You may for a moment think Monika Knutsson’s jewelry is filigree or repoussé. But no, it’s lace — antique and vintage lace, coated with 18- and 24-karat gold and silver to preserve and enhance its intricate patterns. Even the threads show through.
Knutsson, 59, is repurposing a traditional women’s needle art as featherweight contemporary statement jewelry: ornate collar necklaces, chandelier earrings, delicate mix ‘n’ match band rings, wraparound bracelets, cuffs of almost Wonder Woman length. All of it retains the delicate curlicues and arabesques of the source material, yet exudes 21st-century tough-girl panache.
“You don’t know exactly where the lace has been,” Knutsson said, “only that it was used in French ’20s lingerie, or that it came from an 1890s collar.”
Her work has earned a devoted following. Beyoncé owns a couple of pieces, and has worn her Leopoldine Calais lace teardrop earrings onstage. The singer’s mother, Tina Knowles, owns the Eliane embroidered lace cuff, which she wore on an Ebony cover. Others customers range from “22-year-old hip-hop stars to grandmothers in their 70s,” said Lisa Sirlin-Hall, owner of No Roses Jewelry in Los Angeles. “Many clients request text alerts whenever a new shipment arrives. One literally bought everything.”
Jill Baer, 63, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, owns several pieces. “Each piece conveys devotion, hard work and mystery from women of a faraway past,” she said.
Not long ago, several groups of mothers at Public School 87 in Manhattan bought identical rings and leather wrap bracelets. One of them, Elisabeth Cory Nangle, 49, chose a matching ring for her daughter Eleanor, 11.
“Who can resist Monika’s beautiful rings?” said another mother at the school, Catharina De Geer, 48, a tour operator. “They are like eye candy.”
Others who have been seen wearing Gilded Lace, as the collection is called, include Whoopi Goldberg, Christina Ricci, Idina Menzel and Rinko Kikuchi.
Knutsson has recently begun making commissioned light-reflecting items for the home: room dividers, lampshades, candlesticks. And she does a brisk trade in wedding jewelry, often using lace snipped from the bride’s mother’s or grandmother’s wedding dress.
One recent bride, Jessica Aaron Martin, 31, a user experience designer in San Francisco, had earrings made for herself and cuffs for herself and her sisters from their mother’s wedding dress. “I grew up looking at that dress in its bag and in photos, and now, I love that I have such a personal connection to my memories,” said Aaron Martin, who plans to also get a piece made from her dress.
The jewelry is sold at boutiques throughout the United States and Europe, by appointment and online. Prices range from $195 to $1,500 for ready-made pieces and $295 to $5,000 for custom-made ones. Each comes with a tag describing its lace origin.
Knutsson can trace her interest in lace back to when she was 6 years old and living in her native Sweden. Her grandmother had just died, and the family visited her home to choose which precious items to keep. Young Monika asked about the cotton doilies and lace-trimmed pillowcases she had always loved. “‘Oh, unimportant,’” she was told. They were relegated to a backyard bin. She retrieved them.
When Knutsson was in her 20s, with a business degree behind her, she married an American college professor, Bruce Kogut. A university appointment for him in Paris allowed her to study at Esmod International, the French fashion school, after which she got a job designing handbags and trimmings at Isabel Marant. While there, she discovered an artisan who encased fabric in metal for displays. Why not do the same with antique lace, she thought, which was otherwise in danger of discoloration and disintegration? She began buying heirloom lace at estate sales and flea markets.
Then came a move to New York. While Kogut became director of the Center for Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School, Knutsson started a cottage industry. First, she precision-cuts and shapes sections of lace, sometimes reinforcing them with metal wire. She or an assistant brings them to Epner Technology, a century-old Brooklyn plating plant that got its start silvering baby shoes and today serves the aerospace industry, for a metallic baptism.
Each jewelry item is repeatedly dipped in a pool of liquefied gold or silver granules, after which “we let both our eyes and our fingertips search to remove any bumps, ‘nails’ or uncovered spots with sandpaper or pliers,” Knutsson said. “Then, I heat and bend the jewelry to its final shape.”
The lace historian Devon Thein said that 16th- and 17th-century lace was made of gold or silver wire wrapped around a silk core. Sumptuary laws limited its use to the aristocracy, while the lower classes made do with lesser fibers. “It must’ve looked wonderful, especially in the candlelight in which it was most likely viewed,” she said.
So, too, now does Knutsson’s, even under the cold beam of the cellphone.