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An Interview with Aaron Ruff of Digby & Iona

Jewelry designer Aaron Ruff doesn’t mind breaking the rules; in fact, he never learned them to begin with. Hailing from southern Maine, he learned craftsmanship at an early age, giving him the skills to mold metal without the limitations a typical jeweler’s education can impose. Designing now in Brooklyn under his label Digby & Iona, Aaron produces work that is intellectual, off-beat, and incredibly charming, all with a level of quality befitting a true artisan. Stopping by his studio, we caught a glimpse of the tools, the jewels, and even the tattoos that all seem too cool for the modern world. Put simply, Aaron showed us that there’s nothing quite like having your hands in the game from the very start.

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How did you get into designing jewelry?

I grew up in Maine learning how to do construction, carpentry, woodworking, welding, you know, just working with my hands. I was doing construction for a while before I came to New York to go to Parsons for furniture design, and when I left school I had my own wood shop doing high-end custom renovation and furniture. I started to make a bit of jewelry and the stores that carried our furniture would carry the jewelry too. I just decided one day that I was tired of making furniture and being a dusty woodworker. I wanted to do something high-end so I just made the switch over.

How did these experiences shape your aesthetic?

I think the main thing is that I wasn’t classically trained, so I didn’t know what the rules were. I had a lot less restriction in terms of my ideas and the things I thought were possible. Going to school, more than they tell you what to do, they tell you what you can’t do, and that sometimes hinders peoples’ creativity.

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Did you feel that starting out you referenced a lot of other jewelry?

No, I never used other jewelry as reference unless it was really antique jewelry, I more just use a lot of historical and literary reference. I think my upbringing in Maine and also all the things I was interested in as a kid—archaeology, history, literature—all just keep coming up in my work.

Can you give an example of how you reference from literature?

All of my signet rings have literary references, I reference everything from Petrarch to Tolkien, so it’s like obscure 15th century Italian playwrights up to the guy who wrote The Hobbit. It’s a vast pool that I’m drawing from. The formula for the signet rings is picking a main icon or symbol, a quote that relates to it, and more decoration from that period to fill out the ring.

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What are some things that are challenging or that you have yet to make?

Every new collection is a challenge, I always try to push the limits of what I’m doing. I’m definitely being challenged by the current collection I’m working on. It’s a lot of reference research and a lot of things with crazy moving parts, so there’s a lot of research I have to do and a lot of physical engineering I have to do for the collection. It’s taking me a little bit longer than I’d expected.

And what’s the theme for that collection?

The theme for the collection is Alchemy and Hermeticism, so it’s an interesting broad topic that I’ve always been super intrigued by. It’s kind of the gap between Paganism and Christianity and modern science. There was a bit of a grey area for a while where people were mixing all three. I try to be pretty purist and do my research and know what the hell I’m talking about, so I wouldn’t want to take just a bunch of random images and references and throw them all together in one piece that somebody who’s actually initiated into it would just look at it and be like “this is nonsense.”

What do you see in your future? You want to stay in jewelry?

My career path has always been really fluid. If I find something else that I want to move on to, I’ll drop this in a heartbeat and move on to it. But right now, I’m really enjoying this career path so I’ll probably stick with it for a while.

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What’s your advice for young artists?

I have the same answer to this question every time: just go for it. Don’t be afraid to struggle and starve a little bit, and it’s so much easier to succeed in the design field now than it was when I started out. It was pre-social media and pre-blogs, to even get noticed you would have to be in a really high-end print magazine. Now you just have to take some pictures in your own home and just put it out on the internet and somebody’s going to pick it up.

What’s next for Digby & Iona?

I think the next step is probably a retail space, it’s the obvious progression especially when you’re doing high-end stuff. You can’t just sequester yourself in a little upstairs workshop for that long, you have to have a brick and mortar place where the customer can interface with the jewelry. Very few people buy a $5,000 ring off a website without seeing it first. Within a few years it will probably happen, I’d like to have it in this neighborhood in Brooklyn.

What is your WILD Wish?

A CFDA would be nice. Hopefully that’s not too wild!

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text by: Robert LiaBraaten










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