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Person to Know: The Jewellery Designer Who Collects Other People’s Stories

By Hilary Moss

The jewellery designer Kim Dunham in her home office in New York City. The bookshelves are stacked with titles like “Heraldic Crests,” “Banners, Ribbons & Scrolls,” “The Secret Language of Flowers” and “Sea Monsters.”
 
Nicholas Calcott
The jewellery designer Kim Dunham in her home office in New York City. The bookshelves are stacked with titles like “Heraldic Crests,” “Banners, Ribbons & Scrolls,” “The Secret Language of Flowers” and “Sea Monsters.”

On an overcast morning last month, Kim Dunham stood in her airy home office in Lower Manhattan flipping through manila folders arranged on an accordion-style rack. “So, this is a client who’s Native American, part of the Choctaw Nation,” she says, pulling out a dossier. “He feels a real connection to the matriarchs in his life, specifically his grandmother. She was a Native American activist in the ’60s and ’70s and involved in the occupation of Alcatraz.” He had shown Dunham an image of the first Choctaw school, still standing in Kentucky. “We went deep into that,” she notes, and selects another folder from the rack. “This client was telling me about her fiancé — he’s a sound engineer for a bunch of famous bands,” Dunham says. “I asked her later to send me some photos, and all of a sudden, I found myself thinking, ‘I feel like I know you guys.’”

Part historian, part anthropologist, part therapist and, it could be argued, part shaman, Dunham’s official designation is jewellery designer. Since 2016, she has created stately one-of-a-kind signet rings based on clients’ life stories, made from gold and the occasional diamond or gemstone, and engraved with letters, numbers and small illustrations that are dear to its wearer. Born and raised in Kentucky, she studied fine arts and art history at the Savannah College of Art and Design and the University of Oregon in Eugene before moving to Portland and founding the first iteration of her jewellery brand, consisting of bridal hair accessories, in 2001. She later relocated to New York to hone her skills with jobs at a series of fine jewellery labels, but by 2014, she was contemplating a career in global health. Dunham comes from a family of doctors and nurses, and, she explains, “I increasingly felt the need and desire to not only help people but to connect to others on a higher level.”

Nicholas CalcottDunham typically presents up to three different sketches to her clients for them to choose from.
Dunham typically presents up to three different sketches to her clients for them to choose from.

Instead, she refocused her approach to designing jewellery. On a walk one day, as she studied the monogrammed signet ring her mother had given her for her 13th birthday, Dunham decided to try her hand at pieces that would tell the stories of their wearers. “I wanted to make this type of ring where, on the outside, is the story, or symbols, that you put out into the world, but on the inside is a mantra — or a date, a name, an image — that you can come back to privately to inspire or comfort you,” she says. “I also thought about how, these days, anything unspoken and any sort of mystery is a luxury.”

Dunham began by making her own detailed signet, a seal used as a signature in Mesopotamia as early as 3500 B.C. In the centre, she drew a compass surrounded by sea horses (“I’m actually a triple Pisces,” she notes), which is underneath her birth year, the North Star and a tiara. Across the bottom is a Latin phrase that translates to “I shine, not burn,” and the interior inscription comes from Charles Bukowski: “She’s mad but she’s magic. There’s no lie in her fire.” She next designed a ring for her husband, and then opened the project to friends, and friends of friends; in April 2018, her business took off after Gwyneth Paltrow was photographed in one of Dunham’s pieces. (She also created a set of rings depicting common spirit animalsan arrow ring and a range of zodiac sign rings for Paltrow’s company Goop.)

Nicholas Calcott“I realised that if I was going to do jewellery, I wanted it to be meaningful,” Dunham says. “I wanted it to be sentimental.” At centre, a ring that she based on an occult image. The interior inscription, “Let the light of your madness shine,” is from Carl Jung.
“I realised that if I was going to do jewellery, I wanted it to be meaningful,” Dunham says. “I wanted it to be sentimental.” At centre, a ring that she based on an occult image. The interior inscription, “Let the light of your madness shine,” is from Carl Jung.
Nicholas CalcottDunham includes a bar of wax in each ring package (left). A seal made using the designer’s own signet ring (right).
Dunham includes a bar of wax in each ring package (left). A seal made using the designer’s own signet ring (right).

Dunham estimates that she has now made several hundred custom signet rings. She sees clients at her apartment, a cozy modern duplex on the outskirts of SoHo, or corresponds at length with them by email to develop the bespoke designs. “I’ll gauge where I can go in the conversation,” she says. “If someone is having difficulty opening up, I’ll ask something deeper: What is your best memory from childhood? What’s something you fear? How do you take time for yourself?” Once she and the client decide on a design, Dunham works with a team of master engravers in the jewelry district who often inscribe the signet backward so that the ring can be used as a seal (Dunham packs a bar of wax in every box). But before any ring leaves her possession, she burns sage to purify it, “because it’s passed through hands,” she says. “When the client receives it, it’s cleared and they get to put their energy on it. This is also a moment for me to send good blessings, good vibes, whatever you’d like to call it. I meditate on it, which I know sounds a little hippy-dippy.”

Nicholas CalcottDunham uses tarot cards to help her tap deeper into her intuition. The snake magnifying glass at centre was a gift from her husband.
Dunham uses tarot cards to help her tap deeper into her intuition. The snake magnifying glass at centre was a gift from her husband.

Dunham does produce a couple of ready-made pieces, like her Brutus ring, in the shape of an eye, which shares a name with her 12-year-old chocolate Labrador (plus, Dunham’s birthday falls on the Ides of March), and a collection based on the seven feminine archetypes, a Jungian principle, for the Texas-based jewellery store Ylang 23. She hopes to eventually learn the mechanics behind more complicated pieces like lockets or poison rings. And her plans extend beyond the jewellery realm: She has long been toying with adding personalized letterpress stationery to the signet ring packages; for the holidays, she intends to release a scented candle and is working with the perfumer Douglas Little on the fragrance; she is also designing the containers for Little’s future line of solid perfumes.

But her current project feels like enough, for now. “I couldn’t have done this in my 20s or my 30s,” Dunham says. “All of the moments in life — the struggles, the joy, the breakups, the heartache, the travel, every book I’ve read — has allowed me to sit and ask the right questions, and to hear others’ stories and really understand them. I think it says a lot about our society, too — that something based on a human connection has really taken off.”