Ones to Watch: Kelly Shami
Citing the desire to do 10,000 things at once as her biggest problem, Kelly Shami is your classic multi-hyphenate creative. From jewelry and editorial design to painting and poetry, her potential is unlimited. Born into the business, she spent her childhood in the diamond district at her father’s storefront learning the ropes of hospitality and design. (Fun fact: A24’s most recent Safdie brothers film, Uncut Gems, was shot in her family’s spot.) Now, she’s creating custom pieces for Beyoncé, SZA, and Alexa Demie (to name a few.) Last year, she put out her first poetry book, New York(h)er to commemorate the past 10 years she’s spent in the city. As a creative hustler and a first-generation American, Shami’s daily to-do-list is at the top of her priorities. And if it doesn’t all get done she notes, “I don’t beat myself up on unfinished tasks, I just wake up hungrier the next day.”
Your family was in the jewelry business. At what age did you actually start?
I’ve been working with my dad since I can remember, even in a stroller. My dad always took us to work. Being the first generation of my family here, your parents always want you to be working; I would wake up and they would ask, “What are you going to do today?” They always had really great work ethic and I thank them for it now.
I started helping customers when I was eight years old. I became a little woman in the store; I’d lie about my age, and would help people as best I could. To this day, I always try to put myself physically around what I want to do, so I can learn first hand. I feel like it’s the best way to really absorb something. By 12-13, I was kind of doing my own thing with it: making jewelry and getting things fixed, wearing it the way I wanted, and really helping my dad on more serious tasks. Then I said to myself, “Okay, I am going to try other things.” But after that, I always came back to it. Whether I went to go do sports, I went to art school, whatever. I was always still wanting to wear and pursue jewelry. It was always a part of my soul.
You went to SVA – what did you study?
I studied graphic design because I believed my fine arts degree wasn’t going to make me any money at the time. It was kind of before Instagram, it was different. Now, I feel everyone is very visual, and you can be an artist using social media to promote yourself. It’s kind of crazy to say, but I feel like times have really changed. Back then, I feel like I had to make money and get a job, and I felt like graphic design would do that for me since many companies always needed design work. All I had was my portfolio and myself. I was really fluent in working in Adobe, so that’s when I got into editorial design. I also studied humanities, so with writing and design, that’s what lead me into magazines. I still wanted to be a painter at the time. I want to do 10,000 things at one time: that’s my biggest problem.
When did you start painting?
I actually used to sell paintings out of my dad’s jewelry store because it would bring customers in, they thought it was cute. They were so bad; like a brown horse on a horizon with a pink sunset on a small canvas. My parents always encouraged me, and that’s why I’m so thankful for them. Even after playing sports, and after doing various classes, they supported my artistic skills.
I’ve always painted, I just didn’t think I could make money off of it as an 18-year-old still figuring it out. I had the option of commuting back and forth from my house in New Jersey, but I wanted to live in the city. I said to myself, If I’m going to be in the city, I want to live in the city 24/7, I don’t want to go home on the bus. Commuting in itself is unproductive, so I wanted to cut that time down. I knew I needed to get a job and really have my own apartment; I was working in retail and paid internships to pay my rent at the time.
I restarted painting seriously when I got my studio about two years ago. I’m working on larger scale oil paintings and warming up to it again since I could not do that in my apartment. Every time I travel, I take watercolors with me too. I am that girl on the plane with the watercolor set. It’s always something that was in my nature. If you have that urging creative bone, you just want to be creative in all different ways all the time. I’m not scared of any medium.
From start to finish, what’s the process of creating your favorite item of jewelry?
One of my favorite pieces was actually one of my first three pieces. It’s called the Screw U Cuff. I basically start from an inspiration; it could be something on the street, it could be a color, it could be material, it could be a form, a Brancusi sculpture. I think inspiration can come from all places.
I draw it, and then I measure. I try to make sure it’ll fit everyone. And then I decide what metal I want to make it in. I either make it locally, or I make it with like a vendor. But I only work with vendors that I love and trust; different things for different projects. For this one, I was doing it in silver, so I went with Mexico, they have great quality silver. But it always comes from an idea then pencil to paper first.
At the time, I was bothered that I could not afford the Cartier nail cuff, so I made a screw in a cuff form and I put a “U” at the end. And that’s when I realized that jewelry was expressive; I could say something with jewelry if I wanted to. I still have that design, and I wear it all the time. It’s like a “screw you!” People laugh when they realize what it is.
How is it working with your brother?
We actually do way better working together than anything else. When you’re a twin, by being born with somebody, there’s an unspoken comfortableness, at least from my experience. If anything, I don’t take it personally when he says something really rude or says something that I might think is offensive at first. Because then I step back and realize, “Oh, maybe he’s right.” It’s good to have reliable honesty at all times on my team.
You just put out your first poetry book at the end of last year, New York(h)er.
In school, one of my favorite eras of writing was Beat poetry, the Beat Generation. I went to San Francisco, I did the whole thing. I was obsessed with beat poets. I’ve always read poetry books and kept them in my pocket. They’re just easy; especially when you’re on the subway, or in a car. It kind of calms me down.
I’ve lived in New York City for 10 years now, and I realized that I needed to put something out that kind of commemorates it, whether no one buys it, or someone buys it, it was for me. I have all these writings written in my notes app on my iPhone, so some of them were when I was maybe drinking a bit too much, angry, sad, or happy. I very much believe in writing everything down and documenting things because if the internet gets lost one day, or your phone gets lost, you might lose quite a bit of your history. I have records of stories and things, I’m just old school like that. I had the design capabilities to do it, and I channeled my own Frank O’Hara. Lately, I’m just kind of like doing things out of my heart. It doesn’t need to pertain to a certain “brand” or anything.
As a creative businesswoman, what do you think is the balance between doing things from your heart and then adding a “strategy” behind it? Is intuition enough?
In my early 20s, I was trying to fit an image. Am I going to be an illustrator? Graphic designer, branding expert? But I realized that didn’t fuel my soul. After 25, I said to myself, “I’m just gonna do what I want.” However, with every job that I’ve taken, I have no regrets. You learn something from all the jobs you hate, all the jobs you think weren’t good for you, all the jobs that you loved; you learn something from every job. But my underlying lesson from my experiences was just, do what’s in your heart. Even at a day job, contribute with your heart, not to impress others. With creating in general, you should be making things for you from your soul. I’m a jeweler, I write, I paint — maybe it doesn’t make sense, but I feel more comfortable doing exactly what I want now than I was when I was 21 or 22.
Because your life is so fueled from the heart, how do you create a work-life balance?
Well, my work is my life. Right now, I have so much energy, and I don’t want to waste it. And I know one day maybe I’ll be painting in California or Texas on a ranch, but for now, my work is my life, and I truly don’t feel happy when I’m not working. It could be deemed as psycho. Some of my friends call me up and create that balance for me socially because I can go days without seeing somebody, and I’ll be fine. But even some of my closest friends, Danielle [Guizio] for example, we always talk about work. We’re always talking about ideas. It naturally happens and I like having those energies and conversations around me.
How do you balance the emotions though?
It’s been pretty intense, but I’m trying to find that even in those lowest points, the simple idea that it’s all going to be okay. I try to love those moments, the ones that I hate in retrospect. I find that great work comes out of the darkest times. I just need to keep myself inspired. I try not to complain; this year, whether it’s to my employees, or to people I’m working with, I’m trying to find a positive in every situation and just know that relaxing time is going to come around the corner.
You’ve collaborated with so many amazing artists like Alexa Demie, Beyonce, SZA, Ella Mai — there are so many amazing people you’ve worked with, what would be the next step for you after all those huge milestones?
I know I’ve worked with a lot of women and I find the jewelry you love to wear automatically makes you feel feminine and bold. It’s just a no brainer when any young artist, or young actress, or any type of rising females, or even established females that want to work with me. I want to work with any woman that has the same level of passion. I would actually love to see men wearing jewelry differently, and breaking more standards. As always an admirer of his pioneering style, I would love to work with like Andre 3000, although I believe he is laying low. I think it’d be cool to flip the script on what we do with earrings and nameplates and do it more with men. Everything moving forward should just be genderless.
What do you think it means to hustle?
I think hustle has to come from your heart. If it doesn’t, then don’t pretend like you’re hustling for something you can’t be all in on. I always wake up, and I have my list for the day on what I need to do. And I feel like if I don’t get it done, then I’m not hustling as hard as I should be. So, the hustle is just finishing my to-do list for the day. Little by little, day by day, you’ll get to the bigger picture eventually. I don’t beat myself up on unfinished tasks, I just wake up hungrier the next day.
Stay tuned to Milk for more Ones to Watch.