Natalie Abrams didn’t want to be an artist.
“I studiously fought against it,” says the 52-year-old Chicago-born sculptor turned jewelry designer. “I come from a long line of engineers. I didn’t want to be an engineer, but I wanted my parents’ respect and all that.”
Abrams started studying fashion at Colorado State University, but she found the program boring and switched to interior design and construction management. After college she worked for several architecture and consulting firms in Colorado and New York City.
“I ended up making art because I wanted it and couldn’t afford to buy it,” Abrams says. “The art thing was the one thing that really stuck with me and it kind of became consuming.” She started out making multimedia sculptures before transitioning to jewelry fit for a punk warrior goddess, which she’ll show as Abrams Wearable at the District of Fashion Runway Show on Sept. 5.
For the runway, Abrams is focusing on optically striking pieces that will stand out in a crowd. Her relationship with color presents an interesting dichotomy: She’s very much a color specialist, but also calculated with how she uses it. A lot of her work, she says, uses an especially muted palette combined with a few spots of intense pigmentation. Abrams Wearable’s signature colors are white, black, and red, but the studio is littered with pops of neon and jewel tones.
Much of Abrams’ work involves optical illusion. “You have all clear at the bottom, a layer of pink, and then a layer of yellow, but because of the curvature of the bulb and the matte finish, the pink travels through the clear to cast a halo on the bottom, but there’s no actual color there,” she says, referencing a bright, marble-esque resin orb dangling from a nylon filament. “With these, when you look at them head on at eye height they are clear but when you wear them they pop and fill with color.”
Abrams Wearable feels as though it sprung into existence fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. But the brand evolved incrementally over six years. By 2013, Abrams had left design and project management behind for her sculpture practice as a resident at the McColl Center for Arts + Innovation in Charlotte, North Carolina. The following year, she spent a month at the Sam & Adele Golden Foundation, a nonprofit residency program connected to Golden paint company. Abrams worked with research and development, learning about their acrylic mediums and developing custom paint formulas. Paint remained a constant as Abrams’ practice evolved.
She began dipping different core lines made from a variety of nylon filaments and braided stainless steel micro cables in acrylic paint. One paint formula Abrams developed created spontaneous beading as it ran down the lines and dried, creating tiny beads of paint that gave the otherwise sleek cords texture. “It’s almost like you’re capturing this specific moment in time,” Abrams says of the effect.
She had planned to use the dipped filaments in her sculpture practice, but a jewelry making class inspired a shift in perspective. She’d gone into it with loose objectives, but a friend who was orchestrating the workshop later told her that she had an eye for jewelry.
The comment stuck with Abrams, who started making the dipped lines longer and longer, bending and shaping them with an eye toward wearability. “I made one of them and had to go to a function and had one wrapped around my neck, and I had all these women coming up to me saying, “What are you wearing?” and feeling it. It was like, maybe I’m onto something. People started borrowing them. That was kind of the start.”
The transition from sculpture to jewelry was challenging. “With sculpture, you can hide stuff,” Abrams says. “There’s a place to hide the ugly bits. With jewelry, there’s no place to hide the ugly bits. You really have to think of every aspect of it: How do you put it on? How do you wear it? Is it comfortable? Can it be easily taken on and off? How does it move with the person who’s wearing it? There are all of these things to take into consideration that I didn’t have to think about before.”
In 2016, Abrams moved to Herndon, Virginia, to join her partner in business and in life, Bryan Hammock, 48. The two met in a Facebook group for artists and brokered a friendship around Abrams’ creative methods. She’d get stuck creatively, she says, and he’d come up with ideas she never would have thought of. Hammock conceptualized the spindle and tank method of dipping the lines, a custom system Abrams built out that allows her to dip more lines at once than she could by hand. In the spring of 2018, Abrams Wearable opened a studio and retail space in Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory Art Center.
Hammock grew up in D.C., playing punk shows at Black Cat before attending Penn State to be a writer. “I’ve been around art my whole life, I’ve just never really found my niche,” Hammock says. “I always tell everybody to have a partner in any regard because it’s easy to quit and when you have a partner you can’t really quit. We make a great team.” Hammock says he’s the marketer, and Abrams is the artist. But, Abrams says, the pair are truly co-designers.
A spiky, glossy vinylic collar is the first piece they developed together. Abrams says it’s still their most popular piece. “It does become this sculptural element that you wear,” she says. “It’s jewelry then it’s also a sculpture.”
“We’re still not even scratching the surface,” Hammock adds. “When we started this, we planned out about five years worth of designs. Some of our best stuff we haven’t even come close to doing yet. We’re trying to get to a place where we can stop designing for a little while, put out some product and be able to expand to museum stores and boutiques.” Pieces are currently available for purchase at their Torpedo Factory studio, online, and will also be on sale at the trunk show preceding the Sept. 5 runway appearance.
Influenced by the hardcore punk scenes in Chicago and D.C., there’s no subtlety to Abrams and Hammock’s shared vision.
“I had a really hard time finding jewelry for me, because I’m not delicate,” Abrams says. “I see a woman put on our collar and they just change, just transform immediately, and I love that. I love being able to give someone this feeling that they are on top of the world.”