By Holly J. Coley
Photos: Courtesy of Fox & Castle
Once upon a time, somewhere between 2004 and 2008, statement jewelry ruled the streets. It was the era of Rachel Zoe’s massive cocktail ring. Hoop earrings couldn’t be big enough, and anyone who cared about fashion knew
the motto More is more. Then the recession happened, and those big pieces just felt like too much. A shift in sensibility occurred, and as we downsized our lifestyles, our focus went from the large (and ostentatious) to simplistic beauty. Take the designs from Micah Parker, for example. The creator behind Fox & Castle has created a business by making elegant minimalist modern jewelry. Crafted by hand and made with locally sourced materials, every ring, necklace, earring and bracelet enhances its wearer. Like many of us, Micah once gravitated toward items that were “really blinged out” but disliked the idea of sporting something that over- whelmed the eyes. Her search for pieces that were beautiful and “authentic” would lead her to eventually create the types of accessories that, as she puts it on her website, “compliment a woman’s natural beauty without distracting from it.”
The studio for Fox & Castle is located in Stormville, NY, on a scenic piece of property where Micah lives. Her workbench is stationed in front of a window where she can watch a dazzling array of birds visiting a feeder several feet away. Nature and natural elements are big informers of her line. She says, “I think a lot about shapes and forms, but generally I’m just inspired by being outside.”
Like so many designers I’ve interviewed, there were telltale signs that she was going to become a metalworker. “I’ve always been making jewelry,” she tells me. Growing up in Cold Spring, she took part in every art program her school had to offer. Her grandmother had an effortless talent for working with textiles that was an inspiration to her, and as a child, Micah found herself drawn to creating things too. She liked making her mother bracelets, and even then she favored natural materials, using feathers along with beading. In high school, the local shop she worked for carried some of her pieces. But even with all of that, she didn’t feel called to be a metalworker. She was more interested in fashion, something she pursued later while at Parsons. When she recalls that pursuit now, she laughs.
“Everybody at Parsons is determined to do something,” she says. I wanted to be a fashion designer because of that show Project Runway that was very popular! And I had no idea what that entailed…Fashion is mathematics. It’s basically engineer- ing. We were learning about shoes, and I was just baffled. It was all math. A teacher told me, ‘You’re not going to be a fashion designer. You are not going to want to do this.’ I was crushed at the time, but it was incredibly…” She thinks for the right words. “It opened my eyes a bit.”
Eventually she switched schools, earning a BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and Tufts University. Afterward, she did a lot of the things artists tend to do before they accept that they are artists and nothing will ever be as fulfilling as creating: she taught, worked in graphic design and even waitressed. Thoughts of doing something substantial with her jewelry were in her mind, but she wasn’t ready to act on them until 2014. It was the holiday season, and she was ending a relationship and a waitressing gig in quick succession. The most wonderful time of the year was feeling more like a nightmare until she heard that Work:Shop, the holiday market in Beacon, had an opening for a designer. She reached out to the curators and landed the spot. There wasn’t a lot of time, but she managed to put together a website and branding materials. “I did every- thing in two weeks,” she recalls. “Now that I’m doing shows regularly, I’m not sure how I did because I could not possibly get it all together [that fast].”
The Work:Shop experience was another eye-opening moment. Her work was received well and the hesitancy of the past was now gone. She says, “I was like, let’s do this. Let’s make it happen.”
The experience also freed her to move forward with her passion to where she is now. “I want to feel connected to every piece of jewelry I’m making,” says Micah. “So I spend a lot of time connecting to everything that’s around me.”
We’re sitting in her studio, looking at some of her pieces. I’m trying to understand her designing process. There’s a rawness to her work; a quality that comes from her preference for specific materials like minerals and leather but also from respecting the integrity of those materials enough to not overalter them. “I see the beauty in just the rock itself,” she explains. She’s interested in the contradictory nature of nature.
Micah collects river stones. The rounded pebbles smoothed by years of water erosion are all around her studio. If she holds one in her hands long enough, she starts seeing ways she can replicate its spirit while still making it something new. She takes a Bare Ring from her line, which is a simple band, and lays it on one of the rocks to illustrate.
“You have something that’s round but not round. Smooth but not smooth. And it has a bit of wear, and some have markings,” she says with the stone in hand. “The [ring’s] shape isn’t exact, and every one is a little bit different. Some of them are a little flatter, some a little rounder. I’ll make slightly different markings. Every single ring, even the Bare Ring, is different because every single stone is different.”
While this is a theme in all her pieces, recreating the stones is not her intention. Rather, her work is about “taking a simple shape and turning it into more but less.” She says, “It’s about stripping a form down to its absolute essence and how far can I take a shape and turn it into my own version.”
She uses a number of precious and semiprecious minerals, which she sources ethically. The Herkimer diamond is a favorite of hers to work with. The quartz crystal looks uncannily similar to a traditional diamond and was first discovered in upstate New York’s Herkimer County. Micah handpicks them from a local miner. “I love using Herkimer diamonds in any way,” she says, and her rings featuring them are incredibly popular. Another mineral she uses is blue kyanite, which is found in most of the bedrocks of the state. “They used to find big deposits of it underground, especially when building the NYC subway tunnels,” she tells me. None of her rings or any of her pieces are exactly alike; every setting is made by hand. Most of her own self-education—what she didn’t learn growing up, she’s learned through trial and error and research. “I learned a lot by just watching YouTube videos,” she says with a laugh.
Many of her gemstones or fabrics have memories attached to them. She’ll complete work on an item and remember how she procured the material, or the sentiment behind each piece. Her ability to design allows her to revitalize the past in ways most of us can’t. For example, the 14-carat-filled heart-charm necklace (limited edition) that she released for Valentine’s Day was inspired by a childhood memory. “I was always fascinated by this one heart charm that my mother had,” she tells me. “It was just a closed piece of wire that my dad had given her, and it was the simplest thing…As a child, it fascinated me.” As a metalsmith, she could remake it. That’s a perk of being an artist. When you can recreate, reshape and bend things to your will, nothing need be lost.
Along with her own memories, Micah enjoys helping others create their own. Those who gravitate to her work are often on the hunt for something unique and meaningful, making her an ideal person to work with when seeking an engagement ring or a custom-made item. Some of her customers are interested in the metaphysical aspect of gems, and she tries to accommodate by providing additional information on the gems she works with via her site and at shows.
In retrospect, the college professor who told her she wouldn’t be a fashion designer was right in his declaration. Micah is much happier working with metal. Her job allows her a certain amount of freedom that most vocations don’t, and for that, she’s grateful. She’s proud to be part of the maker movement and happy to see more people appreciating craftsmanship again. This isn’t to say her job is easy. Along with designing she does all the marketing, photography and administrative work for her brand. These aspects of her business, while necessary, can take away from the more fulfilling parts. Even handling social media can zap the creative juices. It’s no longer enough to just point and click a photo. Everything has to be treated like a commodity. “It’s the most frustrating thing,” Micah says. “If you don’t have a zillion followers, you aren’t taken as seriously as the big brands.” And as she becomes more of a commercial success, there’s the fear of growing faster than she can produce. There are still people who treat her as if she’s a Walmart or Amazon. She says, “A wholesaler once asked me if I could ship out 250 of something with one week’s notice!” The reality is that she’s one person, wearing many different hats. Prioritizing and knowing when to shut off emails has helped her maintain a sense of balance. The positive customer feedback doesn’t hurt either. At the end of the day, she’s most focused on creating pieces that a person will want to keep forever. “I think jewelry sometimes becomes a part of you,” she says reflectively. “[Those are] the kind of pieces I want to make.”