – as in “The Burning Heart” collection. Other times, we appeal to people’s curiosity through the compilation of mysterious oriental tales from China, Japan, Korea – as we did with “Michi no Kami” collection, where the bright oriental imagery is brought to life through a combination of metal, gemstones, and other unique and unexpected materials. You can literarily “read” this collection as a story book.
One more big idea I am exploring in my work has to do with our search for the role of a human in the universe. It goes beyond the role of a person in their family as in women’s sexuality, and beyond the role of a person in their community as a hero-zation of certain events and deeds. We are talking about the metaphysical interactions between a human and the universe. We believe that our one-of-a-kind jewelry, which carries traces of the hands that made it, offers a partial answer to the big question about the role of a human in the universe. I love exploring such philosophical concepts because this is what makes our jewelry unique and timeless.
GT: Talking about timeliness, what’s in the future for your brand?
KS: I am thinking scale! For one, we are opening a school for people, who want to learn metalsmithing; the demand for these skills t seems to be growing. But aside from skills, we want to teach aesthetics and concepts, because we believe that the mastery of metalwork is no longer enough to make truly unique jewelry.
GT: Are you only inviting commercially-minded learners?
KA: No, we are open to everyone, who want to learn how to make jewelry, even if they only want to do it as a hobby. I think education is the field, I really want to explore. I get a lot of invitations to speak at various events, to do lectures and master-classes. All of these is part of our future.
But overall, I think the future of the brand is expansion – both vertical and horizontal. I want to do more conceptually challenging collections, but I also want to see our brand expanding into new price-categories and becoming accessible to a broader audience. And of course, we want to expand geographically. All in all, the trajectory of our brand is probably similar to that of any successful brand – it is rather linear in terms of when we have more clients in more price-segments, we will inevitably produce more and more diverse collections, our team will continue to grow, we will upgrade out IT and equipment, and start exploring 3-D printing and other novelties. All of that is in our nearest future.
GT: What about interesting collaborations – anything you are looking forward to in this area?
KS: You know, just before COVID-19 we started an interesting project called “Baikal waters”. We experimented with various small vessels, which would hermetically enclose water from the lake Baikal and then be made part of jewelry pieces. Our big idea was to use this project as a way to showcase our alignment with the global climate-change movement. We started looking for speakers and ambassadors, who would help us put together an event. We met with a number of local activists engaged in discussion on of ecology, conservation and climate change, including scientists and activists working to improve the state of the lake Baikal.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 interfered with our plans. However, we are still interested in hosting this event. And we are talking about a global-scale event in which jewelry would only serve as an invitation into the conversation and a symbol of like-mindedness; and we would only share these one-of-a-kind pieces with people, who have earned their seat at the discussion table at our event.
This is the kind of a project that I am personally interested in, which means the brand will be trending in this direction in the future as well. And I truly hope that in the nearest future our brand “Sophia Art” will be associate with massive scale, strong concepts, and ingenious ideas.
GT: And amidst all of this project and ideas, you still found time for the interview. Thank you very much for that and best of luck to Sophia in making it all happen!
KS: Thank you!