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Current Obsessions NYCJW Special. Beyond Aesthetics: The Jewelry Industry Michele Varian in conversation with Danielle Wilmore and Wade Papin of Pyrrha

Michele Varian in conversation with Danielle Wilmore and Wade Papin of Pyrrha

The magic of Pyrrha is obvious from the get-go: it’s in the aesthetic, the strong historical and cult-ural references, the body of influential people wearing the pieces, and the general good vibes of its designers, Danielle and Wade. Here, they discuss their evolution and growth, status as a B-Corp, and share one seriously legendary story featuring an all-time favorite rockstar. Read through to find out who!

by Michele Varian

Danielle and Wade

Could you share a short bio, and give a quick description of our relationship?

More than two decades ago, we had this vision to create meaningful jewelry that would stand apart from the factory-made, mass-produced pieces so common in the industry. Because we live in such a throwaway society, it was necessary, and joyful, to create things that could be kept. So we focused on good design and sustainability, and the result was our line of talisman jewelry made using authentic wax seals and imagery from the Victorian era. Each piece is highly personal and people who wear Pyrrha choose their talismans based on which meaning speaks to them. It’s this connection to our customers that we are most proud of.

Sustainability is also very important to us, and we handcraft every talisman in our Vancouver studio using time honored, old world techniques and 100% reclaimed precious metals. We are a certified carbon neutral B Corp, which means we meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.

We met Michele at the NY NOW tradeshow in the early 2000s. She was exhibiting in a neighboring booth, and we felt a real synergy with her and her design aesthetic. Michele invited us to be the first independent designer to retail in her shop (alongside her personal collections).

How did you guys become jewelers?

Following a move to Vancouver in the ‘90s, we met, both quit our jobs, and started handcrafting jewelry at our kitchen table. We both knew we weren’t best suited to conventional corporate jobs and that we would ultimately only be satisfied running our own business. We saw a large gap between fashion and fine jewelry that we felt needed to be filled, so we started reading every jewelry making book that we could get our hands on, and taught ourselves metalsmithing and soldering techniques. Two years later we founded Pyrrha. The road to success wasn’t easy, but we remained focused on building something important to both of us.  We were driven to create and giving up wasn’t an option.

What inspires your designs?

We discovered a box of antique wax seals at an estate sale many years ago, and that quickly became the heart and soul of the Pyrrha aesthetic. The symbolism and heraldry really drew us in – it’s such a fascinating subject and you discover so much about every era and culture throughout history.  Most of our inspiration comes from the Victorian era, but we’re also very attracted to medieval imagery for its darkness and simple beauty.

Since discovering that first box of seals, we now travel the world scouring flea markets, antique auctions and stores in search of these authentic 18th and 19th century treasures that inspire our designs.

Our customers are also constant inspiration to us. We love that our pieces can do amazing things like give people hope, make them happy, or remind them of their loved ones.  Knowing that something we created is making a difference on a daily basis to so many people is incredibly inspiring.

Tell me about the evolution of your manufacturing processes or the ways you use materials.

The wax seals really drew us in, but their fragility presented a series of challenges that we had to approach through trial and error. To preserve the unique imperfections of each seal, we’ve always insisted on handcrafting everything in house. 

For several years now, we’ve also been incorporating heraldic imagery into our own original designs, which has given us the flexibility to collaborate with other artists and brands, and create collections such as Pyrrha x Game of Thrones, Paul Smith, and The British Museum. 

Since the very beginning, we have cast our jewelry using 100% reclaimed precious metals – sterling silver and 14K gold sourced from highly reputable suppliers. That was our first major stride toward sustainability, and each year we try to make more environmentally conscious choices in all stages of production. In the past five years, like we’d mentioned, Pyrrha has achieved official B Corporation status, and become certified carbon neutral.

What was the first store that ever carried your jewelry?

We actually started out by taking small collections of jewelry to a local shop on consignment. We had to wait for them to sell it, and then took that money to buy more materials and create more jewelry. That cycle went on for about a year or so, and as soon as we could afford it, we exhibited at the NY NOW gift show and landed one of our first big stores, The Conran Shop. It was our most exciting accomplishment to date because it was a design store, and that really validated our abilities as designers. Their UK team recently reached out and asked to retail Pyrrha in their London locations, which really brings the relationship full circle.

How has your sales representation evolved over time?

The number of retailers carrying Pyrrha has grown very organically over the years. We started with just a handful of boutique locations in Vancouver, and now have more than 400 store locations around the world, including Liberty London, Paul Smith and Nordstrom. One of our first US locations was Fred Segal in Los Angeles, and we started seeing our customer base grow rapidly there, so we decided to open our flagship store there on West 3rd Street. Even though we’re based in Vancouver, we spend a lot of time in LA and we also wanted to make our jewelry accessible to stylists, costume designers, and celebrities. That’s been a really exciting aspect of our growth and expansion.

How is your design and/or business ethos reflected in your manufacturing processes?

While most jewelers try to make their pieces look flawless, we embrace the flaws and handcraft each talisman to ensure that the original cracks are being preserved.  Every piece of jewelry is rough hewn, like it’s been loved and worn for decades – imperfect and brimming with personal significance.

The biggest lesson we’ve learned is that life is nothing without meaning, and that is the number one reason people are drawn to Pyrrha talismans. We love that each one means something different to different people. They offer a way to inspire people and deepen the connection to themselves and others.

Pyrrha collectors buy for their friends and family because they believe in the ethos of the brand.  We’ve managed to create a community of like-minded people around the world who connect with each other by sharing the stories of the talismans they’ve chosen to wear.

Click here to watch a short video where we talk about the meaning of our talismans.

Patti Smith

Can you share a personal story from an encounter within the jewelry ecosystem that has stuck with you over the years?

We are huge music fans, and get very excited when a musician purchases our jewelry, or we see them wearing it during performances. Several years ago we heard that Patti Smith was routinely buying our talismans from a store in New York, and having listened to her albums on repeat for 30 years, it was so personally moving. We actually have a history of celebrating business milestones with live music, so when it came around to our 20th anniversary party, we decided to reach out and invite Patti to play. I think we were all in a bit of shock when she said yes. She performed an intimate set in our Vancouver studio for all our employees, friends and colleagues. It was pure magic and we’ll never forget it.

Pyrrha

Michele Varian is a NYC-based designer and retailer, carrying home goods and over 70 jewelry brands in her SoHo shop (including Pyrrha, who has a quite memorable shop-in-shop there!). Visit the shop on Instagram here, and her curation of fine jewelry here!


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