By: Jack Stanley
Curiosity, perseverance and dexterity are just a few of Ellie Mercer’s key traits. But the 26-year-old jeweler, who went from trying her hand at making a ring for herself, to crafting a friend’s wedding bands to seeing her pieces stocked on MatchesFashion, describes her own journey best. “Oh my god, am I a jewelry designer?” she asks herself when we visit her studio.
Mercer is untrained in jewelry, having studied illustration at UWE Bristol. However, her soon-realized frustrations for the course’s limitations were what got Ellie Mercer the brand started, “I got into doing anything that I could get away with that wasn’t illustration, I was doing a lot of sculpture. That was when I first started using resin.” For her final year project, the budding artist experimented with resin by placing human teeth inside her wearable work, which sparked her love for contrasting elements and conflicting mediums — a process that sticks with the designer today.
Her designs stem from hundreds of hours of trials and errors; going into jewelry making completely blind, she started by polishing rings by hand for five hours and took a short course at Central Saint Martins to help her understand the perfect metal-to-resin balance.
Today, Mercer’s jewelry is a harmonious merging of gold or silver with resin — the latter material is generally unexplored in jewelry thanks to its unpredictable, time-consuming nature. Resin simply doesn’t work on its own, a fact she learned when she designed a variety of chunky resin accessories for London designer Caitlin Price only to have them returned to her “in a thousand pieces'' after the models had worn them. So she took to YouTube to hone her craft, “98% of the stuff I’ve learned is from tutorials,” as she explains.
Mercer appreciates resin’s freedoms and restrictions, it’s a fragile substance that can adapt to her free flowing hand-carved shapes, making for a window to the skin underneath or a house for color, shapes and personal belongings. To understand her process further, HYPEBEAST sat down with Mercer in her East London studio, where she eschews sketching and planning for organic, try, try and try again production, all while learning along the way.
Jeweler Ellie Mercer Has Perfected the Art of Imperfection
Exploring the otherworldly artworks of the Brooklyn-based painter and sculptor.
What are your influences?
Yok & Sheryo
Architectural stuff. There are a few people I’ve always looked at like Gaetano Pesce, he’s an Italian architect who also makes resin chairs and has done a lot of transparent resin stuff that had colors going through it.
Mixed-medias have excited me, but I’ve not really ever followed jewelry much, I don’t really think I’m that much into the jewelry world. To me, it’s crazy how it’s become jewelry. There are not many people doing what I’m doing, there’s not been something that I looked at and said, “I want to work like that.”
Can you talk us through your production process?
Before I start I have an image in my head of what I want. When I first started using resin, I wanted to work with two materials that became one, something that looked like one piece. But I didn't know how to achieve that.
The process is lost-wax carving, and the shape I carve out of the wax isn’t sketched beforehand, I just see what happens. A lot of people just say, “I want silver and I want black, but do your thing.” I think people like that I go in and play with it, rather than it being structured.
I don’t draw out something that I am trying to do, because I never really know what I’m doing, which is a lot of pressure on myself. I carve the ring, play with the shapes and try different things. Normally it’s two shapes, sometimes three. I go to Hatton Garden and get it cast in gold or silver, and then after that, it’s a really long process of using resin. Getting the resin in is a secret.
Erchen: It’s very important that each restaurant does different things. We’re inspired by many different eateries in Asia. So Soho is quite minimal, it’s very food focused. It’s in Soho so loads of people are coming in and out and they only want to spend maybe 30 minutes. With Borough we were inspired by the late night grill places and drinking places in Tokyo. We have a highball machine here. Everything revolves around the late night eating style. I think the inspiration comes from a different area but they’re all kinds of Asian eateries and it filters through different restaurants.
Wai Ting: It’s just trying to bring different elements of Asian culture to London. At Borough we did the KTV room downstairs, and we’ve got the hatch there, almost back to our street food days.
There are a lot of young, independent people getting recognized, which is nice. It’s quite hard to find your niche and when you’re working on such a small scale it’s quite hard to be different, but right now, I feel there are a lot of people who really have their thing, like Georgia [Kemball].
We [London jewelry designers] have a group chat and everyone talks to each other. Everyone is really willing to help each other, I don’t feel like anyone thinks anyone else is stepping on their toes, there’s not that competition, I’ve actually made a lot of friends from doing it. There’s a place for everyone.
Hatton Garden is a scary place, there is a whole different language in the jewelry world. I thought I was going to walk in and look like such an idiot, I didn't really know what I was talking about. I went three times [to the caster], the first time, I saw the set up through the window and then turned around and went home.
When did you first realize you wanted to pursue a career as a jewelry designer?
I never sat down and thought, “Oh, I’m going to start a brand,” it just sort of organically happened. I never thought that I wanted to do this as a job, it was just something I really enjoyed doing. It started with my friends saying, “If I give you some money, will you make me one?” and then it just grew from there.
As opposed to gold-plated? Because everything started as a one-off as that’s all I could afford at the time. And, it’s not been about producing a lot of work and making a lot of money, it’s been about making things that I really like.
I could have made a lot of gold-plated things that could have gone to more places and sold a lot quicker and produced way more, but that’s not the point. It’s easy to feel like you’re in a rush to grow… Start off a lot slower, but in the long run, that serves you better.
What are your thoughts on London’s jewelry scene?
Good advice is work a lot, experiment a lot, and see a lot of art. Find out who the artist is who you really admire and what do you like about their work, what can you bring into the work, but also how can you experiment with materials and make paint do something that's your own language. At least for me, that's always been really important to my practice.
“It’s not been about producing a lot of work and making a lot of money, it’s been about making things that I really like.”
“To me, it’s crazy how it’s become jewelry.”
Sheryo: Not as much as we like to. Now, we’re very busy with studio work and traveling to different locations in Southeast Asia.
Yok: Yeah, we’re busy finding places to do installations. It’s our new thing. We also travel often to learn niche handicrafts. We get stoked about going to places like Indonesia and spend months learning how to do Batik and making other local artisan works.
“There are elements of creativity in what I do but it's very process-focused work.”
Resin is the worst thing to work with in the world, it’s really dependent on temperature, as something I pour on a hot summer day could take a few hours to set, but in the winter it could take a week. When the resin goes into the mold I have to let it set — if it doesn’t look like how I want it to then I have to start that process again. Each ring can take about two months, but that’s mostly waiting for things to set, especially if there are two colors involved. With the marble effect pieces, that’s three different colors of resin that are then mixed together and then poured, which can take about five attempts to get right.
What is it like working with resin?
I feel quite lucky that if someone looks at something they’ll say, “Oh, is that an Ellie Mercer?” That’s something people told me quite early on and I’ve tried so hard to keep hold of that. You can look at it and see that there is a process… it’s really important to me that it looks handmade, you can tell that each one is different, and I quite like that some can be a bit wonky.
How would you define your style?
Yeah she had been to my shows before! My grandma's someone who would always say, “You're so special. I love you my grandson. Like no matter what you can't do wrong.” And all of her grandchildren felt that way. It was so nice. She had this amazing way of making all of us feel special.
Had your grandmother seen your work?
The closest thing I've come to painting myself, had been this last series where I'm taking different people of different ages and races like the people who I am closest to in my life. It could be my grandfather, my godson, homies or whomever I love and bringing them together in my compositions. They necessarily don’t even have to know each other in real life. That concept, I’d say, was the closest thing to a self portrait from me. But when it actually comes to physically painting myself, it’ll probably happen when I'm old.
You specialize in portraiture, have you ever made a self-portrait?
What can we expect from Ellie Mercer in the future?
My favorite jewelry designer of all time is a guy called Seb Brown. He is someone I’ve seen on Instagram for years, he makes these abstract-shaped signets with different gems set in them. I remember looking at them and thinking about how they weren’t clean, they were messy, but they were so beautiful.
Which jewelry designer do you love at the moment?
I’m really trying to step away from rings. I've done my pendants, but now I want to focus on earrings. I want to explore more with setting things in the resin and custom pieces — there are so many things you can make a pigment out of, a couple wants to make something dyed with their blood for example. People love personal things, there’s something sentimental about it, a few people have asked me to trap ashes but I feel that’s a lot of pressure and a scary route to go down. Other people want hairs.
What are you currently working on?
Yok: We would look at our drawings and imagine how it would be great if they were worlds that you could go inside, touch and move around. That's where the installation inspiration came from, I guess.
Sheryo: It was kind of natural, really, a progression from 2D to 3D. Yeah.
What about installations are you both most fascinated by?
Yok: We’re working on an immersive installation at the Paddle 8 auction house at the Lower East Side of New York City. We’re creating this nine-foot wooden sculpture of a middle finger with Donald Trump’s tombstone on top.
Sheryo: It’s this pretty big basement spot. We are making sculptures as well as creating the upholstery and benches. It has a really dingy and dark vibe. It’s kind of a lounge room setting. It’s going to launch this coming fall season.
What are you both working on right now?
Archie: We aim to hire people that are extremely multidisciplinary. But at the same time they don't have to have done everything, because in this studio, Jeff and I have not done everything and the principle of this studio is that we won't.
What most people don't have that Dillon, Phil and Ana all have is the rare layer on top of professionalism and the ability to design — the ability to not have ego, to want to learn, and to want to try things that aren’t comfortable. When you’re uncomfortable, good stuff happens because you’re able to fall back on and grow your basic skill set. Dillon didn't design shoes before he got here — he just wanted to. Now he's a shoe designer. To Phil's earlier point, that's why PLAYLAB is a school.
When you decided to grow your team, what qualities were you looking for in new members?
Dillon: Residency programs and other resources for artists — let’s make a school someday.
Jeff: I want to make a penny press called “Penny, Pressed.” The image that goes on the penny press is a penny. I'm not even sure if that’s legal, but it's in the works. I also want to make more art. I think we need more of it and that everybody thrives off of it.
Archie: I want to do it all. I want to see PLAYLAB continue to thrive and grow and morph and change, and I want to be surprised by it every year. I love the projects we work on, but I love the studio more than anything. The studio is the project because it's art.
What's next for PLAYLAB? Is there something that you've always wanted to design through PLAYLAB that you guys haven't touched yet?
When you work on projects with large corporate organizations, how do you manage to strike a balance between what the client wants and PLAYLAB’s creative identity?
Jeff: Back in the beginning when it was just Archie and I, we would get fired from projects because we would throw back ideas that they didn't ask for. But we just kept persisting throughout every year, we just kept making sure that people understood what we think. Now we've gotten to the point where people expect these ideas from us — everyone from big corporations to smaller clients.
Archie: We've tried to craft an environment where people come to us for us — not for a specific type of project. But at the same time I think that our job is to be honest about who we are and what we're doing and what we're interested in. We never present something to the client that we don't think is sick. As a result, sometimes the client isn’t the right fit. But most often, the client is like, “Holy sh*t.” And that's what we look for. The feeling in the studio when that hits is like a drug.
What is the most ridiculous request you've ever gotten from a client?
Dillon: We don't get ridiculous requests, we give them. We tell people to do some pretty outrageous sh*t, and a lot of what we hear back is, "This is f*cking amazing. Wait, rewind. How do we make this?" The more nuanced part is then making our ideas real, in tandem with other people, with a budget, in the real world.
Archie: It’s also just about ridiculous situations, which are the byproducts of working on projects with human beings. With the Louis Vuitton show, the moment nobody sees is Virgil texting all of the designers in the group thread saying he wanted to bring a DJ and throw a huge party in the center of the show right when it ended. Situations like that and learning the different ways people you work with think are the evidence of a project. Those little moments are like symbols, and every project has them.
“We want to be the studio that wraps its arms and collaborates with an infinite amount of people to learn — not to take full responsibility.”
What is the typical workflow of a studio that has “no particular focus” but also has many projects to focus on at once like?
Jeff: We have so many things going at once, so there's no typical day. On any given morning everyone knows they can walk in and we'll be like, "What you thought you're going to do today is not going to be anywhere close to what's going to happen, so let's shift gears." It's changing all the time, which is how we like it.
Dylan: Day to day is not a real thing in this studio. There's a rough energy level and thought level that we have to keep consistent, but in terms of projects we are always pivoting. When I come into the studio with a rough idea of what the timeline of my day looks like, it generally gets moved around because we're working on projects simultaneously that are all so different in nature and are always changing.
Do you find that working on multiple projects simultaneously makes each separate process stronger?
Phil: Yeah, sometimes your work for a project will have to be put on hold, but then you interweave it with some of the learnings you have from encountering another project in that time gap. Now you can bring some of those teachings back into that first project that you had to put on pause, and sometimes that can really work to the project's benefit, even if it's really subconscious.
Anna: It's really helpful that we're not working on all branding projects or all experiential projects. I can get inspired by something that we reference for a branding project at 9 a.m. EST, and at 1:00 p.m. EST it's one of the main ideas for a separate experiential project.
“The real magic of the project wasn't the two weeks that it existed and was beautiful - it was the drudgery of the work to get there.”
By: Eric Brain
Why do you work with solid gold and silver?
How did it feel for you to grow from made-to-order to being stocked on MatchesFashion?
It was always word-of-mouth, I still don’t even have a website. It was all quite daunting to be honest, going from making cute, little handmade bespoke pieces and dealing with people one-on-one to then going into a shop. Things had to change within my work that I didn’t want to do — I had to rein it in a bit which was something I was wary of doing. With the resin, you get bubbles in each one, and with the metal, even if it's from the same mold, it could look totally different to what someone sees online. But, it’s actually been fine.
Before that I was an Instagram brand. Now, more people and stylists approach me for a shoot — I’ve never even done a photoshoot with my brand, it’s just pictures of pieces on my hands. I think that’s cool, I kinda want to stick to that as that’s my aesthetic now, I don’t want it to look too professional or forced.
It’s important that you are stocked in places that you like, respect and want to be a part of, rather than just doing stuff because it's an exciting opportunity. I like that I’m staying quite small, that it’s just me and I’m stocked in one place, I want to do it slowly and gradually. I’ve got a few places I’d really like to be stocked in.
Tooth caps are something that is being experimented with. A chair, imagine a gold and resin chair. A table and chairs. Resin homeware bits are definitely something I want to go into, an ashtray with gold pieces set into it. I’d also love to do eyewear with resin and pieces of gold.