Ethical, rugged, and handmade, Wendy Woldenberg’s WEND Jewelry Designs are nature inspired to honor our “wending” journey through life, with reciprocity in each step. As a board member of Ethical Metalsmiths, Wendy focuses on sustainable materials and business practices, and also upcycles her customers’ gold to re-create custom pieces with deeper meaning. After teaching jewelry design to high schoolers for 22 years, on Earth Day 2021 she opened her Seattle storefront where she gives back with every purchase. It was an arduous nature trek with BFF Catherine Grisez that opened up a new perspective to bring her passions to life.
Long-time friend and fellow nature lover Catherine Grisez nominated Wendy to share her story: “Wendy is one of those powerhouse women doing amazing things at the micro level and beyond. As a force for good, she uses jewelry as a means to make a lifelong positive impact on the people she works with and the planet for future generations.”
What brings you joy these days Wendy?
I get the most joy from breathing super fresh air, like if I get to walk outside and it’s been raining. It’s something I really relish. My other big joy is what I’ve been doing the last couple years with my new venture, making really, really, really special pieces for people and connecting them back to their ancestors through that recreation. I opened the WEND storefront right when Covid hit, so it’s been difficult, but it’s also been really joyful.
I wish I could have been a high school student in your jewelry making classroom. Was teaching a lifelong dream of yours?
As a kid I used to teach art to my imaginary friends on a blackboard in the hallway of our apartment in Chicago. My mom had jewelry she was very protective of, and I wasn’t really allowed to handle it much, so of course that made it even more interesting and coveted. I was 26 when I started teaching, and in the beginning I think I brought my own anxieties from high school with the memories of the pain and the hurt that happens at that age. But once I realized I needed to lead with love, rather than a bit of an iron fist, every day was amazing. Over the decades of teaching I was also making custom jewelry. I still relish the connections I made with my students. I still keep in contact with a few of them; they’re some of my most precious and valued relationships.
What was the impetus to make you shift from educator to creating your own jewelry collection?
I had my “aha” moment during a two-week backpacking adventure around Mount Rainier on the Wonderland Trail. While Catherine and the other hikers were taking in the scenery, everywhere I looked, I kept seeing jewelry in nature. With the waterfalls, literally, I was like, how would it look if a ring was like a waterfall? Even the glaciers and the bark on the trees. I’m not super athletic, so it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. When we got back I had some kind of parasite and had to have surgery to repair a hernia. But I kept dreaming about those designs. So after about six months I finally made a ring from the dreams, and then I realized I needed to make more. It was this incredible inspiration from nature really, that kicked it over the edge for me. I just thought, let’s give it a shot, maybe somebody else will like what I’m dreaming about too.
What amazes me about you is how you recreated your passion with a consciousness that connects you to the planet and people. And when you’re customizing and repurposing jewelry for clients, you’re telling their stories through your art. Most of us never know how to take that first step. Can you walk us through your process?
When I realized I had the opportunity to completely start over, I knew I had to begin by limiting everything. Like when you move to a smaller place and you have to shed so much.
I cut out all the gemstones that I couldn’t verify as being clean, so I could pick and choose the few, most beautiful and most sustainable ones that felt right to me. I guess I was always aware and interested in being as green as possible, trying to do what I could do. Sustainable jewelry is my foundation, not an afterthought.
When I was in grad school studying in Peru I visited the Yanacocha Gold Mine and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Just the mass devastation of the land and the fact that everything was dead for miles and miles around. On that same trip, I spent two weeks camping in the Amazon Rainforest and Ecuador. I saw both sides, and it definitely motivated me toward responsible practices.
At first, I had a few projects where people asked me to use their gold and their gemstones, and it worked perfectly. There’s an industry myth that you cannot melt down clients’ gold because if you do, the resulting piece will have pitted areas and inclusions. I even went on Facebook asking for any pro tips on melting client gold and was told it was the worst idea ever. You do have to be really careful with certain aspects and it takes longer, but I basically ignored all the responses and just said I’m going to do it.
What do you like best about yourself?
I think what I’m most proud of, and like best about myself, is I’m really good at connecting people. I like helping people find other people who spark them, whether it’s for love or for friendship or for a job, whatever. It comes from the 7th grade when I had two girlfriends that I knew separately and I connected them together and then they shut me out. It was one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced. But it also gave me all this strength as an adult to just go ahead and do that, because if they’re worth anything then they’ll keep me in their lives too.
Your creations are not what you would find in traditional jewelry stores. You believe gender shouldn’t define jewelry, individuals should. How did you arrive at non-binary, gender neutral work?
I’ve just been really turned off by the word “bridal” and I don’t think my work has ever fit into that. When I got engaged in 1999, we couldn’t find any wedding rings we liked so my fiancé requested that I make ours. My pieces are comfortable, rugged, and strong. They’re going to hold up to athletics and life. I just want to create work that feels comfortable for everybody. Inclusive. It makes no sense to box people in.
What are the most rewarding parts of your custom work with “BYOG,” Bring Your Own Gemstones and/or Gold? It’s a mighty task. Clients are not saying “Oh, I like this, or I’ll take one of these,” they’re saying “Here are my treasures, redefine them.”
I love the collaboration. It’s a wonderful layer to have that interaction with the client, so they’re part of the re-creation. There’s always amazing stories behind each piece of jewelry. I start the process by taking professional “before” photos, so clients have a souvenir. As a kid I used to dream about doing before & after with anything in my life, so it’s right up my alley. I begin with sketches, which we refine together, then I carve waxes to make sure everything’s going in the right direction before moving into the process of deconstructing and reconstructing. It’s very satisfying, because I get to honor where they’ve been and tell the story in a new way with a deeper purpose.
I had a client who inherited jewelry from her grandmother and hung on to it for several years. We started thinking about what these meaningful pieces could become in a new life, since none were wearable as they were. When she picked up the ring she told me it felt really good to have such an important piece of jewelry that wasn’t part of a marriage. She said she could feel the incredible energy in the piece. Best of all, no newly minded gold or diamonds were used in the re-creation of the piece. It was an amazing privilege to get to bring it all to life!
As we head into a New Year, is there anything that surprised you about yourself in 2022?
It feels so simple, but what’s surprising to me is that I’m actually doing it. Doing this thing I set out to do. I can confidently take apart heirloom jewelry and re-cast it knowing that it works and that it’s going to be beautiful and amazing and bring in the energy of the ancestral pieces.
To find out more about Wendy Woldenberg and to check out her awesome creations please visit wendjewelry.com
Catherine Grisez: catherinegrisez.com “As a fellow artist and jeweler, Wendy has changed the way I think about the supplies I use and where I source them. She’s just one of those fantastic human beings who elevates everyone around her. We’ve shared a tent many times on backpacking trips and we’re like kids in a slumber party giggling to fall asleep. I feel happy and playful when I’m around her, but she’s also taught me to be brave. Just like so many times in life where even though you don’t realize it, by putting yourself out there, being brave is a good thing that leads to more good things.”
Messages To Our Intentful Community
Wendy: Lead with love. Catherine: Any time you find yourself doing a face plant in the dirt, remember when you get up, a beautiful flower will grow in its spot.