The Math and Science Behind Gemma Redux

Rachel Dooley infuses her jewelry with some left-brain training.

When Rachel Dooley abandoned both her degrees—an undergrad one in mechanical engineering and a graduate one in law—to pursue jewelry, it seemed like a big (huge!) departure. And while creativity plays a huge role in her day-to-day with Gemma Redux, the experience gained in her previous lives is key to what she does, too. Here’s how. —lydia woolever

Can’t wait to get your hands on the stunning coral-and-gold necklace Rachel made us? Well, have at it.

“I picked mechanical engineering as a major because it had the most design labs. We created computer programs that taught machines how to do things. And on the side, I was experimenting more creatively on my own.”

This piece is rooted in the spider mum—a creepily beautiful flower that grows wild on Socotra Island, an otherworldly spot that fueled Rachel’s whole spring colleciton.

“I’ve always liked to play with both sides of the brain. I’ve always been an experimenter. I love the idea of being a scientist who develops something useful and great. I’m proud of my ability to think critically. But I’ve always needed that creative side, too. And luckily, I got sucked into this beautiful life where I get a little of both.”

The medley of stones used here was inspired by the rainbow bismuth crystals that occur naturally on the island.

“I’m a total math nerd when I design. I do a lot of counting, patterns, repetition, breaks in patterns. I’m drawn to shapes—it’s just the way my brain works. But it’s honestly not that cerebral. I’ve always been first and foremost about the materials, and patterns are just a way to celebrate them. My brain naturally likes to find them in things. Especially when I’m doing something purely physical. I engage my brain by counting; it’s how I pass the time.”

Ocean pastels and stick coral sparked this necklace, with its natural rose quartz.

“When I was little, I was a competitive swimmer. I’d do this thing that must’ve gotten engrained. If I had to swim 5,000 yards, I would pass the time by saying to myself, ‘If I swim one lap, that means I have 122 left. If I do 32 more, I’m a quarter way done. Once I swim 65, I’m halfway there.’ Now I do that when I’m making jewelry.”

Behold: The amazing coral-and-gold necklace that Rachel made for Of a Kind.

“My favorite design is a pattern with asymmetry in it. It’s that unexpected element—you have the perfect pearl necklace but then, just off-center, there are some gold spikes sticking out. I think that’s cool. That’s what makes jewelry interesting.”

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Kristina and Sarah Make Gemstones

Who needs to find the perfect rocks when you can make them from scratch

Kristina’s workspace

The magic of the jewelry that the Mctega girls Sarah McLellan and Kristina Ortega create lies in the little plastic sculptures they develop for every piece. They’ve come up with what they call a chunk technique and a stalagmite one (the latter of which involves dripping layers and layers of colored polyester resin). And for the stand-out bracelet they dreamt up for Of a Kind, they imitated nature with homemade gems. Here, Sarah walks us through the process.

To see how everything comes together—and buy one of the 25 bracelets—click here.

“In this picture, we have everything we will need to create the gems from start to finish.”

“We use clay to mold the mini gems from scratch—Kristina made each one! We use an acrylic finish (in the little clear bottle) to make them shiny, and then we use the clay pieces to create the silicone mold. The silicone mold-making process requires another group of supplies entirely and a 24-hour hardening period before you can use the mold to make the gems that we use in our jewelry.”

“Once you have the silicone mold, you start making the gems by pouring resin into a mixing cut and adding the catalyst to start the reaction. You have to stir until everything is completely mixed. This ensures a proper reaction and eventually fully formed gems”

“Then you add the dye of your choice and mix thoroughly: Neon green!”

“Next, you pour the colored resin into the mold and repeat with other colors: turquoise! Then you allow the resin to harden. The speed of this process is dependent on a lot of factors including the amount of catalyst and the temperature. On a warm day with plenty of catalyst, we can de-mold in under an hour.”

“After gem formation is complete—and they are dry—we drill them, string them up, and dip them into epoxy resin to give them a protective and shiny coat. Here they are hanging out to dry. Epoxy takes longer to harden, so give give them a full 24-hour drying time before we take them down and re-drill before chaining them together.”

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Before Sarah McLellan (left) and Kristina Ortega started their jewelry line, Mctega—an amalgamation of their two last names—they thought they’d have to choose between science and fashion. “We both started college with the intent of studying science. Sarah was pre-med until her junior year, and I was a microbiology major,” Kristina explains.

But when the duo—who met interning for Rodarte in 2007—started concepting their first creations, it quickly became clear that maybe this wasn’t an either/or situation. “We found these mirrored plexiglass pieces shopping in the garment district, and Sarah said, ‘Oh, these look like carbon link structures!’ We went from there, casting them in plastic to make our first necklace ever,” Kristina says. “The plastic casting is something I had been doing since high school. My parents had this really old chemistry manual from the sixties that I used to go through all the time.”

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Anna and Aja Decide Not to Play Doctor

But both of the designers are holding onto some of their science-y dreams.

What did Anna Zeman and Aja Singer want to be when they grew up? Doctors or fashion designers. Though they settled on the latter—creating the structured, suit-fueled line Alex & Eli—they still welcome the opportunity to work the left sides of their brains. “When we were starting the collection, we were drawing pictures of constellations and talking about working them into the seamwork of our blazers,” says Anna. So don’t be surprised if their future collections take an astro-, geo-, aero-, or biological turn, and, in the meantime, take in the stories of their scientific backgrounds and the geeked-out images that inspire them.

Anna: “I grew up on a beach in the middle of nowhere—in Hansville, Washington. My father and my brothers are civil engineers. For my birthdays, my parents would get me biology books, and I would just love them. I went to the University of Washington, and, during my internships in college, I started to think that though I loved science, I didn’t necessarily love the people in the field. I just didn’t feel the passion. It was a sad realization—that maybe I was missing out on the creative side of things. My junior year, I made the decision: I said, ‘I’m not going to do biochemistry anymore.’ I had enough Spanish credits to graduate early, and I knew I wanted to go to Parsons.”

Aja: “I’ve always been an artistic person, but I’ve always had an affinity for math and science, too. Solving a really difficult problem is very satisfying. I was on a full-blown med school track—taking courses where you worked with cadavers and stuff at McGill University. I really enjoyed it, but I was spending all my time memorizing. I had no time to devote to art and fashion, and I just felt like this whole part of my life was missing. So I finished the degree and applied to Parsons. I was the only one in my college program who didn’t go on to do something in the medical field.”

The Alex & Eli duo created a bolo bow tie for Of a Kind! Clearly, you need to see it.

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What Ellen Listens to While she Works

It’s equal parts indie and educational.

Though Ellen van Dusen creates the kind of loud, high-energy pieces that immediately put you in a good mood—and frequents the kind of Brooklyn venues whose shows aren’t advertised—she spends as much of her workday listening to what could be classified as educational programming as to indie music. Here, she shares her favorites in both categories.

The Moth
“It’s a podcast of stories told live without notes. There was a really awesome one recently with Steve from Blue’s Clues. He talks about how he was just this big nerd, and at one point he was named one of People’s most eligible bachelors. He started getting all these letters, including one from a Playboy model. It was just hilarious—and mortifying.”

“Growing up, I was, like, obsessed with Weezer—to a fault. It was a problem. I still listen to Pinkerton and The Blue Album. Those are the best ones—the only good ones, really.”

Best Coast
“I really like ‘Crazy For You,’ which is also the name of the album.”

This American Life
“Whenever there’s a new one on, I listen to it. I’ve heard every single episode because I used to listen to eight episodes—back-to-back-to-back—if I was working for eight hours. I really like the economy ones, actually. I’m not super informed about that stuff, and I find it’s really easy to understand when they explain it. And I like the sad ones.”

Arthur Russell
“He’s an old disco-y guy. I don’t really like disco, but he has a lot of mellow stuff.”

“They’re good friends of mine—some of them used to be roommates of my boyfriend—but I actually really do listen to them. They play at a lot of DIY venues, like Death by Audio and Market Hotel.”

“It’s a science-based podcast that’s similar to This American Life. There was one that I listened to recently about cities that was great. It was basically asking, ‘Does the city make the person, or do the people make the city?’ It included a really awesome story about Centralia, which is a coal-mining town where a fire started underground and has continued to burn for years and years and years. It addresses how cities don’t really die, ever. You should check it out.”

“My brothers started a band together called the Doozies. It’s just the two of them, and they’re really good. They’re in D.C. and very new—still trying to get out there. Their sound is kind of garage-rock with some punk undertones.”

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