Meet Lisa Ziff—The Jewelry Sculptor
Unique creations that wow.
Written byChelsee Lowe
Photographed byShane O’Donnell
Before I met Lisa Ziff at her hilltop home studio in the Valley, I perused her distinct creations online. Organic shapes in brushed gold are eye-catching. One brilliant pendant is almond in shape but has holes that evoke coral, with inset diamonds placed just so. Another charm of brushed 10-karat gold is reminiscent of sliced lotus root and its beautiful asymmetric circles. “Coffee bean” stud earrings look like their namesake, slightly bent by a soft fissure line.
Inside Lisa’s studio—which offers stunning views of the Valley and the San Gabriel Mountains—it is evident that natural and found objects are indeed her inspiration. The space is lightly decorated with photographs and art by family members (her three children are now grown); books from her father, a longtime biology teacher; and hundreds of small curiosities that she’s gathered herself or been gifted: dried poppy pods, chunks of coral, textured rocks, leaves, and husks of all kinds of botanicals. Rusted buttons and knobs rest on one windowsill, and a pig’s tooth sits alone on a nearby shelf. Lisa laughs while looking at the item, which her daughter discovered during her college field work in Santa Cruz.
“When I was younger, my dad and I used to beachcomb, and I still do that now—in a cityscape, on a trail, anywhere,” she says. “Eventually, people just start bringing you things.”
Her work desk is strewn with instruments she uses to fashion her original designs: clay tools, dental picks, a soldering torch and pliers of various shapes. On this day, a bracelet of golden links of varying sizes is under construction. This is where she spends hours each day. When making a brand-new piece, she’ll start with a block of wax, sculpting it down to the desired form—say, a ring with a floral centerpiece, or the hoop of an earring. From the wax form, her casting expert makes a metal model, then a silicone mold, which can be used for creating multiples of a piece.
“Really, I’m more of a sculptor than a jeweler,” Lisa says. “That’s where I’m different. I come at this work from a different perspective. I like carving away at each piece. It fills that same pleasure I had as a kid, digging in the sand, then finding something. That’s the fun part, and that’s what keeps me coming back.”
Lisa’s skill, combined with her calm demeanor and observant nature, has served her well over the years. While studying design at UCLA, she got an office job at Frank Gehry’s studio in Venice. She mostly ran errands, but she was also exposed to some of brightest minds in the field. “That was invaluable,” she says. One day she conversed with renowned architectural photographer Julius Shulman as she shuttled him from the airport.
“Really, I’m more of a sculptor than a jeweler. I like carving away at each piece. It fills that same pleasure that I had as a kid, digging in the sand, then finding something.”
Upon receiving her undergraduate degree, portfolio in hand, she headed to Milan. This was a pre-internet world, she reminds me. She arrived in Italy and cold-called her favorite design studios for employment. She worked under famed Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti briefly, then avant-garde Studio Alchimia. Because land for new structures is limited in Italy, many designers instead focus on products and interiors. Lisa followed suit, making drafts for furniture, rugs and other household items. Then she returned to the U.S. and attended Rhode Island School of Design.
“I was more into product myself at this point. That’s anything you use, or anything that is produced in multiples, from bedsheets to dinnerware, even a fork.”
After years working in Italy, she returned to LA and funneled her creative juices into her own company—a housewares line sold in high-end gift shops and museum stores. When she became pregnant—with twins, no less—she turned her eye to jewelry making. It was a way to scale down, she says, making fewer but more-precious pieces.
“Ultimately, making jewelry is very familiar. I’m still sculpting, in wax rather than in clay. It’s smaller work. There was definitely a learning curve, and there still is. Every piece I make, I discover something new.”
Now an empty-nester, Lisa has her sights set on expanding her line to more stores (it is already in Studio City boutique Mag.Pi) and her online presence. Goals aside, the joy remains purely in the work.
“I lose track of time easily here,” she says, standing in her studio. “This is my happy place, my little escape.”
For more, go to lisaziffdesigns.com