Even though she was never an apprentice herself, Birgit Kupke-Peyla’s introduction to jewelry came, indirectly, through Germany’s apprenticeship program. It started – like so many things do – as a way to meet a guy. She was 16 and living in Germany, where she was born. He was two years older and working his way through a jewelry apprenticeship.
“In order to get his attention, I told him I designed jewelry too—which was, at the time, a complete lie,” she says.
When he asked to see her designs, she scurried home and drew some up. She was studying art so knew how to draw and found it surprisingly easy to conjure up some intriguing jewelry.
Her new friend was impressed and invited her to work on her designs in his studio. He became her first teacher.
Kupke-Peyla’s jewelry combines antiqued sterling with 22kt gold bimetal, imprinting each with contrasting patterns. Her designs have a Japanese influence but also a distorted geometry that’s almost Dali-esque: diagonal bars tilting over warped circles and squares, decorated with stripes or polka dots of fused metal.
She went on to study jewelry-making in college but rejected the apprenticeship program. “The heirarchy that exists between student and master was not for me,” she says. After working for a while in the trade, she emigrated in 1990 and set up shop in Monterrey, California.
For the next decade, she sold her jewelry at art shows while teaching jewelry-making as an adjunct professor. “I was going in two different directions with my work,” she recalls. “That sounds good theoretically but it meant that I didn’t do either one very well.”
About ten years ago, she was invited to enter a piece in an exhibition and dropped everything to work on one show-stopping necklace. “My pride kicked in,” she says. “I had always focused on making a profit on my jewelry but this had to be really special. I went at it with a reckless abandon of time and money.”
That necklace became the lynch pin for the distinctive jewelry she makes today: a repetition of bars soldered onto mixed metals with contrasting stripes—sterling overlaid on gold and gold on sterling—layer upon layer of pattern and geometric form.
“I’ve always been very grid-oriented,” she says. “And very shape-oriented. I tend to connect to strong, quiet shapes.”
Her impressive technique can be traced back to Germany but Kupke-Peyla credits an American wholesale rep for guiding her path as an artist. “She warned me to avoid copying anything else out there. She said it was crucial that I find my own signature,” says Kupke-Peyla.
“That was very good advice. There are a lot of people out there who lean too heavily on the work of others. We all see and absorb things and it filters into our work, but attempting to have your own signature is very important.”
One day someone mentioned seeing something that looked like her work. “I knew then that I’d achieved my goal,” she says. “I had a recognizable signature.”