Written and Photographed By: Alicia Nieto
I recently had the pleasure of visiting and interviewing local jewelry designer Kristin Burkemper of Bird’s Tail Jewelry. Her new studio, located just outside of Milwaukee in Whitefish Bay, exemplifies her design esthetic. The space was filled a lovely aroma fueled by her Essential Oil Jewelry collection, creating a calming and welcoming atmosphere. After a tour around the studio space and a viewing of her current projects and pieces, it became clear as to the amount of love behind each piece of jewelry. Burkemper’s passion for her work is evident in the following interview:
AN: I read that you were introduced to the jewelry industry working at a high-end jewelry store; what drew you into designing yourself?
KB: After graduating from Marquette University, I started a job in advertising editing and writing ad copy. Each day when I went to my job, I knew something was missing – I didn’t feel creative, I needed something more: passion. I wanted to be creative and make a difference. Writing had always been a true love of mine, so I made the decision to leave my job and go back to school and become an English teacher. It was scary – I was broke and while most of my former classmates were formulating their career paths and surging ahead, I sort of felt like I was moving backwards. But I knew something had to change. I enrolled back in school and was taking 20 credits at a time. I absolutely loved being a student again – this time taking classes that made me feel inspired – literature and writing and education – it all just fit. The problem – I needed money to pay rent and eat! Sort of by accident, I came upon a job at a high-end jewelry shop in downtown Milwaukee. I fell in love with the stones and the designs. Each day, I would spend time just trying on the beautiful pieces. Staring longingly at emeralds, diamonds, Tahitian pearls; I knew I was in trouble – a new passion stirred in me. I loved seeing the jewelry come to life as each customer tried on a new piece.
The very first pieces I created were for my bridesmaids. I made them fresh water pearl drop earrings, a floating pearl necklace and a matching bracelet. The ability to take a design in my head and make it come to life with my hands, was the turning point. I new I had to do something with this new love: jewelry.
AN: What is your motivation behind creating pieces that are affordable for the “Every-Woman”?
KB: While working in the jewelry business for about 15 years, I saw a need for jewelry pieces that wouldn’t break the bank. Sure there were many massed produced pieces that you could find at the mall, but I wanted women to be able to own jewelry that feels good buying it and wearing it.
I saw a need there – a need for a jewelry line that looks and feels expensive, but doesn’t cost a small fortune – this is why I decided to design, make and sell my own pieces. I want women to be able to afford beautiful, high quality jewelry, and most of all, I want them to feel beautiful wearing it.
AN: When did you decide to pursue the start of your company?
KB: In 2012, I was married, raising two kids, teaching full-time and working part-time. I was stressed and overwhelmed, but didn’t realize the extent of it until I started getting these horrible headaches that made it difficult to even get out of bed, never-mind fulfill of my responsibilities as a mom, teacher, and employee. I wasn’t taking care of myself and my body began to fail me. Soon the headache pain grew even worse and started to spread throughout my entire body. Everything hurt. I saw multiple doctors, had MRI’s, CAT Scans, was put on a multitude of drugs, and without any answers or relief. As a result, I lost 20 pounds and was in essence a walking skeleton. After living like this for almost a year, I had to stop working – I was devastated. The doctors diagnosed me with Myofascial Pain Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. It was then that I changed my lifestyle and turned to yoga, physical therapy and natural remedies. Within a few months I slowly got better. But I knew I couldn’t go back to my old way of life.
After having my third child, I hosted an Oscar party at my house. For the party, I decided to make little swag bags for each of my friends. I turned to my jewelry making skills to make this happen. I made each woman a bracelet and tucked each one into a cute, little tote. The responses were unexpected. My friends began to encourage me to do something with this idea – it had never occurred to me that I could make a living making something with hands. But I took a leap and decided to pursue the idea. My first step was finding a name and creating a vision for a brand that soon became Bird’s Tail.
AN: How did you decide on the name Bird’s Tail and the concept behind it?
KB: My love of yoga was a huge inspiration for the name. I began to look to my practice for style and design inspiration. The name Bird’s Tail is inspired by a graceful and elegant Tai Chi move called “Grasping the Bird’s Tail”.
The name of this movement, “Grasping the Bird’s Tail,” is derived from a Chinese expression which refers to paying attention to important details. In the case of Tai Chi, the practitioner pays attention to core energetic and structural elements of his or her practice. Each small movement has purpose.
My goal for my designs is to pay attention to the little details of each piece I create; every move or design has purpose. Our Bird’s Tail Signature Hoops are inspired by this beautiful asana – the shape mimicking the delicate and graceful shape of a bird’s tail.
AN: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
KB: Yoga, nature, geometry – everything and anything around me that inspires me to create beauty.
AN: What do you aim to convey to your customer’s through your jewelry pieces?
KB: Each Bird’s Tail piece is handcrafted with the goal of making women feel beautiful and empowered. It sounds cheesy, but I want a woman to feel like a beautiful Goddess when wearing my pieces. As a society, I think women are so hard on themselves when it comes to beauty. The standards of beauty are impossible. With jewelry, it doesn’t matter what size jeans you wear, you can rock a beautiful necklace and feel amazing.
I want women to wear our pieces on a daily basis. I don’t want our jewelry to become too trend-heavy and got out of style from one season to the next. Jewelry is meant to be worn and become better with time, not sit in the bottom of a jewelry box.
AN: What materials do you like to work with?
KB: Because I want women to wear our pieces on a daily basis, I use high quality metals and semi-precious stones. We use 18k gold fill and sterling silver metals so that our pieces don’t tarnish like typical brass, costume jewelry pieces.
AN: Out of all the pieces you’ve designed, do you have a favorite?
KB: Oh my goodness. That’s a hard question. I feel like every piece is a part of who I am, but if I had to pick one, I would say my Essential Oil Bracelets. The functionality and healing benefits truly reflect my journey to living a healthy and fulfilled life.
AN: What different jewelry collections or looks are available?
KB: We have an Essential Oil Collection, Celestial Collection, and a Goddess Series.
AN: Do you design custom pieces?
KB: I sure do – I love working one-on-one to create pieces for people. Together we can harness our creativity and bring those pieces to life.
AN: What are some of your favorite jewelry trends this season whether from Bird’s Tail or other designers or styles?
KB: Right now, I am obsessed with anything with clean lines. I love making simple, hand-hammered geometric shapes; they make such a subtle statement. I love making a subtle, yet noticeable statement.
AN: How would you describe your personal taste in jewelry? How much is it reflected in Bird’s Tail?
KB: My style is definitely incorporated into each Bird’s Tail Piece. I don’t make something unless I know I would wear it, and wear it a lot!
I love fashion, maybe too much. I really like a combination of vintage, rustic and modern, and I try to translate these inspirations into our jewelry.
KB: We love working with boutiques and bringing the entire Bird’s Tail line to them. Most of the small shops that carry our line are small, female-run businesses. A pop-up shop gives small businesses the ability to offer a beautiful shopping experience without breaking the bank. We set up all of the jewelry and style it all in a way that reflects our brand.
We love bringing the Bird’s Tail line into people’s homes. With a jewelry party, women have the opportunity to touch and try on all of the pieces they like all in the comfort of friends and home. Hostesses even get 15% back in jewelry credit!
AN: How do you feel about the current fashion/jewelry industry in the Milwaukee area?
KB: Most people don’t think of Milwaukee as a fashion-forward city – the West and East coasts are typically what comes to mind as fashion trend setters, but I am really excited about the direction Milwaukee fashion is headed. When I first moved here to go to Marquette, the city was nothing like it is now. I think the additions of Third and Fifth Wards are a reflection of where Milwaukee is headed. Milwaukee has a rich history of design and production and it is always evolving.
AN: Do you have any words of wisdom for those interested in getting into the fashion and/or design field?
KB: My favorite quote by Sylvia Plath sums up my approach to business and design: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt” – When we believe in ourselves, and trust our instincts, only then can you be truly successful.
For more information and to shop the beautiful pieces and collections mentioned, visit Bird’s Tail Jewelry.