The Girl Next Door: Oakland Jewelry Designer Sarah Swell

San Francisco can be a tough home for fashion designers, but luckily, thanks to the relatively low overhead for bauble makers, we’ve lucked into our fair share of mega-talented jewelry designers. And at the top of that local heap is Oakland-based Sarah Greenberg, who creates stunning hand-hewn metalwork pieces for her label Sarah Swell in a light-soaked studio in Jack London Square. The Cape Cod expat, who studied at S.F.’s Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts, took some time out of her day to show us around her workspace, clue us in on the hidden gems in her ‘hood, and talk about what makes her tick (Hint: It has to do with Ici's Earl Grey ice cream).
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Name: Sarah Greenberg
Occupation: Jewelry designer behind Sarah Swell
I live in: Oakland, in a 1920's bungalow
Tell us about how you got into making jewelry.
"I started in jewelry sales while I was attending art school in Boston. I took a metalsmithing class and just knew that it was for me. I always dreamed of being an entrepreneur and loved that jewelry was so much more tangible and marketable than painting. So, I switched gears, immersed myself in the industry in every way possible, and launched my own business in 2008."
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What are your favorite parts of your job?
"I really like that I ultimately answer to myself. I'm kind of an overachiever and definitely a perfectionist, so being self employed really works for me. I also love developing a new collection and getting to be creative. A lot of what I do is very repetitive, so when I get to design, it's really a treat. Meeting happy customers is also wonderful, bridal clients in particular."
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How does the Bay Area inspire you?
"In so many ways! I love the people here and I've learned to never underestimate anyone in the Bay Area. That scruffy looking guy on the corner....yeah, he's on the board of directors at Twitter and is the lead singer of your favorite band and volunteers at his local community garden. That 'can do' attitude makes me strive to do more. There's also such an undercurrent of freedom in the Bay Area. It's reflected in everything from our ideals to our sense of fashion. And, of course, the natural beauty! I adore the fact that I can drive five minutes from my house in the city and be surrounded by ancient towering Redwoods. You can't beat that."
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Last meal in the Bay Area, where would it be and what?
"I have to choose one!? Okay, I'm going to sound like my fiancé here, but it would have to be the bacon gorgonzola burger, cooked medium rare, at Sidebar on Grand Avenue in Oakland. Then I'd go to Ici for Earl Grey ice cream in a homemade cone."
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What's your favorite distraction from work?
"Definitely music and travel! When I'm putting in long hours at the studio I'll discover new bands on Pandora or blast my old favorites. And after work, nothing revitalizes me like seeing an amazing live performance at an intimate venue. Travel is my ultimate distraction. There is nothing I love more than discovering someplace new. Whether it is near or far, I get such a rush from being somewhere I have never stepped foot before."
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Describe your daily uniform.
"Lots of denim, flat moto boots or high-top Chuck Taylors, and slouchy knits. I get pretty dirty making jewelry, but also have to be somewhat presentable if a client drops by. I keep a box with 'nicer' clothes and some makeup in the studio in case I need to step it up and don't have time to go home."
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What are your favorite "hidden" spots in Oakland?
"Hmmm...this list could go on forever! My absolute favorites include the Mariscos seafood truck at Tacos Sinaloa on International Boulevard, Chop Bar for brunch (get the baconized bloody mary), Miette, Bar Dogwood in Uptown has the most amazing charcuterie tucked away in the back corner with to-die-for grilled cheese sandwiches, Chai Thai Noodle for pumpkin curry, and Sum Yee Pastry in Chinatown for pork buns. Shopping wise, I'm obsessed with Hawthorn on College Avenue. The owner is a sweetheart and has a wonderfully edited selection of clothing and accessories. Mercy Vintage Now on Piedmont is really great. Atomic Garden on College has beautiful things. And Lauren Wolf's boutique, Esqueleto, just off Telegraph Avenue is so dreamy. I want to live there!"
sarah swell jewelry
If someone recognizes you on the street, what would you like them to say?
"I suppose that they, too, are small business owners or are aspiring small business owners. I think it is one of the most challenging/rewarding/intense/brave things you can do in your life and I love meeting people that are experiencing the things that I am. Carving out your own path in this world isn't easy and it's great to hear the stories of others."
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