Robin Cottle Designs Jewelry That Glitters Without Bling

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Robin Cottle wearing brass jewelry from the Marmol Radziner Jewelry collection; photo by Frances Anderton.

Robin Cottle is an alumna of the CalArts graphic design program, and creative director for marketing at Marmol Radziner (MR), the architecture firm well-known for its finely crafted, Cal-Modern homes that was co-founded by her husband Ron Radziner with Leo Marmol. 

A few years ago Radziner was in search of a cuff-style bracelet that would suit his personality more than the “jewel-encrusted skulls,” says Cottle, that dominated the male jewelry scene.

This led to the metal shop at Marmol Radziner, where craftspeople honed a cuff similar to a piece of metal he remembered discovering on a beach. Out of that came the development of a line of jewelry, created by the firm’s architects and fabricators with Cottle, who is now Marmol Radziner’s chief jewelry designer.

The Marmol Radziner Jewelry collection includes cuffs, bangles, rings, earrings and necklaces sold in around 100 stores, including (soon) the Guggenheim Museum store.

Cottle came to KCRW, clad in a line of her brass jewelry, striking in its elemental, un-encrusted, gender-neutral aesthetic.

She talked about creating a jewelry line that celebrates “negative space,” why adding stones might be her next frontier, and whether her name should be attached to the brand.

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Darkened, natural and white brass, and bronze jewelry by Marmol Radziner Jewelry.

DnA: Tell us about the collection you’ve brought today (shown above).

We are looking at some dark brass that has been patinated, and also brass that is just natural and raw. The pieces are hand-forged and tooled in our metal shop.

We create jewelry out of architectural-grade materials, and not in a traditional way. We don’t cast jewelry. We’re cutting it, we’re firing it and we’re hammering it. It’s an old fashioned way of metalsmithing and I find it very inspiring how we can cut up this metal to be wearable.

DnA: Do you have trained metalsmiths at Marmol Radziner?

Yes, we started with these big strong guys in our metal shop, who were used to working with huge sheets of bronze, brass and stainless steel. These guys would make heavy metal staircases, gates and hand rails, using the same tools to create detailed jewelry. As we grew, we started hiring people who were interested in making jewelry.

We ended up hiring a metalsmith in our shop, who was interested making jewelry, and he advised us to get the right tools. That was a game changer. First of all, it made it much safer to make these small objects with these dangerous tools which personally I’ve never used.

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DnA: Dangerous because. .?

The saws are dangerous. I don’t think the heat is as dangerous as the saws. That’s easier to control. But you know, one slip.

But having said that we have people who are passionate about working with their hands. We have a woman who’s working in the metalshop with a background in jewelry making. But she likes getting down, getting her hands dirty and she’s very excited about working with materials in new ways, and she’s great to consult with especially as we move in a new direction of working with stones.

DnA: Yes, about stones. Everything I’m looking at is simple metal, very plain, and elemental. I don’t see a single stone.

Actually, when we first started creating jewelry, we were placing stones into these irregularly placed holes that serve as a Marmol Radziner Jewelry mark. We started filling them with black diamonds, white sapphires and so on.

But there was something about adding the stones that just didn’t feel right. It made it feel like more typical jewelry. We were more interested in the holes being there, and a kind of absence of stones, a negative space, and just letting the metal speak for itself.

People would say, oh, you should work with stones, and I resisted it for a long time. But inspiration hit and I’ve started pursuing gems and stones that would fill that vision. It’s  been like looking for a needle in a haystack because the stones I’m looking for aren’t very common, and the way the stones are cut, is not typical in traditional jewelry making.

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DnA: What is the untraditional way that you want to work with stones?

Well, that’s a surprise.

DnA: You’re making jewelry within an architecture firm. How does that inform the aesthetic?

Marmol Radziner is about the indoor-outdoor experience. It’s about context and site, and its relationship with nature. Marmol Radziner’s jewelry will also take that direction. People will understand it, when they see it.

DnA: Marmol Radziner buildings are known for simplicity and high quality craft and materials. Is that the goal for the jewelry?

The materials that we will work with in the future will reflect that quality of materials, and also that simplicity. Some materials that Marmol Radziner works with are tried and true, including materials that aren’t necessarily associated with luxury.

So there will be both — that balance and that variety.

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DnA: Ron’s search for a cuff was the impetus for the jewelry. How did the early office experiments with jewelry turn into a line?

One day I saw the cuff and I thought I wanted one, but it fell off of my wrist. So I thought, okay, I’m going to ask the metal shop to make me one, and I changed the proportion and the shape of it. From then on, I asked, can you make a ring like this? Can you make a bangle like that? We also had meetings with architects from Marmol Radziner who were also interested in making the jewelry and we collaborated until we had a line of jewelry. Then Christina Kim from Dosa saw it and she said, can I be the first person to launch your jewelry?

Well, launching wasn’t even a concept in my mind. So we took Christina up on it, with her guidance. We learned what we needed to do to sell our jewelry. Larry Schaffer from OK [on 3rd Street and Silver Lake] told us we needed a line sheet, so we started figuring out what our prices were based on our cost. Little by little, we formed Marmol Radziner Jewelry.

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DnA: Do you find that clients of the firm see the jewelry and want to have the jewelry in addition to the house or whatever it is they commission?

Absolutely. I think there was one client that actually found the jewelry first and then hired Marmol Radziner to do their house.

DnA: So it’s a marketing tool of sorts?

It was not intended that way, but it’s become that for sure.

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DnA: Will you ever attach to your own name to this jewelry?

That is the question. It’s definitely been discussed a number of times through the years. It seems that it’s confusing to people to not have my name associated with the jewelry. But its a fine line. It is made by a team of people from Marmol Radziner. 

But pretty much I’m very independent from Ron Radziner and Leo Marmol when it comes to making the jewelry. When I have an idea, I go straight to the metal shop and they make it, I wear it, people like it, people want it, and we sell it in the stores.

I do have a lot of creative freedom. Speaking for myself as a feminist, why should I have men’s names representing jewelry that I design? But then it goes back to the whole conundrum about designers or architects working in an architectural firm. It’s really a team, but then often it gets branded with a man’s name, or two men’s names, the principals of the firm. It’s a little bit convoluted.

I think it just goes back to, basically, you know I am the chief designer. It’s not a secret, it’s in the press, you’re interviewing me. It’s kind of like Tom Ford for Gucci.

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The brass ring with one hole is sometimes purchased as a wedding band. “The Two Way Circle Ring” is from a tooled dowel with a hole cut through it, counter-intuitively, for the finger to push through.

DnA: Except that it’s not Robin Cottle for Marmol Radziner Jewelry. The question of how it gets branded is very interesting.

It is a good marketing tool to have the Marmol Radziner Jewelry name out there, maybe in places where people wouldn’t know about Marmol Radziner Architecture in Los Angeles. Our jewelry is all over the country and even in Japan. So as the creative director of the marketing department I say, for sure let’s have it be “Marmol Radziner.” After all it’s our family’s livelihood.

DnA: Lastly, Valentine’s Day is coming up. What piece would you recommend for someone wanting to propose to their partner?

There’s a simple ring which is just a band made from a brass dowel, sliced, with a small hole that’s been drilled, where you see the absence of a stone. I often wear it on my left hand. I think it is so beautiful and simple.

At OK, a lot of men and couples buy this as their wedding band. I think that the future line, with stones, will have a lot to offer for romance.

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Robin Cottle with husband Ron Radziner in the Marmol Radziner offices.

See the full Marmol Radziner Jewelry collection here. This interview has been lightly edited for length.