Meet Izaskun Zabala, A Local Jewelry Designer Who Brings Community To Workshops At Jill Lindsey

izaskun zabalaBY MEGAN MCGIBNEY

To be greeted by jewelry designer Izaskun Zabala is to experience warmth and openness. She greets you with a bright smile and a friendly hug, welcomes you into the two floor apartment unit she shares with a housemate on the border of Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy, and openly shares about her jewelry designs and how she and her company has grown since she launched her eponymous company just two short years ago. A native of Spain’s Basque country, Izaskun (pronounced e-THAS-cun) has seen her jewelry sold in stores and boutiques across the country, including Myrtle Avenue’s Jill Lindsey.

It is at Jill Lindsey (370 Myrtle Avenue) that Izaskun teaches a workshop on how to make malas, or prayer beads used by adherents of Eastern faiths. The workshop has become so popular that Jill Lindsey will now be holding the workshop once a month starting in January. And for Izaskun, it has allowed her to form a sense of community, something she loves about Fort Greene-Clinton Hill.

What brought you to this neighborhood?

I was living in Williamsburg and when I was moving, a friend of mine lived in Fort Greene, and I found an amazing room on Clermont and DeKalb — I would live there for nearly four years. Then I moved again and I knew I wanted to stay in Clinton Hill. I love Fort Greene Park more than Prospect Park. And I’m from a small town back in the Basque country, so being here is also very neighborhood oriented. People know you and you create, you know, a dialogue with the stores and you end up shopping at the same stores. Every time I go to Jill Lindsey, I sit at the coffee space and suddenly someone else comes in and there’s always interesting people to talk with. I go to yoga on Myrtle, I shop at the Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, I go to Fort Greene Park on Saturdays to sell jewelry.

How did you meet Jill Lindsey, and how did you go about doing the workshop with her?

First of all, I think everybody who goes to Jill Lindsey finds a little bit of magic. With me, it was connection at first sight. She’s a very good businesswoman, she’s a very good soul, that’s what makes her so special.

A friend of mine is a Tarot reader, and she was doing Tarots in her opening a little bit over a year ago, and told me, “You have to meet my friend, Jill, and you have to show her your jewelry, because I think she will love it.” So I stop by, and she’s like, ‘great! I love it! Let’s sell it!’ And since then, everything I bring her, she sells.

Malas are not on my website, but it’s something that for me, is fun. I can be so production-oriented and I need to do these one-of-a-kind pieces to have fun. And people love them, so we agreed to do workshops here. We’ve done two and will soon do it every month because people give feedback and enjoy it. It builds up. It’s important that people work out with their own pieces, It’s beautiful, It keeps me excited. The women trust me, and it’s beautiful in order to give back, no? As a jeweler, it’s a profession you can spend a lot of time alone, and I’m fine with it. I have my music, the board, I have my materials. But, to be able to talk about your knowledge and to pass it around, it’s beautiful. It’s very rewarding.

Photo by Megan McGibney.
Photo via Izaskun Zabala.

You had that community in a small town. Do you feel that is being replicated here too?

Absolutely. Basque country is just in a corner of France and Spain, and my town is a coastal town. So we grow up with the beach, the Pyrenees, the Atlantic Ocean, and it is very green and very windy. I was very lucky to grow up there.

Here, it is up to each of us, not only the way you interact with your neighborhood, its – you make your own community. What you bring to the table, the energy you interact, right away they respond, it’s a very friendly neighborhood. But definitely, you know, you get involved with the community.

What got you into jewelry design?

I’ve always been very good creating with my hands. Since I was a kid, I was very craft oriented, making little boxes of hair clips or anything else. When I was 19, I moved to Ireland and took a fine art course and continuing education at the National College of Art and Design. I did sculpture, photography, painting, printmaking — I started to get a feel of what I was best at. I know I’m much better at sculpture than painting, and because it involves working with your hands. And I suddenly felt very attracted by the fact that jewelry, it’s something that lasts. And it involves the metal and stones, which can carry a certain energy, certain history. Then I came to New York at 23 because I fell in love with an American man, and in 2005, I finally went to FIT in New York and did a degree in jewelry.

Was it difficult growing your business? 

There are a lot of jewelers that are self-taught, but at FIT, I was older than most of my classmates and I was already selling at the market, doing different events, and making a few custom rings. I was interacting with the teachers, and asking them, ‘where do I buy an emerald’ or ‘where can I buy a diamond’. And my teachers, one of them drew for Cartier. Another one worked at Tiffany’s, another had their own company. So, they would always say, ‘go there and tell him that I sent you’. So I was already doing my little networking. And it’s just by putting myself out there, that you get to know about the city. It made me curious. You go one place and they send you another one, and you ask them and the one thing that my bosses told me was, “always take business cards”. And so I did, and today, 10 years later, I got my own company, I go back to the business cards I took back then. So that was the best business advice they ever taught me.

What inspires your designs?

It’s very personal. And I am aware by now what sells, what certain designs that have certain characteristics that people are more drawn into. But, mostly I’m very practical and I’m somebody that wants people to do what I do — to use it very often. I want it to be comfortable, have a timeless design, be something appealing and elegant. I tend to do high finish, it’s not bumpy or textured. I’m drawn to things that add to your personality without taking over. I take into consideration my client: a busy woman who has to be able to put on a pair of earrings in the morning and then if she goes out for happy hour after work, she is still dressed up. If she wears a scarf, the earrings are not going to be tucked in the scarf or her silk shirt is not going to be damaging. Everything is very comfortable. It’s like you wear it, you put it on and it stays on.

Photo by Megan McGibney.
Photo via Izaskun Zabala.

What has been the highlight of your career?

Being let go from my old job unexpectedly and starting my own company in November of 2013. And then in that first month, a buyer from Ann Taylor spotting my jewelry in a Brooklyn boutique and bringing me on as one of their core jewelers in their Lou & Gray concept store — 13 stores nationwide.

Where is your jewelry made?

New York. By different contractors, mostly in the diamond district between 46th, 47th, and 48th Streets, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. To have your own company, especially jewelry, it is a lot of problem solving when you do production. So I do spend time designing but also I spend a lot of time with logistics.

What’s been the most challenging part of your career?

Being away from my family, because they live in Spain. But it has also become the way I live, which is that I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and I can only think and do my best every day, and I won’t know how things will turn out. But I don’t worry about it.

Also, in the first year and a half, that was a very big challenge as of when you’re starting and you have very little money. I didn’t ask for any, like, loans or anything, I just went with what I had. I would say yes to everything. “Do you want to do a sale now?” “Yes” “Do you want to do that?” “Yes”. “Do you want to bring some jewelry to show to my friend?” “Yes”. So, I would design and buy materials, and I didn’t have a lot of leverage to raise money. I would be like, “Am I doing the right thing?”, “Is this design going to be liked?”, “Where am I going to stock my materials, inventory?” And you had to be very courageous and say, “You know what? I trust my instinct, I trust my intuition, my design eye, let’s go for it.” I don’t know where I’m going to be in six months, but I am not going to worry.

I’m still learning. It’s a very personal growth. But challenge doesn’t always need to be hard, and I think that when you’re on your own, and working seven days a week, and having your company and having to trust your intuition, having to be on top of your business. Everything becomes a beautiful challenge. Otherwise you can’t do it.

What’s next for you? 

I want to keep growing, and hopefully be able to hire an employee that is going to help me take care of some of the things, and leave me more time to design. Expand my new collection, it is called Cosmic Seed. I want it to be in the stores nationwide. And before that, I’m in the process of rebranding my whole company.  I’ve met with a branding strategist that lives in Fort Greene; she also gave a workshop at Jill Lindsey. My designs have evolved. I have evolved! So I’m taking a few months to revisit it all and I’m going to do a new logo and rethink my image. I’m loving it and am so excited to be able to work on my company, and work on me personally, too.

What piece of advice would you give to an artist in the Fort Greene-Clinton Hill area?

I think share with your community as an artist, and if you need a new space, or you need furniture, or you need to move, there’s always by talking in the neighborhood, that one thing can bring you to another. That would be my best advice for artists and for all the professionals, take the mala workshop classes!

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