New York-based DJ turned designer Jules Kim is an active advocate for diversity and inclusion in the jewellery industry. In 2018, she launched the BIPOC Designers mentorship programme to help support local BIPOC artisans and makers.
As an innovator and pioneer of new ideas, Kim believes in the value of self-expression and credits her eclectic, edgy and experimental style to New York City’s nightlife scene. For more than 20 years she has merged two seemingly disparate worlds - street and club aesthetics with luxury jewellery craft which has formed the basis of her design aesthetic. While DJing in New York’s top clubs, she launched her semi-eponymous brand Bijules (‘By Jules’) in 2002, giving birth to many of her cult creations, on the dance floor and behind the decks. Kim spearheaded the introduction of Nail and Bar ring silhouettes which garnered immediate attention from style icons like Beyoncé and Rihanna.
Going beyond conventional modes of adornment, her jewels cover, curve, hang and hug the human body, pushing forward traditional concepts in jewellery. Her provocative pieces range from organic curvaceous silhouettes to articulated hinges and juicy gems worn in unforeseen places. Think of phalange rings, gem studded mouthpieces and bracelets worn on the belly of your hand.
Isabella Yan: Can you give us some background on how you entered the jewellery industry before launching the Bijules brand?
JK: My jewellery lens emerged from the New York City nightlife scene. I was a DJ and promoter in the Lower East side in the early 2000’s where subculture and community supported artists grew through a super diverse platform. I launched iconic Bijules silhouettes like the bar ring and nail ring on the dance floor or behind the decks. Late night elegance came in the form of closing out a party and still doing tedious accounting, booking global talent, hosting conversations and uniting common ideas in practice. I use this grace in my work as a jewellery designer and connect experience through product steeped in authenticity.
L-R: Jules Kim; Diamond pavé Serpent Nail ring by Bijules Jewellery
IY: You call yourself the ‘rebel/ Blonde Asian,’ where did this persona come from and how does your personality reflect in your jewellery?
JK: I have not thought that being a rebel and having blonde hair is a persona. It actually is who I am ;) I present myself and my work with complete transparency and honesty which might well be perceived as confrontational, but I make no excuses for who I am or what my work represents. I pay ode to my inspiration by building stories around each jewellery piece or collection. These stories are not unique to me; they are just humanity’s compiled adversities and reflections. I grew up half Korean with an identical twin, raised by a single artist mother. My small family struggled against a certain standard of living, but persevered. We conspired to be ourselves as individuals very early in life. This affectionate consideration of self developed my artist ego.
IY: What inspires you as a jewellery designer?
JK: I am inspired by the beauty of simplicity and the complexity in function. I mix utility and multi-functional ideas into fine materials while embracing context and the resulting impact of creation. I find an abundance of ideas in everyday life which ranges from high to low in terms of style and expression. I watch NYC street basketball players and envision connecting generic personal tech like EarPods to fine jewellery in gold with 2 carat diamonds. I flashback to my girlhood and apply nostalgia for Lee Press on Nails in 18k ruby pavé nail rings. This melange of street attitude is one of my signature styles.
L-R: Earpod earring by Bijules Jewelry; Knuckle rings, phalange rings and handlets by Bijules Jewelry
IY: Tell us about your design style. What are the most distinctive features in your jewels?
JK: Physical distinctions of my jewellery style range from organic curvy lines to articulated hinges and juicy gems in unforeseen places. I like for the jewellery to cover and hug the human body in neglected places, like the ear canal, nipples, fingernails, and the belly of the hand. Whatever is not standard I will bask in and eventually, by working with celebrities and marketing through storytelling, this approach constructs global trends.
IY: How do you source and use gem materials?
JK: I work with people I trust and have built relationships with for 20 years. As a non traditional jewellery designer, I acknowledge the importance of learning and growing within an industry that has yet to embrace diversity at its core. I vet my subcontractors and vendors through merit and wit. If they are not fun to work with and committed to doing better, then I move on. I trust my metal and gem sources to uphold transparency in regards to provenance and the communities from which the materials are harvested.
Rihanna wearing Bar Rings by Bijules Jewelry
IY: What was it like moving from New York's nightclub scene to working in the gems and jewellery industry? What are your thoughts about the gems and jewellery industry?
JK: I never moved away from the nightlife scene. I implement the nightlife into everything I do. I am a monster about music and aesthetics. Culture fuels humanity and it is my duty to comment on today for a more well-rounded tomorrow. I honoured the underground club scene by opening my first retail store underground on the Bowery. For 10 years I created pop-ups under and above the streets of New York, Paris, London, Milan, Berlin and anywhere I could house a DJ, club goers and a jewellery case of some reimagined version. It is here where my clients are free to envisage what I can do for them, as they emerge with their Bijules relic to their certain reality.
I believe a persona reflects who someone really is. In fact, I co-founded the longest running daytime rooftop party in NYC history with LeBain at The Standard Highline. Even during the day, club culture can influence my work in jewellery. I invited my jewellery industry friends to my events so they could let their hair down. So at one point, my diamond setter is throwing back shots with my chain distributor and my factory owner is buying a bottle for his lady in the corner… this mix is where I feel at home and you can see that in my work, as I push up from the street into luxury.
Tattooth Grillz by Jules Kim in collaboration with tattoo artist Madame Buraka
IY: What kind of client wears Bijules and what do you want women to feel when wearing your jewellery?
JK: I invite all genders, not just women, to wear Bijules. In fact, I might have called my brand unisex in 2003. I might have called it a lot of things back then, as a baby self-taught jeweller on the scene ;) My clients range from the most known to the unknown; from Beyoncé, Cardi B and Rihanna to your neighbour, or your mum. The qualifying measure for a Bijules client is risk. All of my clients are defiant in their own way. They might wear family heirlooms and then don gold teeth with sparkling diamonds and opal inlay. Or they bought a silver Bar ring in the club 20 years ago and now have invested in a custom engagement ring, wedding bands, and their first born’s earrings. My clients wear statement jewellery that speaks for them and empowers them to be honest with themselves and the world they inhabit.
IY: The Bijules Incubator launched in 2018 is a jewellery talent development programme for emerging & independent jewellers of diverse backgrounds. What compelled you to set up this project and could you tell us more about its trajectory?
JK: The Bijules Incubator was a compelling case to open an official programme to give back to those who will come after me. I have always worked with BIPOC artisans. For 20 years I have vetted my staff through talent and drive; while investing in teaching my assistants and interns how to run a sustainable business based on creativity and commercial awareness through impact. I have witnessed the beauty in supporting talent from non traditional backgrounds as they forge their own path and make mine better. I don’t want to work in the fashion and jewellery industry if it is not conducive for success for me and my people. I would be complicit in exacerbating issues and stagnating creativity if I did not organize an accountability system and source of passionate actors and players.
Fangchoker by Bijules Jewelry
IY: What were your own hurdles establishing yourself and working in the gems and jewellery industry?
JK: It could take a lifetime to tell you all stories but I will conclusively state that adversity is not a crutch but leverage for my success. I am used to entering a room and ‘working it’. I am used to abusive language, hierarchical structures, systemic racism, unequal opportunity and such. This is humanity, no? My cards were dealt and I played the game with clever spirit and tenacity. I prefer lots of little wins over a long period of time as opposed to some blow out huge “overnight” success story. Beh. Boring. That’s called privilege. I work hard for my wins and bask in their glory and hold no shame for my successes and losses. My failures have taught me more than a single win ever will.
IY: These ensuing conversations are an integral part to changing and challenging the bottom line of the jewellery industry. How can we make more positive and formative changes to the jewellery industry?
JK: After the George Floyd murder and now with the conviction of his killer, I think the elephant is being acknowledged. The space that systemic racism and its bad actors take is stupid. It’s the same space that integrity and real creativity could occupy. Until I see more people like me in positions of power, I will not stop creating beauty with purpose. I am used to pushing my way through and challenging the market with my ideas aka trends; I aspire to leverage my 20 years of service and jewellery making for a clearer and more evident path for others to succeed based on merit and talent.
Jules Kim with Kayinoluwa Ibidapo (Kay), a model and aspiring jewellery specialist Kim mentors through the Bijules Incubator - a jewellery talent development program for for emerging & independent persons of diverse backgrounds. Photo by Alessandro Simonetti.
IY: What advice do you have for those starting out in the industry, especially for those looking to work as a jewellery maker/designer?
JK: For fellow jewellers, I encourage those currently facing this industry to embrace themselves wholeheartedly as makers and provocateurs; to create from your gut and make mistakes; to learn from your elders and instill authenticity into everything you do. We are not thriving in a saturated market, we are drowning. We are veritable lifesavers; we can steer this ship with agility and ingenuity only as long as we are heard. For allies and supporters: Listen. Listen and act. Please do not commit to help without true action. I expect conversations and reflections that align our industries with certain values that support equity and enable our gut creativity.
IY: You are always trying to redefine jewellery in unconventional ways. What trends do you see in the future?
JK: I do not try to redefine, I am doing. I have been doing this for a very long time. I have no other choice but to activate myself and others into a graceful and sustained rebellion against the common. I can not exist as an artist without this drive to achieve for beauty’s sake at all costs. I trust my spirit unconditionally and have carved a specific perspective on jewellery and its future. Forecasting trends is not my game. I play more as the maker who proximates the public closer to culture with modern artifacts. When this cultural impact breaks through, it becomes a trend.
IY: What is next for Bijules?
JK: I am reconfiguring the Bijules brand and my work as a concept consultant for other brands and groups. This new holistic workflow will enrapture my clients in innovation and meaningful impact through smart fine jewellery, social justice, and more.
Interview: Isabella Yan Art meets Jewellery: Women's Series https://artmeetsjewellery.com/womensseries/