Meet Sarah Macfadden, one of our favorite jewelry designers, one we’ve been working with for years. Known for her link designs and famous Swimsuit Earrings, she paved the way for many indie jewelry designers and brands who feature hand making as a prominent part of their work. Read the full interview to hear about Sarah’s path, inspiration, favorite jewelry, and more.
Can you talk a little bit about your background, and how you got to where you are today?
Being a jewelry designer wasn’t my first choice, if you can believe it. But I started taking classes in art school and found I was really good at it! Going to grad school was a huge milestone. I started at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and I left the program to go to New Paltz. That turned out to be an excellent decision. They had a great program. I did more sculptural and conceptual work. I made some elaborate lockets, but when I would go to put them on a necklace the store bought necklaces just looked wrong. That’s how I got into making chains.
Being from Montana (from Great Falls, originally, but spent a lot of time in Bozeman), being into nature, the process of making perpetuates itself. Any idea — especially when I was in grad school — would lead to another. I found that to be true while I was making chains. The chains I’m making now have fragments of different kinds of links that I’ve made over time.
Many of your pieces prominently feature links. Do they have a special significance to you?
I was interested in making a necklace that would have to be handmade so it couldn’t be copied! I like to make something kind of unusual, something that's unique. I started to make necklaces out of all the different links and sizes to combine them together. There’s something really interesting about that.
I try to weight the necklaces so that the front is heavier so the clasp doesn’t come forward. I’ve made tiny links that are too delicate, now I’m trying to make bolder pieces, because a lot of my work has been so delicate.
I was making oval links for the longest time, and now I’m making rectangular links. With the newer styles, it’s hard to tell how they’re being perceived during the pandemic [of 2020].
What is your jewelry philosophy — do you have any thoughts about how it should be worn?
I don’t think I have my own philosophy — jewelry is such a personal thing! Even as a jewelry designer I think I’m gonna gift someone a piece I make, and then she said it wasn’t my style. (It was my sister, so it was okay).
I like the idea of making a piece you could put on and never have to take off, especially necklaces. Just kind of forget they are there.
The idea of jewelry as a gift is just so sweet to me! When I’ve been at the store and someone comes in to buy something for a loved one, it’s so special, I love that about what I do.
Do you have a favorite piece in your collection? (I love the “swimsuit” earrings.)
The Elliot — a necklace I just made that I really like. It’s rectangular links, thinner at the back, with different thicknesses and sizes toward the front. I really like the Swimsuit earrings, too! I don’t wear earrings that often but I have worn them and they’re quite fun to wear.
How did you come up with the name “swimsuit” earrings?
I thought, What earrings would look good with a swimsuit?
What do you love most about making things with your hands?
I think that handmade quality of things — I prefer it aesthetically. The hand is present in the work and that’s something that is special. I like that about abc too, that they have so much of that. I REALLY enjoy what I do, that also says something about me liking handmade things.
Where do you draw your inspiration?
I started with chains for a locket, and then I had this long career of making chains. I do think that ideas really perpetuate themselves. Even though these pieces right now aren’t inspired by nature, I sometimes look at plants — the most delicate little branches and a cluster where round seeds would go. I think that’s really beautiful.
Also — it’s become kind of esoteric in a way, combining different sizes and weights. It’s almost like my practice has evolved into something else, but it’s always inspired by what I have done before. It’s very work intensive. Each link is formed by hand... I have tried having some things cast, but I still prefer making every link by hand.
If I put a link in that’s a different size or thickness, it stands out. Rather than having gems, the links themselves are feature piece, what the stone would be, the thing that draws your eye.
Gold is such a beautiful material, I especially like gold. It really lends itself to being hammered and formed. You can see the workmanship in it.
What are your eco-friendly practices?
I use recycled gold. You’ll appreciate this story — I gave [my apprentice] a bunch of my scrap gold and asked her to solder the links together to make a chain. She did that, and used up all my scrap! I ended up taking the parts that I really liked and building a necklace out of it. There were some 18k gold necklaces and 14k necklaces. Especially through the pandemic, I’ve been trying to use up materials I already have and turn them into something new.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.