Futuristic is one way to describe Bliss Lau; another is avant-garde. Delicate, linear and architectural, it’s the kind of jewelry everyone asks about when you wear. And the same adjectives could be applied to its eponymous maker. From her body chains to her rings, she telegraphs sex, style and sophistication.
Born in Honolulu to a Caucasian Mom and a Chinese dad, Lau studied at Parson’s. More recently, she married a Jewish guy from Long Island and is now pregnant with their first child, which gets her extra points because she actually has Jewish genes inside of her. I sat down with her at her studio and learned about some of the gems in her life—actual gemstones, her first trip to Israel, her foray into the fold and why the Chinese and the Jews have more in common than just Chicken Lo Mein on Christmas Eve.
Periel Aschenbrand: Did you always know that you wanted to be a jewelry designer, if that’s how you would describe yourself?
Bliss Lau: I suppose now, I would. When I was 16 or 17 and I felt the need to make the decision of what I wanted to do in life, I thought I wanted to be a shoe designer. So I’ve my business for over thirteen years and I had studied fashion design. Tim Gunn was my teacher.
PA: No way.
BL: It was A+ Parsons at the time, Proenza (Schouler) was there when I was there, Prabal (Gurung) was there, Chris Benz, who is at Bill Blass now— all those guys. I went up to Tim, who was teaching my independent study and I told him I want to make handbags and he was like, “Bliss, this is fashion school. You’re going make clothes.” And I was like, “Okay, fuck you.” So I made the minimum number of looks and adorned the entire outfit with handbags and belts; I basically made a presentation of my handbags. The week before we were finishing our final thesis, I went on an open call to show my handbag collection to People’s Revolution. I didn’t know what that was at the time but Kelly Cutrone looked at the bag—I had literally finished putting the rivets in and sewing it that day—and looked at me and snapped her fingers at her assistant and said, “Bring me my checkbook.”
PA: That’s insane!
BL: She was the first client I ever had.
PA: So why’d you stop making handbags?
BL: I was making bags because I liked the shapes, and after having my business for about four years—mind you, I was around 25 or 26—my showroom woman looked at me at the end of the season and gave me my whole collection back and she said, “nobody felt like they needed it.” I realized that I was this independent person—this was before social media—that I had never met my customer and I was just conceptually designing things that were more utilitarian based. A handbag is a physical being, like a building, that you take with you everywhere. The imposition of being required to make a utilitarian product, for me, was so offensive—the fact that I had to do it the way you wanted me to. I really just wanted to make things because they were beautiful. I know that sounds crazy, but. . .
PA: It doesn’t sound crazy at all. But now you make things that are so specific based on people’s personal desires. How come that’s not offensive?
BL: I’m making something based on your dreams now, not on the things that annoy you. Those are two very different premises to design. To design jewelry is to make someone feel exceptional.
PA: Your line is also unique, in part, because, rather than diamonds, you work with gemstones. Can you talk to me about Jade?
BL: It’s really important to my culture. As a child you are given a tiny jade bracelet and you wear it till you break it. It’s like your first piece of heirloom. It’s like something that you live your life with. It’s also a cultural identifier. It’s symbolic.
PA: You’re fastidious about where your gemstones comes from and you like to get them from American miners. . .
BL: Yes. I only use stones I trust and if I know where they are coming from. There is a nefarious side to this industry and you can only be as honest as the person you’re working with. I’ve recently been working with a female miner. She has been working with the mining industry for many, many years. And she has no identity online. She can’t be tracked. She still uses a flip phone. She only told me her first name recently, after a long time. She has an accent like she’s Latin but if you ask her, she’ll tell you she’s American. She has guns that she carries because she’s worried about certain things and she works for environmental issues. You’d love her.
PA: My head is exploding. It sounds like you slowly transitioned from handbags to jewelry then?
BL: Yes, It was a slow transition. I used to not understand jewelry. I used to make handbags and body jewelry and then a couple of people asked me to make wedding rings. And then Evan, now my husband, proposed to me at the MET during the Alexander McQueen show, with a sketchbook that he had hand bound and said to me, I want you to design your ring. Make anything you want. And that’s why I design wedding rings now.
PA: I just got goosebumps.
BL: Amazing, right?
PA: That’s such a great story. So, you are not a Jew, but you are married to a Jew. You are a Chinese woman, who grew up in Hawaii—around with no Jews, probably…other than Shep Gordon.
BL: I don’t think I ever met a Jewish person until I went to New York. My mom looked at me the day I was leaving and she said, “Bliss, you’re going to meet a lot of Jewish people when you’re in New York. They’re really fun and you’re going to like them.” And that’s all she said.
PA: So this is probably racist….
BL: It’s kind of racist.
PA: No! Not that, what I’m about to say! When I lived in Chinatown my landlord, who was this hipster Chinese American kid told me that the Chinese are the Yellow Jews.
BL: Almost all my Chinese girlfriends are married to Jewish guys. There’s a whole world of us. It works very nicely.
PA: The cultures are not dissimilar if you really get into it.
BL: That’s true. But no one ever asked me to convert, not a single time.
PA: Wait until you have that baby.
BL: It’s very unlikely that that will happen. We go to C.B.S.T.—the gay and lesbian shul and they are inclusive to all.
PA: SHUL? Did you just say the word shul? You go to shul!?
BL: Of course! Why wouldn’t I!? Not all the time. Just for high holidays.
PA: And you just got back from your first trip to Israel?
BL: It was intense. We have a running joke that Evan’s Chinese wife is the person who took him on his first trip to Israel.
PA: Israelis are a totally different bag than American Jews, but there are similarities there too.
BL: Well, there’s this concept of ‘Don’t fuck with my money.’ That may be a Jewish thing but it’s a Chinese thing too. The first thing I did was
get into a cab and text my girlfriend who was in the cab in front of us and I was like, how many Shekels is the ride? And she’s like, “100.” So I ask my cab driver and he’s like, “200.” And I’m like, “No, it fucking isn’t.” As a woman in business, I have a lot of guys who try to hustle me so in Israel, I was like, ‘Turn on the meter!”
PA: So it was a good trip?
BL: Hell, yeah! I’ve always wanted to go to Tel Aviv. We had this really awesome experience. We partied all night long! They say New York is the city that never sleeps but that’s bullshit. It’s Tel Aviv.
PA: Speaking of partying all night long, what’s your favorite drink?
BL: It changes all the time. For summertime, right now, I make pineapple, mint, lemon with a little soda.
PA: How do you eat your eggs?
BL: Sunnyside up.
PA: How do you drink your coffee?
BL: I don’t drink coffee. I travel with tea in my bag. I love Roibus.
PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?
BL: Our goal after Israel is to start having Seders.
PA: What shampoo do you use?
BL: The answer is impermanent but Kerastase and Living Proof.
PA: Gefilte fish or lox?
BL: I love lox. Evan wore a Russ & Daughters hat every day while we were in Israel.
PA: Five things in your bag right now?
BL: Tea and, honestly, like five different rings I choose from each day.
PA: Favorite pair of shoes?
BL: These wicked high, with a really thin slice of a heel, Haider Ackerman’s.