A couple months ago, I came across this jewelry line called BRWNGRLZ and fell in love! The designs and colors are to die for. So I started to looked into it more, and as an artist myself, I always try to collaborate with other artists of colors out there because I know we need our voices to be heard more and our creations to be appreciated more. I took a big chance and hit up Gretchen, the creator and owner of BRWNGRLZ. I told her that I really wanted to support her work and collaborate somehow! Magically, she responded and we were able to collaborate just a little while ago for her new collection of earrings called Vivrant. It was my very first product photoshoot so I was extremely nervous, but thankfully it all worked out!
After she released her new collection, I reached out to her again to see if she wanted to be interviewed about her and her work, and here we are!
First, here’s a bit about Gretchen.
Gretchen Carvajal is an artist from the Bay Area. She studied Fine Art with a focus on Printmaking and Neon at the University of Wisconsin-Madison under the First Wave Hip-Hop and Urban Arts Scholarship. When she's not making earrings, poems, and prints, she's watching unrelatable white sitcoms, listening to R&B, and fantasizing about what it would be like to be a homeowner by the time she's 30, an endangered livelihood for many locals in the Bay Area. You can check her out on instagram @C4RV and @BRWNGRLZ.
Anissa: Hi, Gretchen! First off, I just wanted to say that I’m so glad we got to collaborate a while ago! I think I came across your line through a Facebook post (the Internet is a blessing sometimes, right?). The first thing that came to my mind was “Yay! I love earrings and things made by other brown womxn out there!” I looked at your collection at the time and I fell in love instantly. With that said, how did you get started with BRWNGRLZ? And what was your inspiration?
Gretchen: I’ve always been super into big earrings and accessories. I think from ages 11-16 I spent like all of my money at Claire’s or any place that sold earrings that were big and colorful. My family knew to always get me earrings for my birthday and all that, so it was definitely my “thing” growing up. I didn’t start making and selling my earrings until I saw that it was possible. In high school I was a slam poet and competed in a lot of spoken-word competitions and festivals, and for one festival called Brave New Voices, I saw this girl selling earrings out of a suitcase. She made them out of matches and leather and broken mirrors. They were super dope pieces, and she made hella money from what I remember, and I saw that hustle and thought to myself, wow, I [want to] do that. That woman’s brand is called Purpose, by the way. [She] and her sister make super dope jewelry. Without seeing that creative hustle at BNV, I probably wouldn’t be making earrings today.
Anissa: Was it difficult to start the line on your own? Did you ever consider having a creative partner to help run BRWNGRLZ?
Gretchen: When I started, I was a senior in high school and didn’t really have high hopes—or any hopes for that matter—of being a huge brand. I just wanted to make some side money and wear earrings that I couldn’t find in stores. It wasn’t until college [that] I saw the potential of what this brand could do and what I could make. I don’t think it was hard for me at first, because I’m a lowkey control freak with trust issues so I like to make sure I can see everything I put out, but I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by people who just want to contribute what they can, specifically photographers like you! I think that’s the one area where I’m completely trusting and just let whoever has the camera bring the vision. I let my earrings be the muse for the photographers… I think it’s the greatest collaboration process for both parties. Aside from partnering with photographers, I had some interns for a hot minute but it was really just some homies who wanted to learn how to build a brand, and I just wanted to help them with what I knew.
I know one day I’m gonna need a creative partner, because I can’t be out here designing, assembling, and packaging 600-1,000 pieces of jewelry all on my own for very long.
Anissa: What is it about earrings that intrigued you? Have you ever thought about expanding the line and adding necklaces or rings?
Gretchen: Earrings, especially big statement earrings, are a super quintessential black and brown girl accessory. From bamboos [to] hoops [to] name plates, they are a huge statement piece that just screams unapologetic blackness and brownness. I grew up in the Bay Area which was hyper-saturated with [continuously interweaving] Black and Latinx culture, so I explore my relationship with that as a Filipina who has always been in black and brown spaces.
Right now, I have a super lowkey project that I’m working on based on a collaboration with a couple of DJs I know personally. As a hip-hop head, I’m super juiced to have something like this collab in my brand. I definitely want to expand to other pieces like necklaces and arm bands and all of that, especially after taking a trip back to my homeland, the Philippines, and seeing the adornments on women whether it be indigenous communities or mainland Filipinas. I just want to make sure that when I do expand, I do my research and pay homage where it’s due when it comes to making pieces. I’m always trying my best to make sure that I understand the balance of who this art belongs to and who this art benefits. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t be doing this without brown women and without black women especially.
Anissa: I think we’re all curious about this too, how is your design SO good? What does the process look like when you’re making a new collection? And how do you choose the designs and colors?
Gretchen: First off, thank you for thinking my design is so good! I still am super conscious [of] how much people vibe off of the things I make, and thankfully it’s been pretty positive so far. My process is super erratic; I want to say it’s more organized than it is, but it’s really a hot mess. I take in a bunch of inspiration at once, whether it be [through] colors, materials, visuals, music, [or] experiences and am just juiced off of all of those things. Every so often, I draw designs on a notebook with colored pencils. After that, I model them on my computer using Rhino, and that’s when I really get variations going. I’ll have one piece in my notebook that will turn into five different pieces, and so on. This acrylic line was so fun because I had so many colors and opacities to work with, and it was just a huge puzzle to put together different color combinations that worked.
Sometimes I get anxious thinking about what would be “wearable” or what would look good or what’s trendy or what will sell, but at the end of the day, I just wanna make things that I think look dope.
Anissa: What are the challenges of running a jewelry line? And what continues to motivate you to move forward? I think as an artist myself, it gets scary at times—self-doubt is so inevitable. As a brown person/womxn myself, sometimes I get discouraged from even wanting to put my foot forward because we’re often so silenced in the creative world!
Gretchen: Oh, dear God, the motto of my life is imposter syndrome. I always have the little voice in my head that tells me to sell out and just get a regular day job with a constant income, but then I think about how much BRWNGRLZ has already done and how many people it’s already made an impression on—there’s no point in giving it up. It’s hard work, but it’s satisfying work, and getting love from different folks whether they’re creatives or just your homegirls is what keeps it alive for me. My best friends keep me so afloat when it comes to my dreams; they let me know that I’m not in over my head when I say that I want to be my own boss, they let me know that it’s completely possible to change the world with BRWNGRLZ, and they constantly remind me that my work is necessary and inspiring for them as well. I be looking at my girls and thinking “Wow, how was I so lucky to be surrounded by women who continuously show me love and make me better in such a sustainable and reciprocal way?” Everybody needs homegirls like that.
Anissa: Is there anything you want to say to aspiring jewelry designers out there that want to start their own line?
Gretchen: If you feel like you [have] this voice or aesthetic that nobody else has, go off and do it, dig deeper into it and continue to explore it. Learn how to manufacture on your own and keep shit ethical. Hit up your circle, hit up women of color, hit up folks who don’t normally get opportunities, and have faith in the end result. If you’re a marginalized voice, you gotta get up and put yourself out there so we can drown out the mainstream.
Anissa: Thank you again Gretchen for your time!
Gretchen: Thank you so much for this!
Models: Asma Kamara, Autry Wilson, Anisha Jagannathan, Kanea Blokland, Luna Hawke, Anita Batiz, Maeve Chamberlain
Ting Ting Chen