Animals – the real gems by Manya & Roumen

Most any weekday will find jewelry designer Manya Tessler working away in Cold Spring, her cat and two dogs keeping her company.

It’s no accident she’s surrounded by this trio — as well as dozens of animal images featured in the artwork, decorative objects, field guides and scrapbooks dotted throughout her home-based studio.

On the afternoon of a recent interview, Tessler is not only adorned with a bold chameleon ring and serene dove-themed earrings of her own design but she’s even wearing slippers sporting a bee-themed pattern.

It’s all part of a lifelong fascination with animals.

“I love just how pure they are,” Tessler says, pointing to her dog Raya. “She’s not hiding anything. You know exactly how they feel.”

It was only natural, then, that Tessler was drawn to the animal kingdom — everything from birds to whales, fish to deer, lions to mice and more — as endless inspiration for the strikingly singular Manya & Roumen precious jewelry she creates and sells in partnership with her husband, Roumen Vragov.

CHARMED FROM THE START

A Philadelphia native, Tessler studied fine art, focusing on printmaking and illustration and, after undergraduate work at Wesleyan University, earned an MFA at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

A world traveler who spent a few years living in Japan, Tessler would write and illustrate “Yuki’s Ride Home,” a children’s book published in 2008 by Bloomsbury.

But perhaps foreshadowing her future in jewelry, Tessler says she was always “much more comfortable in the 3-D world,” even drawn to embellished works and woodcuts in printmaking.

When Tessler was engaged to marry Vragov, a Bulgarian-born academic, her transition to jewelry began on a most romantic note. She took a jewelry course at the 92nd  Street Y, studying with noted teacher Alan Brodsky so she could create their wedding rings.

“He treated us like professionals,” she says.

The work gained notice. “People started to ask us about the jewelry, to purchase the jewelry.”

Testing the industry waters in 2009, the newly formed company — “I think Roumen registered the company on Valentine’s Day,” Tessler says with a smile — not only exhibited at the Jewelers Association trade show but walked away with the Mort Abelson Award, which recognizes the new designer of the year.

Suddenly, it was all about the jewelry and a steady growth found the couple eventually settling into the Hudson Valley some three years ago.

For two of those years, they owned and operated Open Concept, a gallery on Cold Spring’s Main Street that showcased not only Manya & Roumen designs but also a selection of accessories by contemporary artists.

It was an ideal way to meet customers and cultivate a following of those who appreciated the “energy of a piece.”

It’s what makes work created by artists so unique, she says.

“You can feel the purity of their intention and the love of what they do.”

Tessler says that while the gallery had loyal customers, the area’s growing appeal as a hiking destination wasn’t proving an ideal fit.

“People weren’t coming up here with the intention of buying high-end jewelry,” she says.

And, she adds, “we bought outright from the artists” instead of showcasing on commission, which made the economics difficult to sustain.

THE ARTISTIC PROCESS

For now, the focus is back on creating, with work in the studio going hand in hand with production trips to the city.

“We make each piece, custom, from scratch,” Tessler says. 

Research ranges from something as simple as observing a bird in flight to consulting those field guides to flipping through a fashion magazine.

She pulls out a scrapbook-style volume and settles on a particular page featuring a snippet from a clothing ad.

“I wasn’t attracted to the clothes at all but to the cockatoo,” she says.

She will also do a bit of a scientific study of an animal’s bone structure or movement to accurately capture its traits.

Her sketching, she emphasizes, is done by hand.

“Working in 3-D, it’s like I’m really there. When I’m in front of a computer, there’s a screen there.”

She carves each design in a rich purple wax, using the venerable lost-wax technique.

Once her part is done, Tessler takes her carvings to the city to have a mold made. 

“I love the colors of the injectable wax,” she says, showing off the elements from which the metal pieces will be cast. “Aren’t they great? It’s like neon.”

From these, the design is cast in metal and the far-from-casual finishing process begins.

“I’m not a fan of those pendants (where) you can see the back hollowed out. To me it looks… cheesy,” she says.

Indeed, the creations of Manya & Roumen are multidimensional with attention to detail paid to every surface, inside and out.

The company has developed a trusted network of casters, stone setters and polishers drawn from what she says is a very small world.

“You get to know them and they understand your vision.”

They need not only to relate to her design but also her stone choice.

Tessler will open a simple, old-fashioned tin to reveal a collection of little plastic bags.

“Here are really beautiful stones I’ve collected over the years,” she says, handing over a bag and urging us to let its contents fill our palm with a rainbow of hues.

Tessler’s imagination is often sparked by the colors of the stones, from watermelon tourmaline to tanzanite, from rubies to a piece of clear quartz flecked with “probably pyrite.”

One might end up in a design of birds “drinking from a fountain or a puddle. I like creating stories.”

THEIR OWN STORY

These days, Tessler says she and Vragov are focused on the future and sustaining a business where artistry comes first.

“The last couple of years we saw a lot of changes happening… People were more concerned with price than materials or backstory.”

Vragov, a teacher specializing in computer information and economics, handles the business concerns of the company.

“I’m lucky to have Roumen because the business side,” she pauses, dropping her voice to a whisper, “doesn’t interest me.”

Instead, she is all about creating the work.

“It’s what I enjoy, envisioning the piece and carving,” she says. “I love wax. … Wax is really soft, approachable and forgiving.”

So it’s no surprise to find her happy in the studio, her rescue cat named Petunia nestled into a little bed inches from her jewelry bench. The dogs — the rescue mixed-breed Raya (“It means ‘paradise’ in Bulgarian. Roumen’s mother named her.”) and the spunky Pomeranian-Papillon mix named Rhonda (her original owner had to surrender her when moving to a new home) — scamper at her feet.

With a website, custom orders and work showcased in a New Jersey gallery, Diana Vincent Jewelry Designs in Lambertville, Tessler and Vragov continue to carve out their niche.

They are adapting to the ever-changing market — “I’m working on some more earrings and necklaces,” Tessler says — to broaden their reach, but some things are not going to change.

 “We like that it’s made in New York. That’s something that we’re really proud of.”

The company, Tessler adds, also remains committed to donating a portion of its proceeds to animal- and nature-related causes.

Customers of Manya & Roumen traditionally, she says, are “mostly artists or people in the arts” who get what they are doing.

“I know there is a certain level of practicality to what some people like,” she says. Yes, for every one who’s told her a particular ring can’t be worn with gloves, for example, there are those who understand and appreciate the Manya & Roumen vision.

As Tessler says, “They have to have a certain level of open-mindedness to begin with to be drawn to our work.”

For more, visit manyaandroumen.com.

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