It’s In Her Nature
Q&A with Jewellery Designer Kim Lee-Inniss
From churning out rings and rosaries to creatively crafting wearable “weapons” of mass construction, Kim Lee-Inniss has found her calling in jewellery design. But it wasn’t even close to what she originally went off to Canada to study. And yet here she is making gold out of, well…gold; and she’s good at it, too.
“I went to school for Graphic Design in Canada. Everybody does the same First Year over there, and when I started mine I didn’t get into my programme of choice and decided to do Material Art instead. The first year of Material Art had me doing Jewellery, Ceramics and Fibre (like weaving etc), and I fell in love with jewellery at that point.
Everything happens for a reason – I totally believe in that,” she tells me from a Zoom call in her home studio…
KM: Everything does happen for a reason. You said you wanted to leave Trinidad too, and now you’re back in the very same country honing this surprise skill. How’s that realisation been?
KLI: Yeah, I kind of started to miss Trinidad a lot – I’m very close with my family. When I came back I didn’t start right away – I had to build myself up first – but I slowly started creating things again, first under Robert Mouttet [of Mouttet Jewellers]. Obviously school teaches you technique etc, but when you’re actually working in it, there are a lot of other things involved in jewellery craftmanship; I learned a lot more from him.
In the earlies, my stuff was very ‘out there’, very creative, very sculptural. So just having people appreciate it and love it here in Trinidad was/has been the best part.
And how has your craftsmanship style evolved since setting up shop some eight years ago?
I think it’s more refined, as in I was just doing whatever I felt to do and now it’s more towards the market. I’ve been doing a lot more research on what people are into right now and providing that, but also making sure to add in a little of what I want. Even if it’s sculptural and a little different, it’s still wearable and on trend.
A lot of my sculptural pieces, my dad used to say looked like weapons.
Do you not miss creating those rebellious things, though?
I do, but, you know…I have a son and it’s difficult… I had to start back working elsewhere full-time so it’s a bit of a sacrifice. I wish it wasn’t like that – I do think Trinidad and The Caribbean can be doing a lot more to push our creatives forward – but right now I don’t mind working [on my passion] on weekends.
It’s hard to be a creative anywhere, but especially out here…
Yep. This is not to say that there aren’t platforms for creatives here, I just think they need to do some research and reach out a little more. I used to do a lot of the pop-up shops and markets, and those are popular, but still a lot of people here have no idea what creative local stuff is on offer in the country, and/or they have to do a lot of digging to find it.
I must add that insecurity could be playing a role, too, in designers not getting as recognised. I was super shy and insecure about putting my work out there in the beginning. I didn’t think my work was that good and then Meiling came up to me one day and said “oh my God, I love your work!” Claudia Pegus did, too.
Another note is that I started off modelling here and they know me from that world, and I too know a lot of people through that. I’m sure that helped build my brand to what it is today, but a lot of other people don’t have that. So in general, yes, creatives here need more support to be seen.
Luckily, social media/the internet is a small business godsend, though…
Definitely! I get clients from New York a lot. I just shipped something out for someone in Florida, too… I even set up a US PayPal account to cater for this more. Trinidad doesn’t allow us to get paid through PayPal here, and wiring money is so expensive, but luckily my sister in New York is helping me manage that account and international orders. In turn, if I need supplies or anything, I can purchase them online using the PayPal earnings and ship them to Trinidad. You have to find clever ways to work around [local limitations], but I do.
Your latest collection has a geometric feel.
I’ve always been obsessed with geometric shapes. I love the simplicity [in them] and the fact that you can also make it very interesting at the same time. I’ll always add my own little artistic, sculptural touch…
Aside from this beautiful collection, what pieces in general have you noticed to be bestsellers?
People can’t seem to find very good quality hoop earrings here. There has been consistent demand for that, and my geometric collection features some interesting types, too. Hoops are such simple things, really, but mine have a little twist to them.
The simple, open-end bangles I do are also big sellers. One piece that I personally loved to create, a favourite that I made, is the Lilith ring. It’s crafted to mimmick leaves in the wind.
Yeah, to cut out each of those leaf pieces? Hell. Because they’re tiny, but also then having to fuse them altogether one on top the other as if they were falling… oh my god. It probably took a whole day (with breaks, of course), and not taking into account the polishing final touches.
The bracelets and stuff I could literally do with my eyes closed, just to tell you how much people ask for them. But stuff like Lilith is very involved and often frustrating. It’s a lot of work, but I love sitting down in my studio and watching movies while I make jewellery.
So nature is an inspiration. What else?
Trinidad has more of the nature inspiration for me, but I also love looking at architecture. You’d always see these beautiful sculptures in front of the financial buildings in Toronto. It was really cool. Everywhere you walk in Canada was just so artistic and inspiring.
Just Google-searching words, things, themes on the internet has also been a huge resource. Sometimes I’d just start with a word and see what comes up.
I love that you re-purpose jewellery, too. That’s becoming more popular on the international jewellery circuit.
Yes, sometimes I get people coming with gold or inherited things they admit they would never wear and I would melt them down and mill them into wire and sheet, then hammer things into shape, or cut shapes out, from there.
But the high-end, artistic style of jewellery isn’t all that you do. I see you also hit the Carnival circuit with more colourful feather accessories…
Yes, the feather ear cuffs and head pieces are a hit for Carnival. Specifically, I used to work with [Swim and Masquerade Wear Designer] Marie Collette. We collaborated on her pieces in that my feather accessories would come with a purchase of one of her pieces. I also did similar things with [Tribe Carnival Costume Designer and owner of Wet Swimwear] Anya Elias. Collaborations have been great for me but COVID-19 has quietened things down on that front. I hope to do more with other designers soon.
If COVID-19 doesn’t let up in time and Carnival 2021 gets cancelled, would it affect you greatly?
Yes, because around that time nobody really buys (or has money to spend on) silver jewellery. That’s why I can’t just do high-end jewellery. And it’s just me working on everything here, I’m not a whole jewellery store, so I can’t afford to not have something else to offer.