Succulents and smiles abound in Rhonda Dudek’s radiant Providence, Rhode Island studio. Located in PVD’s West End, where creatives have transformed shuttered mills and factories into workspace lofts, Rhonda designs and assembles her nature-inspired jewelry (when she’s not traveling the country). Vintage US National Park postcards adorn a wall above an antique mail cabinet speaking to her wanderlust and goal to see all 59 of our national treasures (so far she’s been to six!).
A North Carolina native, Rhonda first came to the 50th biggest state in the nation to attend the Rhode Island School of Design. She returned to NC after school, settling in Asheville to grow her Figs & Ginger line of jewelry when she caught the attention of UncommonGoods. Ten years later, she’s back in Rhode Island finding inspiration in Providence’s historic College Hill neighborhood. The studio’s enormous windows look out on downtown Providence where the iconic “Superman Building” leaps out from the small city’s skyline. Rhonda sees the city’s history as a manufacturing center of costume jewelry as motivation to continue growing her woman-owned independent business.
I met Rhonda in her studio on one of those late winter days where a cloudless sky and bright sun give hope to the promise that springtime is just around the corner. She reflected all of that and more with an enthusiasm to match her loving and whimsical creations. Check out our conversation below to discover one of Lil Rhody’s biggest talents.
Do you make your jewelry here in this space?
I have a workbench at my house. It’s a vintage workbench and I do my model making there. The elevator is broken here and it’s a huge bench, so I left it where it is. So I have a lot of my metalsmithing tools there, and that is where I solder because I can’t bring flame into this building. It’s fine because I really like doing that stuff at home anyway in my pajamas! It’s a little messy, solder and dust everywhere. This is more my design and assembly studio and where I do my wholesale and retail orders. I don’t have the internet in here and I love it. It makes it a little harder because I have to do all of my shipping stuff before I get here and if I forget something it’s a pain. But I can’t go on Facebook and it makes it a more creative space for me.
Where do you find inspiration within Providence?
The architecture here is some of my favorite in the country—especially in College Hill. I used to love walking around RISD [Rhode Island School of Design]. The Athenaeum is one of my favorite places to be, so I go there to find old books to get inspiration from. I’ve lately been inspired by more vintage-style jewelry since having access to old warehouses full of boxes of costume jewelry, because Rhode Island has a big history of costume jewelry. I’ll go and wander through warehouses for hours and buy stuff by the pound and that’s really fun. It’s a totally different way of working because it’s not metalsmithing but it is still designing, and more production-friendly this way.
Can you tell me a little bit more about Rhode Island’s history of costume jewelry?
There are warehouses here that have been bought-out by other businesses. There are only a few in Rhode Island that I know of, because they are a secret. You need a wholesale license to go in. They are buildings like this one that just have moldy boxes piled up with costume jewelry throughout time. Some of it is from the ’70s, some from the ’30s and you can find really cool stuff. You go and fill up baskets and bins and buy it by the pound. If I can, I’ll try to get as much as I can of the same pieces. I’m doing a promotion for Earth Day where if you plant a tree you get free jewelry. You send a picture to me and I’ll send you a necklace to encourage tree planting. I get inspired by the older jewelry to try and draw inspiration from that. It’s been fun to not try to reinvent the wheel every time I want to try to make a piece of jewelry because so many people make jewelry and it gives my brain a break when seeing designs that are old and cool and make something new from them.
I see that many of your designs are nature-inspired, is it different to be back in a city?
It is different. I was living in Asheville, NC for about seven or eight years and the last year I was an hour outside of Asheville on a mountain that no one else lived on. It was about a 10 minute drive to the mailbox down a dirt, unkempt road which we had a 4-wheel drive jeep. It was really fun! I can draw inspiration from those years. I also think being around people is just as inspiring as being in the forest. Being around people that have good ideas and that encourage you to keep doing your art is also really refreshing.
Can you talk a little about your environmentally-friendly business practices and why this is important to you?
In my work studio, I stopped using any chemicals that were bad for the environment. For metalsmithing you need to use a lot of acids and polishing compounds, so I switched to citric acid and healthier alternatives, which made me feel healthier, and it is better for the environment in general. All the silver is recycled and I have a certificate of authenticity saying that it is all eco-friendly and there is no new mining of silver and gold. I also use all recycled paper and packaging. [My business] is such a big part of my life that it caused me to be intentionally more eco-friendly. This past January marks ten years that I’ve been self-employed, so working 18-hour days and having to throw out packaging and supplies and creating so much waste, I try to offset that as much as possible.
How does travel play a part in your life and business?
It’s a really big part of it. A part of the reason Figs & Ginger grew was that I spent three years doing [trade and craft] shows every week all around the country, putting a million miles on my car in a short amount of time. The first time I met UncommonGoods was at my very first trade show in Brooklyn… I haven’t traveled for trade shows in the past few years. The reason I came to Providence from Asheville was because when my nephew was two he was diagnosed with Leukemia. I sold my house in Asheville and moved up here to help my little sister. Now he’s five, doing great, and in remission. Since he got sick, between having Figs and being at the clinic two to three times a week, I pulled back on wholesale and shows.
What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
My grandmother got me a Georgia O’Keefe book when I was in middle school so she was my introduction into painters and her style was similar to how I painted. I’ve had a love of Georgia O’Keefe ever since. O’Keefe was what brought me out to the desert originally and that is how I met my road trip friend.
What are your most essential tools?
Other than my bench, my files and my saw. I’ve had them since RISD. I start with a flat sheet of silver stock and I’ll use my saw to cut out the design and solder it together. I then send the design to a father and son business in Georgia that casts it for me. They send me back the finished pieces so that I don’t have to hand-saw them all anymore.
How was your experience at RISD?
I got a full scholarship and had to maintain a high GPA, which was really stressful. I had a work study and also had to buy silver and gold for supplies, so the money aspect was intense. It kind of jumpstarted Figs because I had to start to make jewelry to sell. I started Figs the year I graduated in 2004 and nothing much happened with it until 2006-2007 when I met UncommonGoods, who played a massive role in this business. I’ve been in the UncommonGoods catalog for the past 10 years. It’s been flattering and overwhelming and wonderful that we’ve worked together for so long.
How does down time fit into a day in the studio?
If I’m feeling stressed I come here, which is different than any other studio space I’ve had before because it was work so it made it a little more stressful. Because I like this space so much I feel inspired whenever I come here.
How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
After Mother’s Day or Christmas I’ll take a special trip or buy things that I want and that are also good for the business.