Q+A: Thea Grant & Nicolás Bazzani
Thea Grant is a jewelry collection designed and produced in Brooklyn, NY by husband and wife partners Thea Grant and Nicolás Bazzani. We sat down with Thea and Nico in their shop to talk about their creations and the evolution of their business.
Tell us about yourselves and how your business got started!
Thea: I'm from Brooklyn— Brooklyn Heights— and Nico is from Bogotá, Colombia, and we met in Williamsburg fourteen years ago when we were both working for other people, but still in the design and creative fields. Nico was finishing up his Master's at [Savannah College of Art and Design, and I was already working in the fashion industry. I had started a collection of jewelry outside of my day job and was interested in finding more places to sell this work. Nico was the manager of a store in Williamsburg that I thought would be a very good fit for it. So we started talking and one thing led to another— we started dating, we moved in together, and we got married in the span of eight months.
Nico: Really quick!
Thea: Nico couldn't work during the process of applying for the Green Card, but I was working and was also making things. I had a workbench set up in the apartment where we were living and I was starting to sell to a few stores. Nico was very interested in the work that I was doing, so while he was waiting for his work permit, he said,"Can I play around? Can I do things?" and I said, "Sure!" I was interested in these very large costume jewelry pieces based on found objects— very sculptural, very three-dimensional— and since his studies were in industrial design, there was a good overlap.
That spring we got a call from Barney's, and we went in and met with them. They were very interested in my collection and what I was doing, and it became a "we" right after the meeting. We got our first order from them— and it was a huge order for 300 units or something like that— so a business was born! We needed all hands on deck to make it happen on that scale. It put us on the map and helped create an organized business out of something that was more of a sideline, and we just took off from there! Nico said, "Let's do it!" so we became a partnership at that point, and we worked out of our kitchen in our house in Williamsburg for a few years and then we moved into our first studio outside of the house which was a big accomplishment! We had a small studio in the Garment District. We were there for a couple of years, and then we moved here to DUMBO after that!
Nico: We've always loved DUMBO. Thea grew up in the Heights, and when I first arrived in New York I used to just spend my weekends here. There used to be that circle under the Brooklyn Bridge, and I'd sit there forever. While we were looking for a new studio space, we started seeing that there were a lot of openings here in DUMBO, for way less than in Williamsburg and in Manhattan. We saw a lot of spaces, and then we saw they were redoing the fourth floor [of 68 Jay]. It fit the budget, and it was amazing! It was meant to be, and the space was perfect.
Thea: DUMBO was attractive to us because there were a lot of creative people here-not just jewelers or fashion people, but other interesting people: artists, small businesses, small production companies. We felt we were in good company. There were a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of energy, and it wasn't just about younger people; it was about establishing businesses, businesses coming into their own and not being big-box businesses. It was great for us to be in an environment where we were all in it together: a community. Over the years, we've become more and more established and know the regulars of the neighborhood, and opening the store has just furthered that exponentially. People know our kids in the neighborhood; we know our customers. The Brooklyn Flea being in the neighborhood is also a wonderful thing because we do both the flea market and we have the store, so people really know us. My parents ended up moving to the neighborhood, so really our whole family is in DUMBO all of the time. And as you often do when you're starting a business, you spend a lot more time at work than you do at home, so DUMBO is like a home to us, and the kids certainly think of it as a home. It's just been the right place.
How has your business evolved over time?
Thea: We were upstairs on the fourth floor for maybe ten years and we were, for the most part, wholesale only at that time. We also had kids during that part of our business, so it made sense for us to have something that was a little bit more removed from the public. We had a big loft space where the kids could grow up; they had their own space; we had office space, a living room, a showroom, a workbench space, and space for our employees to work, so it made a lot of sense. But about seven years ago, we started to see things really changing in the fashion industry, and our work was very geared towards the fashion industry. We kept holding on in the wholesale world, but slowly we started to realize that wholesale was not the only way and that it couldn't be the only way for our business; we were just too small. We were literally a mom-and-pop business running our business akin to a small family business, so we didn't have enough market share to be wholesale only anymore. So we looked to diversify, and we were actually good friends with the people that run Front General Store who show at the Brooklyn Flea, and they saw our stuff one day when they came to visit the studio and they said, "You'd be a great candidate to be at the Flea. You should try it and come and show with us," and we did! It gave us an opportunity to have a new channel— a new way to sell our work— and for the first time, we were getting direct contact with that final consumer.
We realized very quickly that it was a very different consumer at the Flea. There were a lot more visitors from out of town that were looking for very specific things to celebrate Brooklyn and their visit to New York that we weren't providing. We realized that we needed to adapt to make that market work, so we started taking apart our jewelry and instead of selling these very big, elaborate, sculptural pieces, we started selling simpler and simpler things. We were also trying to find a way to sell something for the out-of-town visitor, the tourist customer. Then Nico had this stroke of genius to start engraving things with the words "Brooklyn," "New York," or "NYC," so we started making these bracelets in brass and sterling, and it just exploded.
Nico: We decided to do it, so we were bringing things that I had pre-engraved here at the studio to the Flea, and we would sell them, and they were selling really well. No matter how many pieces we would bring, they would sell, so one day during the DUMBO Arts Festival I said, "I'm gonna just give it a try," and I brought down a bench and sat on the sidewalk and offered custom engraving. It was really challenging because it's one thing engraving in the studio and another doing it under the spotlight.
Thea: Under the watchful eye of the customer.
Nico: But it was such a success that we said, "Okay, why don't we do this in the flea market," so we started, and it was amazing! It was amazing that people reacted really well. Of course, we had the gimmick of doing it with the antique tools; there are a lot of people making engraved jewelry of the same kind, but it doesn't have that added value.
Thea: Yeah, for us it's always about making use of old materials. One of our bylines is "giving new life to old things," so it didn't make sense to just buy a lot of material and stamp sets and churn out work. That's not what appealed to us. What appealed to us was having these antique sets that were hand-carved and using vintage blanks, as well, and that's what we've always used in our work. Everything has always come out of our fascination with old things. So the experience that Nico was adding to what we were offering was kind of perfect because it's using old tools that not everybody has contact with in their daily lives. And being able to interact with the person that's making something for you was also something very special. It was at that point when things were starting to take off with the stamping that we started thinking about having the retail store because we just thought wouldn't it be amazing to have a neighborhood store or a destination where you can have the experience of somebody making something for you right in front of you. And then we started to grow other parts of our business as well.
When did you open your store here?
Thea: August of last year. Very recently. It feels like we've been here for a lot longer, and people keep welcoming us to the neighborhood and we're like, "We've been here! You just didn't know!"
It's really been fun for us to be in the retail world, finally, after having been wholesale only for ten plus years, where we can really feed off of what the consumer is interested in. We can get their thoughts and their insights immediately and act on them. It's also been interesting since we came from doing the flea market, which is like a sprint when you sell there, to having a retail space, which is both a neighborhood establishment and a store that has that customer who is an out-of-town visitor and is seeing us in an isolated visit. It's a much slower pace for us, but it's also very pleasant because we get to form relationships with people, which is great. We can also be stewards of the neighborhood, which I love, sharing the history of DUMBO. I'm a really passionate historian and I love sharing facts about this location. People come in and they talk about DUMBO and I say, "Did you know this about DUMBO? Did you know that this was a coffee and tea warehouse, this building that we're in?" the invention of the cardboard box and trolley cars and all that stuff. I'm really into the past right here in this neighborhood, so I really enjoy being on the retail level now and being able to share with others.
And the fact that we could open our store in the same exact place where we've been for all these years was amazing. We knew already from having done the flea market here that this was a good environment where you could put down roots and really get to know the people and be the local jeweler to so many different people. We actually have a huge business now of doing repairs for customers who are locals. That's something that we couldn't offer before being wholesale and being removed from the public, and it's something that's allowed us to become somebody that people can rely on and come to see with those kinds of jobs. Jewelry repair is one of those amazing things, like having your local butcher or local grocer, where you have people who are experts that you can rely on, but family jewelry stores are fewer and farther between. It's like having a small florist or those kinds of businesses that are more ephemeral. Today, you don't always have a relationship with somebody who you trust to take care of these things that are the most important to you— like your engagement ring. We just replaced the stones in a woman's ring. She had lost a stone, and when we took a look at it, we realized that she had actually had stones replaced that weren't the same as the original stones in the ring. We said, “Your stones are much older and you have a new stone. We can fix it for you,” and she walked out saying, "My ring has a new lease on its older life— on the way it should be." Those relationships are really important to us. We also have a really good rapport with tourists and visitors who are learning about DUMBO for the first time and who are looking for something that represents that visit. I think when we go someplace that touches us, we always want to remember that visit, so we also try to supply things that will be that souvenir or that token, but will be something that is a thoughtful and meaningful souvenir, not just an "I Love NY" t-shirt. So those are kind of the things that we're accomplishing.
How and from where do you source your materials?
Thea: We, through the years, have found many different job lot distributors where we will buy lots of old things, and it really started to become the way we did everything. We buy old lots of office supplies; the furniture that we buy that displays everything is old. So nothing was new waste, at least as much as possible. Even the paper we were printing our invoices on was this old school children's paper. It really became our way of presenting ourselves because we felt that that was what we loved, and it also blended with our brand. We used to, and we still go searching for all the components that we use in our work. Part of our life is traveling. When the kids weren't in school, they were coming with us to all of our appointments and all of the places we were going; we would rent a car and go into the fields of antique shows and just be hunting with the kids literally in a pack on the front or the back. So that's just been kind of a way of life for us— seeking out these interesting, old things that we can bring back here and make something out of.
How often do you go out and source items?
Thea: It's constant.
Nico: We enjoy going to antique shows. We have established dealers that we work with, so we don't have to do it the way we used to where when we needed something we had to go there. Now if we have something specific, we know we can get it from our dealers.
Thea: We have a network of people we can reach out to.
Nico: But we do trips where we spend a week out in the fields shopping for creating something. It's a lot of fun!
Thea: With this kind of work, you're constantly, slowly building things, and things will sell and come and go, but you're constantly having to keep your inventory going because old things don't just arrive; you have to sort of discover them. You also have to filter through all of the things that are out there because there are beautiful things and there are not beautiful things and there are things that have value and things that don't have value. We're not about precious stones and precious metal. For us, the value is the piece or the design of the piece or something about its aesthetic value or something about the story that can be told. We like the jewelry that we sell to tell a story, and sometimes it's a very obvious story, but sometimes it's a more layered story. We are always looking for those thought-provoking, storytelling pieces because the story behind a piece could be something that you're hearing for the first time or could be something that you're familiar with that then becomes part of the wearer's story when they buy it. That process is really important to us and the only way that that can happen is if we’re constantly hunting and learning. We have to be very knowledgeable about material history and material culture, and it's a narrow spectrum. We mostly focus on pieces from western Europe and pieces from the United States, because that's just our area of expertise and those are the things that interest us the most. That's just our current focus.
Can you tell us about your collections?
As I said earlier, when we started selling at the Flea we were taking apart all of our jewelry, and we started to sell a huge number of lockets as a result. We had one necklace that was five connected lockets and people kept picking it up and saying, "Could I buy just this one?" and I said, "Well that would be tricky because it's already this big necklace, but okay!" So I said to Nico, “I think we need to start developing some simpler pieces.” So we've sort of developed these miniature collections out of all of that, with very feminine beautiful, old things, and more masculine, interesting, industrial, vintage things. We even have a collection called the Re-Estate Collection, which is taking some really interesting old things, putting our own spin on them, refinishing them or simplifying them for modern-day wear, and then casting them in recycled metals because, again, we didn't want to create new waste. We work with a certified recycled metal caster in the city, and they do all of the pourings of pot metals using only recycled material. We've also created some really interesting mixes and blends of high and low in our collections. We created a whole collection that was recycled brass set with real diamonds but set in a way that looks like Victorian jewelry because we love the details in antique jewelry. We wanted to have something that was for the contemporary wearer but had something of the antique. We've always worked with brass, having started in costume jewelry, but with this arrival to finer jewelry, we wanted to try to find something that was just ours and ours alone; there really aren't other people doing these blends of high and low— the finest jewel with the most industrial, workman's metal of brass.
Do you have a favorite piece that you've made or a favorite piece in the store?
Thea: I could not pick one! One thing? I have a particular affinity for turquoise, snakes, and horseshoes; I guess those would be my top three things, and you’ll see those throughout the store. There are a ton of beautiful Victorian and Art Deco turquoise pieces. There are horseshoes in every level of our collection— we have them in our brass collection; we have them in our sterling; we have them in our Native American jewelry; we have them in our Victorian jewelry. I may have been an equestrian in a past life.
Out of the Thea Grant collections, some of my favorite pieces are from the High-Line Collection, which is really sort of grandiose costume jewelry. “Borough Hall” is one of my favorites. It's this necklace that— talk about telling a story!— creates a story, and it's one of the most laden pieces we’ve ever made. It's always a huge four-to-five-inch vintage rhinestone brooch, a military medal, a cross, preferably with a knife in it, a pistol or Hubley or some kind of vintage cap gun from the '70s, some kind of portrait element, a Mano Figa of some kind, a Masonic ring, and a watch. Every time we make this necklace it has those elements on it. It was inspired by a commission that we received from Nico's alma mater, SCAD, to make something as a gift for [fashion designer] John Galliano. So we made a brooch that had all of those appendages with the draping chain, and we loved the look of it so much that we said, “We need to make this available to our regular customers!” So we made them a necklace version of it, and we sold tons of them! We thought that it just wasn't gonna sell— that it would be too much— but we sold a ton of them through Barneys. They were very successful for a couple of seasons! So that's one of my favorite High-Line pieces. It's just extravagant, extraordinary! And I don't know the exact story that it tells, but each one is slightly different, and I love that the person who might wear it will tell the story through themselves.
What's your favorite place in DUMBO?
Thea: That's so hard!
Nico: You really like Usagi.
Thea: I do really like Usagi. I would say that's one of my favorite places. Superfine and Usagi are my favorite places.
Thea and Nico: Cellestine!
Nico: It's so good.
Thea: Oh my god! That place is amazing! Ah-mazing! Such good food, beautiful ambiance, and such nice people working there! It was so wonderful to go in there and be so well-received. It's such a class act, so if I were to give somebody new to the neighborhood a boost, it would be Cellestine. I think they're amazing, but I think for my day-to-day where I like to spend time is Usagi and Abhaya.
Nico: My favorite place... that's tough. I think the waterfront is my favorite place.
Thea: We spend a lot of time with the kids down there. We try to see the sunset multiple times throughout the summer; it's really wonderful to just go down there and it's such a moment where you can be on the waterfront. Nico says we live in such a non-reality getting to see these beautiful views every day here. This is such a photogenic and iconic neighborhood where you get to see all of these spectacular views every single day.