When Philip Crangi’s jewellery ambitions took some knocks in the 1990s, he patiently waited for the world to catch up with his concepts.Laura McCreddie finds out how his business took off in the 2000s
The correlation between books and covers is, according to cliché, not entirely symbiotic; apparently the latter is not always an accurate representation of the former. The same is definitely true of people in general, and Philip Crangi in particular. In pictures, the eye is drawn to his many tattoos; his gaze into the lens is defiant, challenging and, in conjunction with the body art, creates an impression of someone who could be more than a little intimidating in the flesh.
The reverse is the case in person. Crangi still has a commanding presence, but combined with his American accent and neat shirt and jumper ensemble, the impression is more Gatsby-esque gentleman. In fact, the toughest-looking thing in the room is the jewellery.
“This collection was inspired by Japanese armour techniques,” says Crangi, gesturing at a bracelet that comprises beetle casing-shaped segments connected to one another with woven leather. “I wanted to create something that was tough but feminine,” he says.
And the latest collection by Crangi’s costume jewellery brand Giles & Brother is certainly that. There is something of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in the armour-style bracelets, while the dulled metal of the chains that comprise necklaces and bracelets are straight out of the industrialist landscape of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
Crangi originally got into jewellery through an obsession with history. “I grew up in South Florida, where there was no history to find, just a few buried sand dollars,” he says. “I was interested in history and wanted to create things that were outside of time and space. The idea of ‘if I found them in a flea market would I be able to place them?’”
Crangi’s education in gold and silversmithing at Rhode Island School of Design, with emphasis on learning traditional techniques, played on that love of the historical and he left in 1994 on a high and set off to New York to wow the inhabitants with his jewellery.
“My collection was very editorial,” says Crangi. “So I approached stylists such as Patti Wilson and Lori Goldstein with my jewellery. I was told that ‘nobody uses jewellery in fashion shoots’. It seems unbelievable now, but that was the case.”
Rather than continue to bang on doors that didn’t want to open, Crangi decided to wait until the world was ready for him.
Over the next few years he designed homeware and did restoration work on 20th century decorative art. “It really informed my design. I was always inspired by things other than jewellery. I look at textiles, furniture by Emile Ratier. Every time I am in Paris I go to the Museum of Decorative Arts and look at Lanvin’s apartment that they had moved there. It is a very baroque version of art deco and I’ve been looking at it for a long time trying to find a way to interpret it. I think I’ve found a way.”
Crangi returned to jewellery when his sister, Courtney Crangi, moved to New York and began running his fine jewellery business, named Philip Crangi, in 2001 as chief executive. The same year the duo also launched Giles & Brother, of which Courtney is also chief executive. The business was named Giles & Brother because Courtney’s nickname is Giles and because Crangi wanted something that acknowledged both their involvement.
The concept was to create something affordable but that still had the great design associated with Crangi’s fine jewellery line, an ethos that many designers have adopted as metal and stone prices continue to rise.
“For me, fine jewellery feels a little restrictive right now. With Giles & Brother, I can experiment and create a collection where it is not the metal or the stone that carries the value, but the design,” he says.
Crangi believes that this new emphasis on design rather than materials is partly because, both in the UK and New York, people who don’t have formal jewellery training are becoming jewellery designers.
“I think that sometimes, people who have classical training can be trapped by technique and that macho flexing of technical muscle,” he says. “There is an obligation of a creative person to look elsewhere for inspiration.”
And Crangi certainly practises his own creed. Apart from Japanese armour, his influences are everything from railroad spikes – which are turned into bracelets – and maritime knots to art deco and the way the jewellery houses of that period interpreted the snake.
“However, I always go back to that leather and brass combo,” says Crangi. “I like things that are a bit equestrian, a bit maritime but with an articulated quality.”
The next collection will have an even more industrial classic feel, mixing dark green with silver, and oranges with brass.
Leading by example
Despite production now being done on a large scale, Crangi still makes all the prototypes himself.
“Until last year, we made it all in the studio,” he explains. “I would figure out how to make something then show everyone else in the workshop. I think with my hands; in a way I work more like a draper. So I still make all the prototypes and then I send it to the manufacturer.”
Getting a manufacturer involved doesn’t mean the pieces are losing their design edge. “I’m really having fun with their capabilities,” says Crangi. “I like giving them concepts to work out.”
Aside from working on new ways to knot metal together, the other thing that drives Crangi is other designers.
“I don’t look at other designers’ work to inspire my own; I look at it to see whose makes me jealous. It encourages me to up my game,” he explains.
However, with the cult following his fine collection has gained, and the success of Giles & Brother, Crangi’s probably the one inspiring jealousy. As US writer Washington Irving said: “There is never jealousy where there is not strong regard.”
2008 Won the CFDA Swarovski Award for Accessory Design
2007 Runner-up winner for CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award
2001 Crangi launches his first collection, called Steele and Gold fine jewellery. In the autumn he launched his costume jewellery brand Giles & Brother
1994 Crangi graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in Jewellery and Light Metals