“She dresses minimally and uses jewelry as an understated, yet noticeable, conversation starter.” This is the AZLEE woman, according to designer Baylee Zwart, who, after studying metalworking in Guatemala, launched her first jewelry collection earlier this year to sleeper success.
Sleek with a slight edge, Zwart’s sharply-angled pieces certainly command attention: proudly made and hand finished in California, AZLEE features a range of 18k gold stackable and architecturally-inclined rings, earrings and bracelets dotted with custom-cut diamonds. “I like streamlined, clean shapes with sharp angles. I’m not sure why, but when I envision things in my head, they always have those characteristics!” explains Zwart, who happened upon a love of jewelry-making by chance, after a local Guatemalan jeweler helped her to make a ring using a druzy crystal she had found in Morocco.
Zwart’s new range, titled Electric Collection, uses a sophisticated selection of sharp shapes to tell the story of a circuit board. “It starts with a ‘Spark’, moves through a ‘Circuit’, creates a ‘Flash’ and then… ‘Electricity’. Those are all of the different parts that make up the collection,” the California native explains, adding that through AZLEE, she aims to make “off the beaten path” pieces that are refreshing, rather than intimidating.
As a California native, surfer and avid scuba diver, the ocean is also a major influence for the socially-minded Zwart. She chose to align AZLEE with the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, which rescues and treats ill, injured and orphaned seals, sea lions, whales, and dolphins. Each AZLEE piece sold supports the organization’s agenda. “I love the ocean and all the life in it,” she says. “It holds a very special place in my heart and that is why each piece helps ocean-related causes.”
Here, Zwart takes us through her time in Guatemala to prove that you don’t have to sacrifice style to build a socially-responsible jewelry brand.
Why did you choose to study metalworking in Guatemala? Can you tell us about your experience?
During school I had worked at various fashion magazines in New York, studied abroad in Spain, taken a lot of photography classes and learned about social justice. I was a bit all over the place, but fell in love with all of those experiences. I came out of school still not knowing quite how I wanted to fit into the fashion world, but knew I wanted to live abroad again in a Spanish-speaking country and learn more about nonprofits and fair trade fashion. I happened upon a nonprofit that worked with local artisans to design and create accessories for major U.S. retailers. They needed someone to work on product development, design and photography, and someone who could understand Spanish, to live in Guatemala where they were based. It felt like the perfect fit. I arrived down there and found my happy place; it was a match for my soul. It was a rare time where I felt like I was doing the exact thing I was meant to be, at the exact time I was meant to be doing it.
There was a lot of jewelry metalworking going on in Guatemala and I had brought with me a druzy crystal from Morocco that I had always wanted to have a ring made out of. I found a local jeweler to make it and he asked me if I wanted to make it instead. I said yes, and after my first time mentoring him to learn the art of metalworking, I fell in love with it. All I thought about from then on was what I would make next. I spent every weekend with him learning and doing.
You previously worked at Glamour and Allure, what made you want to start a jewelry line after leaving magazines?
I wanted to combine everything I had loved so far in life; fashion, metalworking and philanthropy. AZLEE gave me the opportunity to have all of those things in my daily life, and be what I put a majority of my energy towards. I created AZLEE to do what I love and effect what I love.
Electric Collection features a beautiful collection of custom-cut diamonds. Why did you decide to solely work with diamonds?
For me, the more minimalist the better. I try to make the most interesting part of my jewelry be the silhouettes, fit and illusions — not the stones. So I stick to diamonds. Clean and sleek. They enhance the shapes of the jewelry without adding anything too distracting. And nothing strikes me quite like a diamond!