Rapaport Magazine
Style & Design

Journey to the past


Ancient coins and vintage diamonds are among the staples of world traveler Baylee Ann Zwart’s Azlee brand.

By Rachel Taylor

Image: Baylee Zwart

Baylee Ann Zwart’s journey to jewelry started with a more literal journey — to Guatemala. Working on behalf of an NGO that connected US brands like Urban Outfitters and Levi’s to female artisans in the country, she found herself surrounded by craft, including “a plethora of jewels and metalworking.”

Though she had not yet made a connection between jewelry and her own professional path, an interest was beginning to emerge. On a previous trip to Morocco, Zwart had fallen in love with a white drusy quartz and had taken it with her to Guatemala to get it set in a ring. She made her way to a recommended local goldsmith, but he had a different proposal for her.

“He asked, ‘Do you want to make this?’” she remembers. “I had never thought of me making it, but I made that first ring, and I was hooked.”

She soon started spending as much time as she could in the goldsmith’s workshop, learning directly from him how to master precious metals and set gems. “That was my most hands-on experience. We didn’t do molds or casting there; you took a hunk of metal, and you started from the ground up.”

It soon became clear to Zwart that this was more than a hobby, but her parents convinced her that starting her own business before working for others was not wise. She had graduated with a business degree in fashion, communication and retail, and she put these skills to use working in sustainability at shoe brand Toms. At night, however, she started building what would become the Azlee brand.

Gold of old

Azlee launched seven years ago, and it has built a loyal following. Handcrafted in Los Angeles, California, its 18-karat gold and diamond jewelry draws on the aesthetic of ancient civilizations. That’s a trend du jour in jewelry right now, but it has been a lifelong fascination for Zwart.

“It started in elementary school, doing Egypt, ancient Greece and mythology — I was fascinated,” says the designer, who recently fueled her obsession with a trip to Greece. “[Jewelry] was a very powerful part of their society, and I think [ancient Greek jewelry] is beautiful and still looks a lot like what we’re wearing today.”

One of Azlee’s signature designs is gold and diamond coin charms, which take inspiration from old-world currency. Zwart introduced them in her third collection, and they’re still going strong. The charms have a pleasant, light-rebuffing mix of rough, organic finishing and high polish that Zwart says takes “a ton of different finishes” to achieve.

The gold itself is a bespoke alloy exclusive to Azlee. The proprietary blend creates a warmer, less green version of 18-karat yellow gold. “I never thought anyone else would notice, but we have lots of clients say, ‘We love your gold color,’” says Zwart.

The coins make an appearance in Azlee’s newest collection, Staircase II, which harnesses a more linear aesthetic than its previous ranges. Zwart tapped into Art Deco for this collection, with its step-cut gold bands and necklaces of gold cuboid bars strung together. Art Deco also influenced a collection of stud earrings with vintage diamonds in offbeat cuts such as kites, cubes and hexagons.

Sustainable strategies

Using vintage stones is an extension of Azlee’s pledge to work sustainably. The brand only uses recycled gold and ethically sourced gems, and it is investing more heavily in the circular economy.

“We are bringing in recycled diamonds, especially for our large stones and engagement rings,” says Zwart. “It is a lot easier to source vintage [diamonds], and we can see which piece it’s coming out of.”

With the studs, which cost $700 for a single earring, Zwart is trying to achieve lower price points for her brand.

“We barely have anything in the $1,200 to $2,000 range,” she says, noting that Azlee’s Couture debut in Las Vegas this summer was a positive experience. “Our retailers’ sweet spot is $2,000 to $5,000. We want to hit that gifting price, and special little layering pieces.”

She is also changing up the way Azlee launches products. The growing hub of contemporary fine jewelers in Los Angeles has been drawing retailers to the city for regular buying visits, she notes. Whenever she releases a new collection, she gives her retail partners the full line at once, but teases the pieces out gradually through Azlee’s own direct-to-consumer channels over six months to ensure the brand always has something new to offer.

“E-commerce is staggered, with a launch every other week,” says the designer. “I think it works well. It keeps it fresh for our clients and allows us to focus thoughtfully on each part. I don’t want to feed into [consumer demand for newness], but it is the norm. We’re not pushing fast fashion, [so] I’m fine with people seeing newness for things that are going to last a lifetime.”

azleejewelry.com 

Ocean viewAzlee was the first US brand to launch a collaborative collection with Ocean Diamonds, a supplier that sources its diamonds through divers rather than miners. It plucks stones that have been naturally washed downriver into the ocean off the coast of Namibia. The partnership was a perfect fit for Azlee founder Baylee Ann Zwart, who describes herself as an “ocean person” at heart.

The designer is an avid surfer and scuba diver, and since the inception of her brand, she has sought to use her success to further conservation efforts for the oceans. A portion of every Azlee sale goes to ocean-related causes.

Zwart’s other passion is ethical sourcing, so Ocean Diamonds’ no-mining approach piqued her interest. “I had never heard of the concept, and it was so interesting,” she says. “I thought that if it was new to me, it would be new to lots of people.”

The limited-edition collection is a love letter to the water, with sculptural, fluid waves of yellow gold swirling around diamonds. Azlee’s signature coin charms are embellished with sea creatures. “I wanted to capture that organic feel and romance, but in a way that still felt ‘us,’” says Zwart.

In another first for Azlee, the collection contains round brilliant Ocean Diamonds — a cut the brand had never used before, outside of melee. “Oddly enough, it was very unusual for us, even though it is the most generic thing for every other brand,” says Zwart. “People were excited about that, too, as seeing our pieces with that sort of stone was different.”

She plans to add new pieces to the Ocean Diamonds collection each year as a kind of ongoing special edition, and she is offering the diamonds to clients for bespoke commissions as well. Her customers’ reactions have been just as positive as she hoped.

“People are so interested in [Ocean Diamonds],” she says. “The story is beautiful, it feels special and intentional, and the sustainability aspects are a bonus for us.”

oceandiamonds.com

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - November 2021. To subscribe click here.

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