For Jess Hannah, The Answers Are In The Questions
I was first introduced to Jess Hannah’s work while browsing the internet trying to pin down a birthday gift for a close friend back in March. Her jewelry immediately struck me—simple, yet profoundly sentimental—timeless enough to be worn by your grandmother and daughter alike. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would eventually move to LA and meet Jess in the early days of summer.
Authentic, candid, and profoundly intentional, Jess is committed to sustainability of both product and practice. Everything is in context, from the minute details of crafting a single ring to the responsibility of running an ethical business. Our conversation begins at a café in Echo Park—and winds through everything from success and creative confidence to thinking critically in an age of endless information.
MW: I love this area of Echo Park. Coffee shops, families, neighborhood atmosphere. How long have you lived in LA?
JH: I think I moved here in 2014.
MW: So, seven years.
JH: Math isn’t my strong suit.
MW: I'm on my second cup of coffee, so I'm wired right now. Seven years is a while—do you feel at home here?
JH: LA is interesting. It's so big and it can often feel that way but you can also really localize yourself to your neighborhood. I've only been in Echo Park for two years, but moving to a different neighborhood in LA feels like moving cities.
MW: Why did you originally choose to come to LA?
JH: I initially moved here for the jewelry district and to leave the small town for the nearest ‘city’ pipe dream. I had just graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with a degree I had a waning interest in, and was apprenticing with a jeweler there for about a year. It just made sense to take that next step.
MW: Did you have the idea to pursue J.Hannah while you were apprenticing?
JH: It evolved somewhat organically. I was in school for graphic communication, and truthfully, very bored in class. On the side, I started working with a jeweler to learn fabrication basics. I eventually started acquiring my own tools and set up a bench in my room. I would spend all of my free time on YouTube learning new techniques. At one point, I ended up leaving school for a term and went to San Francisco to take jewelry classes. After I graduated from school, I was applying for ridiculous jobs that I wasn’t qualified for.
MW: Been there. Like what?
JH: I wanted to work for a magazine so I was applying for art director or editor positions. I didn't get any bites, obviously, so I stayed in San Luis Obispo. I eventually started selling jewelry to friends and on Etsy, and at the same time, Instagram as a platform was starting to take off. I decided to start documenting the process. I wasn't like, “I'm making a big company,” it was more scrappy. I was the designer, made my own website, my boyfriend at the time took photos of me to post, and that was that. I noticed that anytime I would tag a product, brands would repost my photos and I’d get more exposure. One might call this a ‘strategy’ in hindsight. I think what I was doing was very apt for what was happening on Instagram in its early days. It was a confluence of right thing, right place, right time - I think they call that luck.
MW: Surely not all luck.
JH: Sure I’ll take it. I’m reasonably talented, but nothing special. I think what a lot of people don't understand is that success is a perfect storm. There are a lot of extremely talented people whose work never gets seen—and then there are people who are pretty subpar and extremely popular. Who society decides to celebrate is seldom fair, or based on merit alone. There are so many talents we never even get to see because they don’t have the opportunity to rise to the surface. We were talking about confidence, which seems like a privilege in itself to debate – I should also mention the undertow of socioeconomic inequality, racism, ageism (just to name a few) that can hinder one's opportunity for success... and this is especially true in creative industries. The messaging around design, i.e. how it’s coded, has a lot to do with how people perceive and consume it.
MW: You can control things like hard work and intention, but there are no ABC’s to success.
JH: Absolutely. It’s never formulaic. I think that's the most important thing I can say to people who are trying to emulate the success of brands they admire—it’s not going to work the same way. It’s about being nimble enough to change your strategy. Don’t become stuck in what you say you are in that moment because the secret sauce is evolving based on what's going on around you and how you are feeling – which is most definitely not a constant. There's context and nuance to all things we're doing. If you’re too stuck in what you think you want or who you think you are, then there's no room to evolve. Being thoughtful as you grow and change makes all your choices more cohesive and responsive to the creative vision, and that kind of authenticity shines.
MW: Within the parameters of a brand, how do you continue to keep things fresh? I know you’ve ventured into alternative mediums for example nail polish...
JH: I am always thinking about color, and I've learned that it's mostly context - i.e. texture, gloss, light, and other peripheral elements that inform the shade. Anyone can "do color," as we see from the vast spectrum of shades available to us at the drugstore, but the J. Hannah palette's goal isn't to be everything to everyone. We come to the nail polish space with a specific lens of curiosity and unexpected delight. We do research to find the strange stories behind color and color theory, to share alongside our shade offerings and bring people into our world (even sans purchase). Yves Klein Blue, intrinsic grey, drunk tank pink, cosmic latte... our love for these stories naturally brought us to Pantone 448C. Also known as the ‘ugliest color in the world,’ it is the newest shade in our palette, lovingly dubbed ‘compost’. I’m wearing it right now...
MW: No Way. Tell me how you got to the point where you're like, “Let’s do something really ugly.”
JH: It was surprising to learn about Pantone 448C - the idea that any color could be declared the ugliest in the world seemed like a prompt - a rule begging to be undermined. What's funny is when I saw it I didn't find it ugly at all — rather it seemed nuanced and beautiful... reminiscent of 90's Prada or Jil Sander. It reminded me of something Leonard Koren said... "The beauty of wabi-sabi is in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.” One person's trash is another person's treasure I guess!
MW: Why not? Polish can be a conceptual statement too.
JH: We always look for opportunities to collaborate with people in our local community who we genuinely admire, and this is usually irrespective of what industry they're in. For example, our polish ‘Compost’ launched with a special 2-week collaboration with our friends Courage Bagels. They offered the polish along with a caviar topped bagel that matches the ugly/pretty ethos — Our approach to all things Compost have been playfully tongue in cheek, so the goal with this collaboration was to take this a step further with something unexpected. A big part of this has been subverting what people expect from us as a "luxury" beauty or jewelry brand. I came to Ari with the idea for a sort of kitchen-sink bagel to match the compost theme. Caviar entered the picture as one of those quintessential nasty-fancy foods, and everything fell into place from there.
MW: Did you grow up wearing a lot of jewelry?
JH: No, actually. But when I was young, my grandma passed away and left behind a really lovely jewelry collection. It was a small amount of incredibly ornate vintage pieces with amazing craftsmanship and quality. Probably the biggest inspiration for my design aesthetic at J.Hannah. Quality craftsmanship is very important to me.
MW: So cool that you retained a need for quality from your grandmother. Did your family encourage your creative practice?
JH: Definitely. My parents always encouraged me to be very creative. To this day my mom prides herself on allowing me to play with my food as a child. I’ve always been obsessed with the tiny details. When I started making jewelry, it was the meticulous level of detail that drew me in. I don't currently craft anything myself anymore, most of what we do is designed in CAD and then printed in wax and cast. I really enjoyed the process of learning metalsmithing but at a certain point it became limiting -– I was limited creatively in that the style that I actually want to communicate aesthetically did not match the type of training I had and also I was limited in only being able to sell what I myself could physically produce at the time.
MW: It’s such a beautiful process. I remember watching jewelers in Toledo hand-hammering silver rings shopside along the streets. It was just such a meticulous level of focus they were giving to the smallest details. I was mesmerized.
JH: you’re making me want to get back to the bench!
MW: So what led you to study graphic design?
JH: When I got into Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, graphic design made sense, but it wasn’t at an art school. I always felt so different from my peers. I didn't really find people who were interested in similar things, and there was no sense of community that fostered creativity. I always wondered where I would be if I had gone to an art school. But, thinking back on it, I feel that part of the reason I got where I am is because I didn't have much to compare myself to. I was able to clearly see what I liked without being influenced by peers because we were into completely different things. Ultimately, I was able to focus on my interests, because I was so disinterested in what other people were doing around me.
MW: College is such a formative time for exploring your interests. I can see how that would lead to a sense of security in your own direction.
JH: I honestly do think it was helpful because I sort of just ignored what was going on and really focused on what I was interested in and what I wanted to do. I didn't have anything diluting my confidence, because there was nothing challenging it. I know a lot of people who've gone to art or fashion school and are extremely talented, but so hard on themselves. I don't agree with that! When it comes to your confidence in what you do, you need to have an internal frame of reference. It's good to be inspired by others and have context, but not if it holds you back.
MW: We’re our own biggest critics. People often feel like it's this huge leap of faith to come forward with their ideas.
JH: If it's not perfect, then they don't want to do it. I think that is one of the biggest hindrances to making good work. That thinking won’t get you anywhere. There's this Ira Glass quote that I really love—it says something along the lines of: You have to do a lot of work to close the gap between your taste and your work, and if you don't do the work, then you're never going to be as good in practice as you are in your aesthetic. In turn, the more work you do, the more your taste will also advance—so it's a constant catch-up. You're never really done.
MW: I love that. Anyone in a creative industry can relate. It’s a muscle you have to exercise and part of that is letting it breathe in the world for other people to see.
JH: And also being okay with doing a not-fucking-great job, moving on, and continuing to do better. Like the very first website I built myself for J.Hannah—I took all the photos, did the design, and honestly? It looked like shit.
MW: But that was enough to get it going.
JH: I also know it’s not simple. I was doing graphic design, and it was really difficult because I knew that I had good taste, but my technical skills weren’t matching up. I felt like everything I made didn’t look like the vision I had for it in my mind.
MW: That's part of being in school.
JH: It was so confusing because I was like, “No, no, I know what this should look like,” and then I thought, “Oh, maybe it's because I'm not a graphic designer. I should be an art director!” Now I know, obviously, in order to get to be an art director, you have to do some technical work first. But at the time, I was like, “How do I get to that part?” What I didn't realize was I just hadn't done enough work for things to match up.
MW: I went through a similar process after college where I did the bit of applying to jobs I wasn't qualified for.
JH: That just means you have good taste—or you're delusional.
MW: Or both?
JH: I prefer that to people who are actually quite talented, but don't give themselves a chance.
MW: Do you think that your perspective is informed by the confidence that comes with being successful?
JH: I'm confident and I'm very happy with what I've done, but it's complicated. I've had opportunities to grow my business and recently, I've decided not to—it’s more important to me to keep it sustainable. I could be a x-million company, but to do that, I have to sacrifice certain things like work-life balance for myself and my team. I don't want to have a larger team. I don't want my whole team to stress out all the time. I don't want to make sacrifices in our sustainability practices. There are certain things that are just more important to me now. But I also don't think I deserve too much credit or a pat on the back for that mindset. I can afford to make that choice. I've met and exceeded certain goals, reached certain milestones under meritocracy bullshit, and sure, whatever, it's great. But it passes pretty quickly. I'm not driven by the ego side of the business, but I also know it’s easy for me to say because I've made a successful business. So who am I to give prescriptive advice to somebody who's still trying to do that?
MW: I think no matter where you’re at on that “success” ladder, it's a choice to step out of that mindset.
JH: Sure. I mean, I don't want to be the person who just throws out capitalism as a buzzword... I'm very aware that I could push my business much further and sell out. Nobody teaches you how to have a medium-sized business. We reward high-profile monopoly money run startup machines. Usually, they have net negative millions. There’s much less hype around a 5 to 10 person company that's self-funded, cares about what they do, and the design of their stuff isn’t just mass-market crapola! I can go on a tangent about that, but at the end of the day, I make pretty consumer goods. We make it to last, and we want people to love it forever, and imbue meaning and pass it on to their children, but we're also not saving lives. I feel like it's also important to have a level of awareness about what we do. People love to talk about business in this aspirational way, but sometimes I’m just like, “Fuck off.”
MW: Well, we do live within the confines of a capitalist society. It's tough for individuals or small businesses to overcome the motivations of an entire ecosystem, but it’s a start!
JH: Story of my life.
MW: Do you feel that you have control over where the company’s headed? As things grow, how have you noticed the nature of owning a business change?
JH: I definitely have control, but I've seen things change. I’ve been on calls where things stopped making sense to me, conversations with unnecessary abstract, high-level marketing speak. That’s where I drew the line.
MW: It sounds like you’re very much guided by a commitment to trusting yourself.
MW: Are friendships a source of inspiration for you?
JH: There’s inspiration in being open and curious about new things, whether that's having interesting philosophical conversations, trying to unravel bigger questions, surrounding yourself in nature, or exposing yourself to interdisciplinarity practices. Many of my friends are in similar lines of work which is really fun. We’ll travel together, and since we’re interested in the same types of things, it makes for a great time.
MW: Where did you last travel with friends?
JH: I just visited a good friend in upstate New York. Prior to that, we roadtripped to Santa Fe together.. We've been to Italy and Japan together. We've traveled quite a lot, actually..
MW: I’m sure you come back from those trips incredibly inspired.
JH: Yeah, inspiration is a funny one. People always ask where I get inspiration as if it's a specific thing. I think the real answer is just having a general openness towards life so that even on a path that has nothing to do with your direct line of work, you’re always interested.
MW: It really makes you think—if the internet is in some way a reflection of our societal values, are we doomed to surface-level thinking? Because that's what the majority double taps on. Maybe it’s important not to appeal to the majority?
JH: It's an interesting chicken-and-egg situation. It’s a function of the system that we're operating in, and as individuals, we don’t have a lot of levers to pull to make a difference. I try to think about it like the medium is the message. There’s something to be said about where the information is coming from and via what medium it's being communicated.