Maiko Suzuki makes jewelry that’s an immediate conversation starter — her pieces are bold and oversized with nods to a variety of cultures. Originally from Japan, Suzuki visited New York City at 15 years-old for the first time, and her love for the city was instant and enduring. “From the moment I arrived I felt at home,” she says.
Suzuki now calls Harlem home and uses the neighborhood as a source of inspiration for her jewelry. Her work draws on a variety of regions and historical periods, and Harlem’s diverse makeup and architecture serves as the perfect backdrop for her imaginative work.
We spoke to the jewelry designer about how she got her start in the business and how working with small businesses like NiLu helps her grow her brand.
How did you start your jewelry line?
Maiko Suzuki: I went to Parsons School of Design where I studied graphic design, but I always liked to use my hands to draw or sculpt. I was always interested in metalwork. In 2009, I decided to take a jewelry-making class at SVA. I already had a vision of what I wanted to make so I only had to learn the basic technique and skill. I just used to collect things from designers but I wasn’t 100 percent happy, I always wished I could change the jewelry a little. I thought to myself, I’m going to make what I want to wear and give it to my friends. However, metal is expensive and I had to buy tools to make the jewelry so I thought maybe I should make some money through this? Over the span of a year, I started making more pieces and joined local pop-up events. That’s how my line was born.
How would you describe your jewelry?
Big and bold! I love statement pieces that are unique to my brand. There are so many jewelry designers and many of them make similar pieces. I really want to be different. I get inspired by different cultures; I go to museums and learn different techniques when I’m there.
You have some recurring themes in your work such as skulls or royal themes, can you tell me about that?
I like to mix themes — I call it crossing cultures. For example, African sculptures mixed with Islamic art. I’m creating my own take on culture. I collect skulls, if you ever come to my house you’ll see lots of them. I started collecting them ten years ago in Mexico and over the years my collection has expanded. I love to mix soft, feminine looks with things that are more manly. I don’t like to stick with one theme, so I always think “how can I make this different?”
What artist or maker are you following at the moment?
I’m always looking for inspiration. I get inspired by other designers not just by other jewelry designers but also by fashion designers and architects. I used to go to museums a lot. One of my challenges as a jewelry designer is that I don’t want to use 3D printing. I like to challenge myself to see how much I can achieve with my hands. By going to museums like the Met and studying techniques they used. Back then there were no computers obviously and they did everything by hand. It reminds me that if they can do it, I can do it. 3D printing is fascinating but I love making things by hand.
In what ways does Harlem inspire you?
I’ve lived in Harlem for a while now, since 2000, and it’s become my home. I like the small community, there’s always a mix of old and new. I love the historical brownstone and architectural details but then when new people move in, we have new Harlemites. There’s a really big mix of different races and cultures. I really like it here. Me and two other partners created a series of pop-ups called the Harlem Makers Collective, which is a gathering of local artists mainly. Before the events, I didn’t know there were so many artists in the area but it makes me realize I still haven’t discovered all of the artists in the neighborhood.
Why did you choose Harlem as your home?
Before I moved to Harlem, I used to live on the Upper East Side. I moved to Harlem because the Upper East Side was really expensive. Also, when I lived there, I never knew my neighbors which I thought was weird. I wasn’t loving the area. I was painting big pieces back then and decided to look into studio spaces in Harlem to have more room for my work. Everyone was so friendly and I finally knew my neighbors. I also did a lot of graphic design work in Harlem so I connected with real Harlemites. I’m still connected to them, like with Mark and Katrina. I love the small community here, it’s almost like a family. The culture and history are also amazing, I used to read Malcolm X and Martin Luther King’s books and love seeing 125th Street in them, it’s fascinating. There are still so many stucco buildings and special landmarks here to show history.
2020 has been an unusual year, how has COVID-19 impacted your business and what are your plans for the rest of the year?
That’s a good question I’ve been asking myself too [laughs]. Honestly, I’m not too worried about what I’m going to do but I have to change my game plan a bit. My main income was through those pop-up events which we had once or twice a month. People from all five boroughs came and we had really successful shopping events, especially during the holiday season. Now that’s gone. I have to push my brand a bit further online. I’m not discouraged, I’ll just keep creating what I love. Hopefully things won’t get worse, I hope to have events again! I want to focus on small shops like NiLu, as I really like to work with small retail shops.
What gets you in the mood to create?
I’ve been an artist my whole life, creating is the most enjoyable time in my life. Of course, sometimes I’m not in the mood to create but usually even if I just start sketching it’s very exciting to me.
Does travel inspire you? Which trip has given you most inspiration?
I love traveling, if I could be gone tomorrow, I would [laughs]. A fairly recent trip I went on was to Greece, I went to both the islands and Athens. I have a friend who has several businesses there and she showed me around. There are so many young, small business owners there and I felt so inspired. It opened my eyes to opening my business in Europe and expanding my line.