The Met collection features more than 14,000 examples of arms and armor from around the world. The Museum’s holdings focus primarily on arms created for display, tournament, and parade purposes—works designed as objects of beauty showcasing exemplary craftsmanship and exquisite design.
Today, Andrea Panico tells us about the making of her newest jewelry line. Available exclusively at The Met Store, the line draws on The Met collection of arms and armor, a childhood favorite for the designer.
Tell us about yourself.
Growing up, I was pretty involved in the arts. I played sports, as well, which can dominate your time with practices and games. But when I had free time, I was always playing music or writing or making something. My mother was an art teacher and had a group of friends from college who were all pretty creative and artistic, and we spent a lot of time with them. I grew up in Northern New Jersey, so we had easy access to all the great NYC museums. Despite that, I chose a very technical undergraduate degree that became almost immediately obsolete upon graduation, when I recharted my course and set my sights toward design. I did a foundation program in design at the Corcoran School of Art and then went to Pratt Institute where I studied industrial design, getting a masters there.
Interestingly, my paternal and maternal grandfathers were a jeweler and an engineer, respectively. I didn’t figure this out until I had finished graduate school and started designing jewelry. I think childhood experiences and familiarities seep into our consciousness in ways that aren’t always obvious.
I’ve read that your work is typically rooted in or inspired by architecture. Can you tell me about that?
After I realized my undergraduate self’s idea of a future career didn’t work for me, I got a job at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., where I learned to code HTML and shared an office with a really talented graphic designer. That changed my perspective and suddenly things started to click for me. I started that foundation program at Corcoran School of Art and realized I wanted to work somewhere creative. I was hired at STUDIOS Architecture in Washington, D.C., in the marketing department. When I saw the work the architects were doing there I immediately knew that’s what I wanted to do. But as architects do, my colleagues all informed me not to go into architecture. They told me industrial design was much cooler. I think they were right. That set my course for returning to grad school at Pratt. But the architecture bug had bitten me. And to see how architects are (or should be) really the most human-centered of designers fascinates me. I still get excited looking at a building or space as it relates to how people live or work in it.
How did you learn how to design jewelry?
At Pratt Institute, during my industrial design studies, I took a jewelry class or two. The instructor, Patricia Madeja, was so inspiring and so knowledgeable and one of our first assignments was to create a bracelet inspired by a building. Wow. So my initial technical basis was formed in those jewelry classes. For a long time, and maybe still, I didn’t call myself a jewelry designer. I still refer to myself as an industrial designer who makes jewelry. I may not know the correct techniques for making things all the time, but I hope the strength of what I do at Pico comes from a fresh perspective on fabrication that is rooted in industrial design. That being said, I’ve learned a lot about production and fabrication because I have a small business and I make all of our core line pieces myself.
Can you tell me about starting your company, Pico Design?
I started Pico with a pretty big vision. I always intended Pico to be a design company, continuing to focus on product and furniture design (previously, I worked as a tabletop designer at West Elm and as a freelance furniture designer). To me, the vision was about process, not a particular product. A colleague that had made products during my West Elm days approached me about designing some jewelry for him in 2008. I was pregnant at the time, had another job, and he was in Bali. But the challenge obviously sparked something and I launched my first jewelry collection at NYNOW that year. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art placed an order, and I knew I had something.
How do you define your aesthetic?
At the time I launched Pico in 2008, I wanted to make jewelry that was clean, minimal, and simple. And I thought other women would want the same. The people I was around were strong women—all creative and edgy in their style, and not particularly concerned with frills and diamonds. Also, I was a new mother, and many of my friends were as well. I sought to create simple, minimal pieces that could elevate an outfit without being too costly or too ornate. Of course now, there are quite a few brands doing this type of jewelry. But at the time, it was quite hard to find a basic, say, bar earring in a precious metal.
What interests you about The Met’s collection of arms and armor? Can you tell me about what elements or objects in the collection inspired your designs?
Going back to my childhood, I can remember so vividly walking through the arms and armor galleries at The Met. First of all, it’s dimensional—looking at objects is much different than looking at a flat piece of art. As a child we can’t always understand the symbolism of a piece of art, nor recognize the skill and craft that went into making it. But to see a full set of armor, with all its rivets and parts and finishes, I think is immediately inspiring. As an adult, I still love to be in this section of the Museum. Part of it may be nostalgia, but now having studied industrial design and having been in many, many factories across the world, I am amazed by the extreme attention to detail involved. The Japanese items in the collection are particularly exciting for me. The gusoku (the Japanese term for bullet-resistant or bullet-tested armor traditionally worn by the samurai) uses a variety of materials (like silk, iron, or horsehair) to create protection in a way that is also beautiful. The sword guards, or tsuba, were intricate and ornate. The creation of these items was not just about serving a functional need, but also provided symbolism and beauty. I imagine one would feel proud wearing or carrying such items.
Can you tell me about the making of one or two of the pieces in the line? I’m curious to hear about your design process from start to finish.
The Double Sword Adjustable Ring represents an abstraction of my inspiration, typical of what I do in the rest of my collection with architecture. The inspiration for this piece was a European sword made of iron and iron alloys. The design is quite simple and I felt it would be interesting to capture the profile of the blade in a clean, modern way. For large projects like this one, I have a team of talented silversmiths in Bali, Indonesia, who help me with production. I create sketches to present to The Met Store’s jewelry buyers, and then rely on my industrial design skills to turn my 2D vision into a 3D reality. I do technical/CAD drawings and make prototypes here in the U.S., which get sent to my team in Bali. We work out the details of how to make large quantities most efficiently and cost effectively. I’ve been working with them for almost 10 years, so unlike most Balinese silversmiths, they are very well-versed in my design language and unusual techniques.
The Armor Link Bracelet is one of my favorite pieces in the line. For this piece, I really wanted to capture the soft/hard aspect of the Indian Sindh armor in the Museum’s collection. What makes this type of armor special is that the individual plates are hard, but the amazing chain work and connections between each piece make the overall suit of armor flexible, providing protection and allowing for movement by the wearer. I wanted to create a piece that felt strong and featured some of the relief details of the mail and plate armor, but that had a similar sense of flexibility. This is an incredibly hard piece to make, with a ton of rings and soldering involved…but it is nowhere near the amount of work that would have had to have gone into the armor. Designing and making these pieces was an interesting journey!
Are you hoping your designs have a specific impact on the people who wear them?
Of course I want people to feel good wearing jewelry I design. There are obvious themes of strength and protection that I couldn’t and didn’t ignore with this collection. Arms and armor may seem like an outwardly violent theme, and indeed the items we can see at The Met were not created to be purely viewed as beautiful objects. But by bringing some of them to life in an intimate scale, I hope to make people think about what protection and adornment mean in our modern life.
Actually, I think that there is quite a bit of overlap between jewelry and armor. What do we carry with us? What symbols and themes are important in our daily lives? My mantra for my company is “we’re all building something.” And I believe that to be true. We create foundations, and we build frameworks and layers and connections that make us unique. This collection is like “modern armor” in the sense that it gives us a feeling of comfort and strength in otherwise challenging times.
How does it feel to have your work offered for sale in a museum setting?
I sell my line to quite a few museums across the world, and these are my absolute favorite relationships. I know the person who visits a museum shop and buys a piece of my jewelry appreciates art and appreciates that there is a story behind what I create. Those simple bar earrings that everyone is making? Mine are inspired by Tadao Ando and the simplicity and democracy of his work. In addition, the museum shop staff are always so thrilled to see that someone has taken what may seem like a mundane object and turned it into a piece of wearable art. This is why I do what I do!
Can you tell us about one of your favorite visits to The Met?
One of my favorite experiences was taking my daughter to see arms and armor while in the midst of my design work for this project. She is nine years old and super-creative and she loved looking at all the Japanese pieces—just like me! We had lunch in The Dining Room at The Met and it was a perfect day. I feel thrilled to carry my love of this incredible Museum on to the next generation.