Talking Migration and Beauty with Jewelry Designer Nora Kogan

All that glitters is not gold is a well-worn adage, but the jewelry of designer Nora Kogan (231 5th Ave Brooklyn, NY) provides ample and irrefutable proof that there are other ways to dazzle.  Kogan is not opposed to gold—far from it—but she’s a fan of colored gemstones and uses them in particularly creative ways. Whether clustering a bunch of sparkling stones around a central sapphire or opal, or stripping away everything extraneous to create a pair of streamlined, amethyst cabochon earrings, Kogan is certainly one of a kind. She chats with fiction writer  (and devoted jewelry enthusiast) Kitty Zeldis about her winding path both to her metier and her own Jewish, Ukrainian and Australian past. 

KZ: You were born in Odessa, started in Australia and landed in Brooklyn; can you describe your journey? 

NK: That’s a very very long story but the gist of it is that I came for love and stayed for love!

KZ: You have such an original, whimsical style; how did that originate? What inspires you now? 

NK: Thank You! I grew up in the beautiful historic city of Odessa which had candy colored Rococo architecture and a glorious coastline. I’ve been exposed to beauty since I was a child (weekly trips to museums and Saturday matinees at the opera house). This was followed by my family’s migration journey to Australia via Vienna and Rome and my own travels in my twenties through Europe and Japan. 

Those experiences have been deeply impressed into my artistic consciousness and  I often joke that I have catholic taste (in this country almost no one understands the meaning of that expression! It means I like everything!)

My inspiration runs from antique Hellenic jewelry to tribal Indian, Victorian to Art Deco, Surrealist to Pop. I interpret everything in terms of jewelry. My beloved (and much copied) Matchstick ring is a nod to Surrealism and kitsch in equal measure.  At the moment I’m working on a new collection that’s very strongly influenced by classic Art Deco but as always reinterpreted for today’s woman. I find inspiration in the daily. It’s my mood that’s essential for my creativity to run free.

KZ: I noticed a tiny star of David tattooed on your finger—what’s your connection to your Jewish roots? 

NK:  I grew up in Odessa a cultural but not religious Jew. My parents were very aware of the antisemitic environment in which we lived and while they didn’t suffer personally, they always felt in some danger from the police, and the militia. You could be taken away, imprisoned even, for being Jewish. So when I was nine, we moved to Melbourne, where I was sent to an Anglican school. At that time, I felt ashamed of being Jewish—I associated it with being poor, being an immigrant. I wanted to fit in with wealthy, entitled girls who were my peers. 

But in my twenties, I began to be curious about my background and what Judaism meant to me. I went to Israel. My feelings underwent a change, and instead of shame, I felt pride. I had that tattoo put on my middle finger, so it would be visible and it intentionally appears in the photographs I use to model my work on social media.  People have recognized me by that tattoo; it represents the profound shift in my point of view. 

KZ: Can you talk about how the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has affected your perception of your past and identity?

 I was so used to describing myself as a Russian. I equated being Russian with being Soviet. I discounted both my Jewish and Ukrainian identities. Why? Because I was brainwashed when I was a child.  But in fact, I am not Russian. I am Jewish, Ukrainian and Australian. 

My parents are dead now, and I haven’t had to think about my identity in this way for a long time. But now I can see that some of my defining character traits are Ukrainian, passed down from my grandfather, to my mother to me. There is an expression in Ukrainian, the sea is to my knee. It means that neither the sea—nor anything else—can daunt me.  I relate to that.  I have a fearlessness; to me that is a Ukrainian quality. One of my tattoos says Odessa Mama and it’s true—Odessa shaped me, my taste, and my aesthetic all come from her.  She is my mother.  She is also irreplaceable and the thought that she is being bombed is so horrible—it’s like she is bleeding. For so many years, I haven’t wanted to go back; I’ve been reluctant to see how my city has changed.  Now I want to go back so badly. 

KZ: Do you think your jewelry reflects your history? Jews have a history of working with diamonds and other gems; do you feel part of that tradition? 

NK:  I don’t experience a literal connection to that history but I do like the portability of jewelry in general. I feel that if I need to leave some place, escape even, I could fit it all in a small bag and be on my way, traveling light. Maybe that comes from the Jewish collective consciousness—the need to be able to pick up at a moment’s notice and go. 

KZ: How do you find your way to jewelry making?  

NK:  Well, another long story. I’ve always wanted to be a designer, ever since I can remember myself. And I loved jewelry! I loved nothing better than to go through my mom’s jewelry box ( actually about a dozen bags), pull it all out, and examine it in detail. I still did it even into my twenties. One of our family treasures was a gold Faberge egg that I was allowed to play with as a six year old. With every new purchase, mom would tell me, “It’s all going to be yours one day.” But becoming a jeweler was a long journey. Until I understood the process it seemed impossible to understand how these exquisite things were made. It was while living in Tsfat in Israel and studying in a yeshiva that I started to seriously think about it and my future. I also became friends with local artisans and the first time I sat down at the jeweler’s bench it became absolutely clear that this was my calling. The feel of the tools in my hands was so natural.

I went back to Australia and back to school to study to be a goldsmith. I knew that I needed to learn the skills to become what was still a dream at the time—to be a jewelry designer. I finished my degree and apprenticeship and by sheer luck and perseverance found myself in NYC working for a jewelry company, as a QC manager. It was a foot in the door. NYC is where I learned how the industry works and how to get things done and ventured out on my own to see what would happen. What I realized early on is that I personally would not be able to make the kind of jewelry I wanted to make simply because I would need 20 years of hands on experience on the bench. And I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to assemble an amazing team of artisans who make my jewelry, people with 30/40 years experience under their belt, who are able to bring my designs to life in a most wondrous way!