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The Designer Bringing Whimsy, and Magic Mushrooms, to Fine Jewellery

By Dan Thawley

The jewellery designer Brent Neale Winston, photographed in her Manhattan studio.
 
Matthew Novak
The jewellery designer Brent Neale Winston, photographed in her Manhattan studio.

When the New York jeweller Brent Neale Winston titled her debut fine jewellery collection After the Rain, it was an emotional response to what she calls “a really bad year.” During months of prescribed bed rest while pregnant with her twin daughters, Winston had channeled her energy into the research and development of a new line of jewellery, resulting in cheery rainbow, cloud and unicorn shapes in pastel semiprecious stones. “I wanted to make pieces that made me smile and were joyful — with as much colour as I could possibly use,” she says of the collection, which introduced the Brent Neale jewellery line with an exclusive trunk show for the online retailer Moda Operandi in 2017.

Since then, Winston’s work has proved a lighthearted antidote to current trends in fine jewellery, which has recently been dominated by a safe mix of classic stones, like pearls and white diamonds. Instead, Winston often employs numerous colours in a single design — using carved stones to frame faceted gems, and layering jewels so as to reveal themselves at unexpected angles — a daring direction that has landed her jewellery in fashionable boutiques from Fivestory on the Upper East Side to Forty Five Ten in Dallas.

Winston, 38, traces her passion for fine jewellery to her childhood visits to the vintage markets and gem fairs outside of Washington, D.C. On one particularly memorable trip in high school, she recalls becoming “mesmerised by a strand of rubies.” Winston’s mother noticed her marvelling at the display’s glittering contents and encouraged her to experiment with beads. “I guess it all started from there,” says Winston, whose small designs for friends and family were quickly picked up by the East Hampton boutique Bonne Nuit, eventually landing her a job creating private-label designs for big-box stores across the country.

Matthew NovakSketches for Brent Neale’s Potted collection, which features a cannabis-leaf tiara as well as modern interpretations of giardinetto floral bouquets.
Sketches for Brent Neale’s Potted collection, which features a cannabis-leaf tiara as well as modern interpretations of giardinetto floral bouquets.

Winston earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from Johns Hopkins University and later returned to school to concentrate on her craft, completing the jewellery design program at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology in 2008. Under the tutelage of the late Maurice Galli — the onetime head jeweller at Harry Winston who famously reset the Smithsonian’s Hope diamond — Winston (who is not related to Harry Winston, the so-called King of Diamonds) was determined to underwrite her personal design vocabulary with the technical knowledge of the trade. “I learned mechanical drafting and computer-aided design, how to carve a wax, set a stone — everything a bench jeweller would do.” During her studies, Winston interned for the jewellery designer and gemologist Kara Ross, another proponent of brightly coloured stones; that experience became a full-time job and began an eight-year deep dive into the commercial realities of the industry, as Winston handled product development for everything from costume jewellery and sterling silver to one-of-a-kind commissions. But after the birth of her daughters in 2015 (Winston also has a son, born in 2013), she decided it was time to focus on a collection of her own.

“There is always nostalgia and a sense of humour woven through all of my collections,” says Winston, whose first creation for her eponymous line was a rainbow-shaped ring studded with citrine, blue topaz, amethyst and pink tourmaline baguettes accented by an opal “cloud.” With its playful use of precious — and expensive — stones in a cheekily naïve form, that design has set the tone for her prolific output ever since: multicoloured gemstone hearts, glittering stars, cartoonish “magic mushrooms,” and even a malachite “cannabis-leaf” tiara. Those mushrooms were lifted from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” while the marijuana leaves serve as an irreverent pun in her Potted collection, where they are joined by riffs on the 17th-century tradition of giardinetto, or jewelled floral “bouquets.” That collection is featured at the High End, the cannabis-centric lifestyle shop at Barneys New York in Beverly Hills.

Matthew Novak“I think about things in my head for months,” Winston says of her design process. “Once I start to think about how it can be turned into a piece of jewellery, I start to draw it.”
“I think about things in my head for months,” Winston says of her design process. “Once I start to think about how it can be turned into a piece of jewellery, I start to draw it.”
Matthew NovakWinston sketches her designs in pencil and colours them in gouache in her Manhattan studio, then works with a team of craftspeople in New York’s Diamond District to realise each piece.
Winston sketches her designs in pencil and colours them in gouache in her Manhattan studio, then works with a team of craftspeople in New York’s Diamond District to realise each piece.

“I often think about ideas and turn them over and over in my head for months before they become a reality,” says Winston, who sketches her designs in pencil and colours them in gouache in her Manhattan studio. “Then I meet with my jeweller, model maker and the lapidary who has all my stones, and they tell me, ‘That’s crazy, Brent — you can’t do that!’ Then we talk through the piece,” she says, citing the Diamond District craftspeople who help realise her creations. Often, her team’s technical concerns stem from her love of setting stones within stones, a complex drilling technique that she first applied at Kara Ross and has evolved to become a signature of her own line. “I like the layering of colour and texture,” Winston says of her willingness to set, say, a faceted sapphire inside a smooth piece of malachite. “It’s fun for the eye, and you can incorporate any colours you want. We definitely break stones doing it. But if it wasn’t hard to do, then everyone would do it.”