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Aoko Su's Ashley Jerman on Mining Diamonds and Living the "Goddamn Dream"

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It's time to get to know some of the emerging designers nominated for Racked Young Guns, our annual search for the country's most promising new fashion talent.

Ashley Jerman's jewelry collection Aoko Su is carried in some of the country's coolest stores—Steven Alan, TenOverSix, Catbird—but she's never taken a jewelry class. Instead, her structured-yet-soft, architectural-yet-elegant aesthetic is inspired by her experience living in places that aren't exactly known as fashion hubs.

Jerman was raised in Indianapolis, moved to New York briefly, and then enrolled in college to study creative writing in Montana. "I took a couple of trips out West and realized I wanted to have a closer link to the natural world at that point my life," she says about her move. Six years later, feeling nomadic, she moved to Seattle. "I was ready for city life," she says. "You feel charged in a city—it's a different type of energy." But a lack of a creative outlet in the Emerald City (and a teaching gig her BF scored at the time in VA) led her to pack her bags once again—this time to Richmond, where she launched her line in 2012. "It was cheap enough to live off some money I had saved while I started my business, and the sunshine was critical—it gave me energy I needed."

Now, Ashley is hitting the road again to Montana for a six-to-nine month stint before heading to Hudson River Valley, where she can be close to her business in New York. "I feel very fortunate because each next step has presented itself pretty clearly to me. I'm just kind of rolling with it." So how has each zip code shaped her line? Find out here.

Tell us about your early days.
I started making jewelry when I was in high school for friends and myself. When I was in Manhattan, I walked by a gallery in Chelsea and saw these feather earrings. That inspired me to make adornments that defied the rules of what jewelry was at that point. As a product of this inspiration, I made earrings from plant stems and leaves that hung asymmetrically and necklaces whose leaves and off-shoots framed the neck in a way I had never seen before.

When did it shift from a hobby to something more?
When I was 21 or 22, I started working at a jewelry store in Montana. It was a retail store, but we also made jewelry, so part of my training was making jewelry. The simple techniques my boss taught me opened my mind to a world of design that I felt was finally accessible to me.

One cool thing about jewelry is that with a couple of techniques, you can make an awesome looking piece. That's where I got deeper into my jewelry practice, but still hadn't considered the idea of making money off it.

When we moved from Seattle to Richmond, I looked at designers I admired like Pamela Love, Norwegian designer Bjorg, and Studio Nicholson, and tried to dissect what made them successful. That's when I realized the idea of a collection. I didn't have a fashion background, so this was all new to me. I started designing a collection—it was six pieces at first. Today, the line features 114 pieces.

You've lived in and experienced many cultures and cities. How has each impacted your designs?
If it weren't for Montana, I'm not sure I would be interested in working with minerals. I've always liked the juxtaposition of something rough to refined, finished metals. Montana has exceptional smoky quartz, garnets, and sapphires that I hope to integrate in my line soon.

New York has been a place that has given me hope. My trips to New York have been an allegory for seeing all the possibilities that exist.

Seattle brought me back to my interests in minimalism and modernism. I liked the quietness of people's aesthetic. Previously, I had been living in the mountains that were more rustic, so when I moved to Seattle, the architecture, the clothing that people wore, the larger-than-life red cranes that line the Puget Sound inspired me. We also took Sunday drives around the city and suburbs and looked at houses and different neighborhoods—that's how I learned the shape of the city the best.

And Richmond helped me tap back into some of the things I was interested in during my urban youth. I was born in a small town in Southern Indiana called Columbus, which is a modern architecture and sculpture mecca. I moved away to Indianapolis when I was 7 or 8, but being around these structures and designs since I was young has influenced the angular, geometric ways that I think.

Who or what gets your creative juices flowing?
First and foremost, women. My designs come from things I imagine I see on people that aren't actually there. Any time I see a woman walking by and imagine a piece of jewelry on her, I'll scribble it down in a sketchbook or receipt. Ancient structures and architecture in South America and ancient Mayan structures in Central America also inspire me. It's the vastness and geometric structure of these things which lends itself to a lot of different interpretations. It's a canvas for my creativity to jump off of.

Tell us about some of the materials you use.
I have always loved the color of gold. When I started making jewelry, no one I knew wore gold—granted this was in the Rocky Mountains, not the fashion capital of the world. I also use gold-fill, sterling silver, and bronze, and stones like the sleeping beauty turquoise in my Charmer cuff. All of the minerals, crystals, and stones are picked carefully. In a couple of my designs, we use Herkimer diamonds. They're all hand-mined.

You mined your own diamonds?!
When I was 22, my parents and I took a trip to Herkimer to mine diamonds. The first time I went, it was touristy—you sign up, get a hammer and chisel, and go out and find a needle in a haystack. There's a rock face that you find crystals in. It's really grueling work. Someone gifted me a Herkimer diamond that was the size of a small bouncy ball when I was a teenager. I thought that was the norm and would come back with a bucket full of these huge crystals. When I got there, I realized the crystals I could find were all the size of ants. At the time, I had no idea I would ever use them for jewelry. It's not a hobby that I've had time to do lately, but it's still an interest of mine—my boyfriend and I are big mineral collectors.

I love the shapes in your line.
I naturally gravitate towards designing things that have a lot of negative space. One of the most interesting things to me is the mimicry of all these shapes in the natural and manmade world [in architecture]. This is one reason I'm interested in connecting the two materials—metals and minerals.

Why jewelry?
I love taking a raw material and translating it into something that people want and buy. The fact that I am able to transform an idea into a design, and materialize a design into an object that people value makes me feel like I'm living my goddamn dream.
· Aoko Su [Official Site]
· What "Thoughtful" Bag Design Really Looks Like: Chiyome [Racked]
· All Young Guns [Racked]