By Ashley Davis
Ilana Sarna designs her fine jewelry line, Ilana Ariel, with a nod to her family’s rich heritage.
Ilana Sarna designs her fine jewelry line, Ilana Ariel, with a nod to her family’s rich heritage.

New York--Her designs may be pretty and whimsical, but don’t be fooled--Ilana Sarna creates from a deep place.

In explaining the genesis of her fine jewelry brand, Ilana Ariel, Sarna cites influences as immense as her grandparents’ survival of the Holocaust. After enduring such atrocities, Sarna’s grandparents (and, subsequently, her parents) placed special import on self expression, creating a culture where Sarna was exposed to various art forms from a young age and encouraged to listen to and tell stories through different mediums.

Sarna ultimately decided to express herself, and the story of her heritage, through jewelry design, a decision that took her away from her field of law.

Now, Ilana Ariel represents a mesh of cultures and periods. It’s inspired by Sarna’s home city of New York and adopted city, Tel Aviv, and the idea of creating a tangible link between generations. Like her grandmothers’ jewelry, Sarna designs pieces meant to be worn and passed down to loved ones, expanding the jewelry’s significance along the way.

She recently took the time to chat with National Jeweler about her collection and her process.

National Jeweler: Tell me about your professional background. What brought you to jewelry design?

Ilana Sarna: I started wire wrapping jewelry for fun when I was in high school, but it wasn’t until I studied art therapy at New York University and enrolled in an introductory jewelry making course that I began to really fall in love with jewelry design. Studying the medium on an educational level while simultaneously learning about the power of the creative process in my other courses fostered a new lens through which to view jewelry.

After college, I went to Brooklyn Law School, but realizing being a law student didn’t warrant neglecting other aspects of my life, namely the creative ones, I quickly enrolled in a formal jewelry making class in Manhattan. Monday nights became ritual, spending three consecutive hours getting my hands dirty and scratched up as I learned various techniques such as wax carving, soldering and setting. The result was not only creative refuge from the monotony of law school, but also the fervent desire to pursue jewelry design as a career.

One summer in law school, I developed my skills by apprenticing for an Israeli jewelry designer. I learned how to understand both the aesthetic and functional aspects of jewelry, without which I wouldn’t truly appreciate how to create innovative yet practical designs.

Upon graduating from law school and taking the bar exam in 2013, I established Ilana Ariel, with the vision of creating intelligently designed jewelry for everyday wear.

NJ: What is the inspiration behind your collection?

IS: I don’t design by season. Instead, I’ve designed and produced four collections to date (Legacy, Ten Eleven, Stepping Stone, and Grounded), each of which has been and will continue to be expanded on every few months. The concepts behind each of my collections are all points of reference on a timeline, so to speak. My first collection, Legacy, is about "where one comes from,” the Ten Eleven collection “where one begins,” and Stepping Stone symbolizes "where one's going." My latest and fourth collection, Grounded, signifies “where one lands.”

The Legacy Collection pays homage to the women who nurtured my creative aspirations. Initially inspired by my late maternal grandmother Ella, the collection has grown into a retrospective of my relatives' styles and jewelry collections. Scalloped edges and circular motifs give the collection a notably nostalgic quality.

The Ten Eleven Collection originates from patterns in a tapestry I found while traveling in Peru. What began as an exploration of shapes developed into a medley of triangles, manipulated to highlight and contrast negative space. Named for my birthday, Oct. 11, and comprised of clean lines, the collection suggests beginnings and is reminiscent of the building blocks necessary for a stable foundation and steady growth.

The Stepping Stone Collection playfully unites mismatched shapes, colors and motifs through a combination of various gems. The jewelry mimics an actual stepping stone path, signifying journeys and endless possibilities, promoting reflection and welcoming the unexpected.

And finally, inspired by the patterns of the Mediterranean tiles found all over the streets of Tel Aviv, the Grounded collection not only imitates the literal ground I stood on, it was also designed during a time I was grounding myself in a new place. This inspiration is materialized through the use of subtly bold and unconventional shapes that exude an effortless Mediterranean vibe.

NJ: Where is your jewelry made?

IS: My jewelry is made on 47th Street in Manhattan, New York.

NJ: What should retailers focus on, or what story should they tell, when showing your line to customers?

IS: Generally speaking, Ilana Ariel is driven by the concept of storytelling through jewelry--both the design process and the product--and here's why:

Artistic expression, a concept that has been instilled in my heart and mind from a very young age, is one of the main forces that has guided me through the past three decades. As a child, I was exposed to heavy subject matters as all four of my grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust. Since my siblings and I were so young, my grandparents and parents used poetry, art and cinema to tell stories of inexplicable horror as well as lessons of perseverance and heroism. So, despite witnessing unimaginable horrors, my grandparents set up a stage where displays of creativity were always ubiquitous. Whether it was listening to my mother, the Julliard alumna, playing piano, watching my grandmother, the novice sculptor, chiseling away at her alabaster, or fancying the newest piece of jewelry crafted by my eccentric great uncle (also a Holocaust survivor), my desire to join the fun was nothing short of impassioned.

In between my piano and art lessons, drawing and painting, and many dance recitals, jewelry remained a constant, as I was surrounded by my two grandmothers’ unique styles and distinguished jewelry collections. I wasn’t making jewelry as much as I was playing with it, but my affinity for jewelry soon became apparent to all who knew me well. I spent middle school and high school accumulating new pieces to add to what I believed was a rare collection of treasures passed down to me by my grandmothers.

When I was an undergraduate studying art therapy at NYU, I began to understand jewelry design in a different light, namely that it’s a means of storytelling, not only for the designer, but also for the person who acquires the piece. The significance and story behind each creation evolves as it’s transferred from one person to the next. To me, that’s a really emboldening function of what I do and probably what I love most about being a jewelry designer.

I grew up seeing how various forms of art can be used to tell stories, sometimes even difficult ones. I wanted to tell my story and, in 2013 I decided that jewelry design would be my platform to do so. Since then, the saying “we are all links in a chain” has been on repeat in my mind. We are all connected to each other, and as a creator, I feel especially inspired by the artists who’ve created before and alongside me. In launching Ilana Ariel, it is now an honor to see how my designs and the stories behind them touch other people’s lives.

NJ: How much inventory must a retailer invest in to carry your brand?

IS: I don’t require a minimum, but I find most retailers agree with me when I suggest that the brand’s story is told best with at least five pieces. Though it’s a small assortment, five pieces is enough to show variety, represent my aesthetic, and cater to customer’s different preferences.

NJ: What retailers are currently carrying your line?

IS: FiveStory, Roseark, Spring, Stephanie Gottlieb, Plan De Ville, Michele Varian, Audry Rose, Market Highland Park, Barbedwire, Hall Collection, Hu’s Wear, and Zaver & Mor.

NJ: What is the price range of your pieces?

IS: They are $155 - $13,000 retail, but the sweet spot is between $1,800 and $5,000.

NJ: At which trade shows do you exhibit or are you planning to exhibit?

IS: I just exhibited at Metal & Smith. It was my first trade show; there was great energy from all the different designers. I had a lot of fun!

NJ: What are your plans for upcoming collections?

IS: I recently launched the Grounded Collection so I am currently focused on enhancing it by adding more color and playing with scale.

NJ: Complete this sentence: “People would be surprised to learn that I …”

IS: Went to law school.

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