Emily P. Wheeler
Interview by Jenny Bahn

“At my family’s house on Cape Cod that I grew up going to, we had a big dress up box. My cousin Jessie and I would squeeze ourselves into sparkly lamé leggings and sequin and lace dresses. We also had dress up jewelry made with colorful plastic hearts on stretchy cord, and giant wooden beads on twine. We’d top it off with big cat-eye sunglasses and someone’s giant old pumps.”  

The youthful exuberance of playtimes past sits at the center of Emily P. Wheeler’s latest collection, aptly titled “Dress Up.” In it, a post-pandemic exaltation—a clarion call to swan into a party and light up the room. Explosions of color reign where ordinarily a pop would do. Sherbet-shaded gemstones glitter from enamel settings. Pearls, perfectly plump and uniform, dare to be called plastic. Heart motifs abound. The collection throws itself headlong into its girlish inspirations to joyful, unapologetically maximalist effect. “It’s super light and playful,” Wheeler remarks, “with unicorn spinel, pink sapphire, enamel, turquoise… it’s meant to feel cheerful.”

The origins of “Dress Up” are admittedly less charmed. “The idea for the collection started taking hold right at the beginning of the pandemic, when we had to cancel our first wedding date,” Wheeler says. “We were so sad but we kept telling ourselves that it would just make it that much better when we could celebrate.” Instead of focusing on the present, the Los Angeles-based designer turned her attention to the future, uncertain as it seemed at the time. “I daydreamed about how fun and exciting life would be when it eventually came back to us and the collection was meant to celebrate that. The collection was done right on time. It was kismet.”

While playfulness abounds throughout “Dress Up,” Wheeler offers more grounded counterpoints with pieces featuring the sharp geometry often found in her work. An architectural vein threads itself into the collection in its use of triangles, which give the wearer less the appearance of a ball-going princess than that of a ruling queen. Whichever persona one wants to try on from “Dress Up,” Wheeler’s work provides, as always, a sense of empowered femininity. It’s no wonder her pieces are a staple among some of fashion’s most notable stockists and a frequent presence on the pages of Vogue, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar, to name just three.

Below, we catch up with Wheeler to talk early creative guidance, finding perfection in post-production, and an occasion she’s very much looking to celebrate.

What was your favorite piece of jewelry as a child?

My favorite piece of jewelry as a child was a Native American fetish necklace that my dad purchased for me near the Grand Canyon. We were on a road trip there, just him and I, from our hometown in Massachusetts. I am obsessed with animals and jewelry, and it was the perfect combination of both! This was the trip that made me fall in love with jewelry. I still wear it and keep it in my studio as a reminder.

I’ve read that your household as a child was a creative one. How did that environment shape you as a designer?

My dad was an architectural photographer. I was obsessed with his photos as a kid. I would pull all his reject prints out of the trash and hang them on my wall. My mom is also really creative and talented at painting, sewing, and drawing. She had me sewing at a young age. I learned how to make my own stuffed animals and clothes, which was useful because I was six feet tall by the time I was a teen and nothing ever fit me. The sewing led me to intricate beadwork, which led me to collecting stones, which led me here I suppose. I guess you could say my dad’s photography taught me about beautiful design and my mom taught me how to develop skills and execute.

What was the first piece of jewelry you made early in your career?

The first piece I made was a pavé cigar ring that I worked on with one of my Los Angeles jewelers. I love his pavé work so much and still use him. My first fine jewelry collection was a small collection of white and colored diamond cigar rings. They were solid gold, micro-pavé set, and beautifully made. People in the industry really reacted to the weight and sparkle. I knew from that point on that quality would always be number one for me.

How does a piece of yours typically go from idea to reality?

It very much depends, but I usually think about a design for a long time before I sketch it. I am someone who spends a lot of time in my head and can be very happy alone for hours. I will conceptualize something for days, weeks, even months, before I try to communicate it to my team. I then determine who is the best person or people to make the piece, which depends on the design. Then, we work on a wax or a CAD, and the piece is produced from there. I would say about 30 percent of the time I request changes post-production, as I am super particular. Sometimes I won’t like the clasp style after all, or the weight of something will be off. I won’t like the size of a jump ring or the enamel color isn’t perfect. I try to work on as much as I can locally so I can see every step of the process.

As a designer with the environment in mind, how does a sustainable approach impact your production process?

I work with suppliers and manufacturers that share my ideals around sustainable and ethical business practices. I thoroughly vet the people I work with through a process I developed with my sustainability consultant. I’m becoming a certified member of the Responsible Jewelry Council as a way to formalize these practices and keep myself honest. I’m continuously educating myself on how to improve. For example, I have been using 100% recycled gold but am exploring using Fairmined Gold for a future collection. I also just use common sense to limit my professional carbon footprint by limiting travel and shipping, making as locally as I can, etc.

How did you approach color in your work?

I start with a color palette for every collection, as I believe it makes it more cohesive and more successfully tells a story. I pull imagery related to the inspiration, and often images of pieces that I’ve already made which I see as part of the collection. I normally have already created a few of the pieces, subconsciously aware of the direction I’m going. I then pull a color palette from that and select materials.

In “Dress Up,” you use color for some of the settings. Did such a maximalist take come naturally to you?

Yes, for sure. For the Balance Ring, I think the enamel in the setting adds intrigue. It’s a more interesting and beautiful color palette, and also makes it feel a bit playful and unexpected. The colors are also obvious. I have five Pantone booklets that I flip through with the stones in front of me and then—bam—the right one just feels right.

In what ways do you believe our outward appearance can impact our inward mood?

I have always noticed that I feel more confident and am more productive when I’m dressed up for work or an errand. I’m still so lazy and generally put comfort first, but I’m certainly aware of the mood shift. When I do dress up, if I go for what I really like—which most would consider too much color—I feel happier and more myself.

 Hearts, which feature prominently in this new collection, can sometimes feel childish but here they feel positively right for the moment at hand. Did you know they would be a recurring motif early on?

I have always loved hearts. I don’t think they go out of style but I’m glad they feel right for the moment! I knew I was feeling hearts in a big way and wanted to use them for this collection even before the pandemic hit. They must feel right because everyone is just feeling the love. We are vaccinated, we have our lives back, and it’s summer! It’s been a horrible year and there is finally hope and joy.

How has our collective attitude changed since this time a year ago?

I think “yolo” pretty much sums it up. There’s no more time for BS.

Describe a dream event in 2021 that you have yet to go to:

My wedding! We’ve rescheduled it four times and it’s now scheduled for October 2021. We’re doing it in Palm Springs at a hotel with all our favorite people and it’s going to be a party. I’m wearing pink.

Three words to describe how you feel about the future:

Confident, contented, grateful. I’m more of a live-in-the-moment kind of gal, but I feel very content with what I have now and will be grateful for more of it.


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