On an unseasonably warm afternoon in early Autumn, we met with Michael Fitzgerald and George Plionis at Fitzgerald Jewelry in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Michael is originally from Ireland and runs Fitzgerald Jewelry along with wife Hiroyo. Born in Australia, George is a designer and Assistant Professor of Product and Industrial Design at Parsons. In collaboration, they created ‘Til Death Do Us Part,’ an engagement and wedding collection.
Admittedly, when we first heard about wedding jewelry that flirts with beliefs about love, death, and the afterlife, our first thought was, “How possibly could that work?” Our immediate second thought was “We have to see it for ourselves.” After viewing the collection in person, it was evident that these pieces, despite the fact that some have skulls, were about celebrating life and the here and now while honoring the bond we make to another.
Before our official Industry Influencer interview with Michael and George began, they toured us through the display cases, illuminating on the ritual use of objects of adornment, especially rings, throughout history to symbolize everything from fear of death and immortality to love and commitment. What struck us most about the collection is how the designers are filtering age old motifs through a modern lens to create a completely new visual language. Appearing delicate, almost classic at first, the rings, earrings, and necklaces open up to a wealth of exquisite detail and surprises upon further inspection. To this, the designers credit their ‘true’ approach to collaboration, willingness to embrace new technologies, and open-mindedness. We finally sat down on the couch reserved for clients waiting to pick up their custom pieces, which are handmade in the studio located just feet away at the back of Fitzgerald Jewelry, to start the interview. Here, Michael and George talk about their artistic backgrounds, the inspiration behind their jewelry, and what couples can expect when having a ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ ring custom-made for them.
The term ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ is used in some traditional wedding vows. That being said, you are drawing from the term to create engagement and wedding rings that most would describe as ‘untraditional.’ How did you come up with the idea for the collection?
Michael: We’d love to tell you that there is a great concept behind the collection. But in reality, we were commissioned to make an engagement ring that incorporated skulls. I made the first sketch. At this time, George was working with a design program called ZBrush. Together, we came up with this beautiful design featuring a black diamond halo setting flanked by two skulls flowing into a band of roses. Upon finishing, we were both like “Wow, we’ve done something really special here.” The ring was simple, understated, yet very unique. The skull motif usually comes across as aggressive in jewelry – think biker jewelry. But this was a really elegant engagement ring that incorporated imagery commonly associated with death.
George: Leading up to this particular commission, Michael and I had been talking about collaborating on a body of work. We worked together on numerous commissioned pieces and by this point, were really starting to understand the other’s design sensibilities. ZBrush is more of a wax-type program, which allows you to push and pull shapes so the design feels free and organic. Typically, high-end wedding jewelry is made with CAD (Computer Aided Design) programs that move shapes from fixed axes and planes resulting in ‘boxier’ pieces with a distinct look.
Michael: Exactly. Before, the process of design was very technically orientated – prongs, spikes, and angles. Suddenly, we were in this different world of imagery. We were really lucky to get that commission when we did – it gave us the opportunity to explore our interests, experiment, and realize what we could actually do.
Did the process of conceptualizing the collection require any research on your part? Did you look to any works from the history of art or architecture for inspiration?
George: The collection is based on memento mori, which translates to “Remember you must die.” The saying has been around for centuries and is largely associated with Christianity but spans cultures and religions. As a historical reference regarding objects of adornment, we often think of memento mori in relation to the black enamel on 22-karat yellow gold jewelry from the Victoria & Albert period. Research led me to believe that there was a collective fear of being forgotten upon death. To comfort this anxiety, people, mostly the wealthy, made elaborate memorials to themselves. There is evidence that individuals willed money for the purpose of creating jewelry to be worn by a specific list of mourners, ensuring the memory of the deceased would not be forgotten.
Michael: Of course, we looked at countless books on memento mori, but we were also referencing other sources from the history of art and architecture. Design wise, and this is more George than me, we looked at high-end fine jewelry.
George: I brought an eclectic mixture of design and culture to the table that included fashion. One of my favorite books is Dior Joaillerie: The Dictionary of Victoire de Castellane, which features the work of Victoire de Castellane who has been the Creative Director of Jewelry at Christian Dior since 1998. Her designs are wildly beautiful.
Michael: There are two things about ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ that we should say. Firstly, we didn’t want the collection’s tie to memento mori to be overtly obvious. Secondly, we didn’t set out to create jewelry that says “Remember, you will die.” These are engagement and wedding rings that celebrate the union of marriage and commitment between two people. Rather, I want to think these pieces symbolize the idea ‘remember, you must live your life’ to get to ‘the end.’
George: There is a real beauty around the idea of finding your soulmate and how souls rejoin and have an ongoing life beyond this world. Regardless of religious or spiritual beliefs, we give a lot of thought to ‘Where do we go from here?’ There is a gorgeous, poetic nature to thinking that death is not final. The collection delves into these complex philosophical questions.
Skulls and roses, iconic symbols of death and love, have been used in jewelry for hundreds of years. But your take on the motif is completely different in look and feeling. Why do you think that is?
Michael: As we designed the collection, I knew there wasn’t anything out there like it. Still, we were really surprised by people’s reaction. We are taking elements that are very old and by using cutting-edge technology, have been able to play around with these elements and associated ideas, ultimately giving a modern sensibility to iconography that has existed for centuries. As a result, the collection is a hybrid in that the pieces have a look and feel that is old worldly, yet very contemporary.
George: It is also important to note that this collection has been a true collaboration between the two of us. What is so remarkable is that the process has been a sincere letting go of any point of view in order to listen to what the other person has to say and give their idea a chance to see if it works or doesn’t work. This has been incredibly helpful in allowing us arrive to these original designs. In Australia where I am from, jewelry has a particular weight to it. There’s a different taste than in the United States and Europe as well – people want delicate jewelry. The pieces in the collection feel light. They make a statement, but it is subtle and more about the knowledge behind the piece.
You offer rings that appear classic at first glance, but have surprising details hidden in the design. Can you tell us about these pieces?
Michael: In particular, Catacombs of Love appears to be a simple band. But skulls in a repeated pattern are engraved on the inside. Another signature ring is Skulls In A Line, which features a band of skulls with five bezel set diamonds. The beauty of the collection is its subtlety and rich detail. Looking ahead, we are interested in adding more accessories. The Moonstone Skull Tear-Drop earrings are the latest work and pairs the repeated skull motif with moonstones.
George: We want to be very respectful of the work we have already produced while moving forward. I think this is necessary for creating any good collection.
The relationship between love/death and adornment is especially meaningful within the context of marriage. How does it feel knowing you are creating pieces that carry such personal and symbolic significance for two people?
George: Amazing, phenomenal … I think that the symbolism held in this particular body of work takes ‘commitment’ to a whole new level. The historical context behind the collection creates another layer of meaning. Seeing what we have made become part of a once-in-a-lifetime moment shared between two people feels incredible.
Can you tell us about the various diamonds, gemstones, and types of gold you use in the collection?
Michael: We made a conscious decision from the beginning to go with high-quality materials. That being said, the collection is not all white diamonds. We also wanted to use the champagnes, salt and peppers, and blacks… to some, they would be the rejects of the diamond world. I, however, embrace their singular beauty and unusualness. For metals, we are using some of the more exotic alloys like red gold, champagne gold, grey gold along with yellow gold. ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ is not your traditional wedding collection. For example, the Skull Halo engagement ring features a purple sapphire surrounded by a halo of white diamonds.
George: There are many advantages to working in an independent studio. By that I mean, what you see in our gallery and on the website is really just a hint of what is available. If someone has an idea regarding gemstone, metal, or design, we are completely open to collaborating.
Do couples have the option of having a ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ custom piece made?
George: Yes. People are coming to us because they like what we have already made. As designers and makers, one of our specialties is working with others to tailor make whatever it is they are after. I take great pride in being able to sit with someone and interpret their ideas in a way where I can put a mark on the finished piece, but they have had complete say throughout the process.
Michael: As designers, we get excited when a client comes to us and asks, “Can you do this?”
How far in advance of the wedding should a couple meet with you to start the process of designing their rings?
Michael: An average commission takes four to seven weeks. But, it really depends on the complexity of the piece.
George: It is really important to understand the ‘work in progress’ part of designing a custom piece. Being part of the actual process can take longer than initially thought.
Do you have a favorite piece from the collection?
Michael: I have several. Right now, the new moonstone earrings are really blowing me away. Another standout for me is Catacombs of Love – the concept is so interesting for a wedding band. And the Skull and Flower Halo ring, because it is where we started.
George: For me, what is so exciting about the moonstone earrings, our latest piece, is seeing the next iteration of design and where the collection goes from here. I also really like the smaller, simple pieces such as Truly Madly Deeply rings. And the Skull and Flower Halo ring for the same reason as Michael – it was the catalyst for ‘Til Death Do Us Part.’
Do you have any upcoming plans for ‘Til Death Do Us Part?’
George: We are definitely working on adding a few more key pieces, so the collection has layers and feels multi-dimensional. We would also like to put out a book that discusses ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ within the historical context of memento mori, and explains how the collection came to be and why we are doing it. As jewelry designers, we are also storytellers – we are creating objects that people wear, often for the rest of their lives. These pieces go beyond being a certain karat of diamond or gold to speak to our humanness.
If you could pick one couple in all of history to exchange ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ rings at their wedding, who would it be?
George: I gave this question a lot of thought (laughs). The first couple that comes to mind is Elizabeth Taylor and everyone – it’s hysterical to think about her and her many husbands continuing to find each other for eternity. Or just her and Richard Burton – they reunited so many times while living. Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, one of history’s greatest love affairs. Lastly, Romeo and Juliet – a romance that continues after death.
Michael: I also thought of Romeo and Juliet. Such a pity that they never married – their story was so beautifully tragic. And Brad and Angelina (laughs) – the most tragic, or at least most publicized love story of our lifetime.
It’s October and Halloween is just around the corner…. We have to ask, what is your favorite horror movie?
George: I love B-grade, trashy horror movies. Eight-legged Freaks – it is about crazy spiders and just cracks me up. Zombie Strippers and The Reainimator are great fun. When Paris Hilton was killed in the remake of House of Wax, we all cheered – a golden ticket moment.
Michael: Evil Dead, The Exorcist, and Nightmare on Elm Street all scared the living daylights out of me.
An immense thank you to Michael and George for participating in our Industry Influencer interview series! For more information about the ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ collection, visit www.fitzgerald.com and follow along @fitzgeraldjewelry