Women empowerment is a hot topic for Carina Hardy of Elppin, a visual artist and jewelry designer who puts the breast at the forefront of her work. Elppin (“nipple” spelled backward) is breast-inspired jewelry that arouses attention and creates impact. Elppin’s line of subversive jewelry is made from hammered sterling silver, and 22k gold plated brass that can be fastened to your shirt or bra using magnets. At only 24 years old, this emerging talent has a defiant vision to shift and dissolve outdated perceptions surrounding breasts. With an eye-shaped nipple motif, Hardy challenges the patriarchal gaze, censorship, concealment, and repression. Hardy is based between the tropics of Bali and New York. Every piece is handmade in Bali by local artisans from start to finish.
Can you give me some background into your journey before launching Elppin?
I grew up in Bali, back when many village women were topless and volunteered as a doula at the local free natural birth clinic throughout my teens. This experience really shaped how I understand women, mothers, and childbirth, and the connection to breasts as a natural life source. I made art inspired by breasts throughout the university, from plaster casting women’s chests to building enormous inflatable structures in the shape of breasts.
How did the idea to start a jewelry line paying tribute to the breast come about?
The idea was ignited during a political and artistic awakening at university that really got me thinking about breasts and my desire to subvert patriarchal power structures associated with women’s sexualization.
My best friend in Bali has defiantly perky nipples. She dislikes bras but loathes the endless gaze of braless breasts. So we shielded her nipples with a protective evil eye to reflect the gaze and empower her by making Elppin.
I was inspired to make jewelry that adorns the breast and armors against the patriarchal gaze by calling attention to a part of the body that is otherwise covered and obscured. I was interested in how the power vested in jewelry could be reclaimed for and by women. The whole idea for Elppin really challenges the patriarchal world of jewelry as we know it in its adoration adornment of the breast.
What is women’s empowerment to you? What do you want women to feel when they wear your pieces?
Empowered women have agency and feel that power in themselves, their bodies, their actions, and reflected in the world.
I want people wearing Elppin to feel like they are part of a movement that uplifts. Everyone has a story about breasts, so everyone has at least one breast story. I want to help create a space that affirms positive relationships with our bodies so people can share these breast stories. Through sharing, I can continue to deconstruct the myths that make breasts taboo and engage in nuanced conversations to unpack our conditioned ideas about and relationship to breasts and bodies. That’s why Breast Stories are an integral element of the Elppin project.
Like many other spheres, the gems and jewelry industry has largely been seen as a “man’s world,” where women have had to overcome significant barriers in working in this sector. Are you able to shed some light on how you think the gems and jewelry world may readdress this gender imbalance? And in particular with Elppin?
The gems and jewelry industry has already had to adapt to the economically empowered woman’s market forces. Still, the industry cannot rely solely on the market to change its systemic workings.
Most industries are male-dominated. No movement towards gender equality will survive if it pretends it exists in a bubble and acts based on that lie. Changes that occur in any industry are always a part of a larger effort to combat gender inequality, but that doesn’t mean that those in the gems and jewelry industry can’t lead the way! Fighting patriarchy isn’t just negative in the philosophical sense, but positive.
We must create ways to include women, not by limiting men’s access, but by increasing women’s and intersectional access. This is a nice thing to say, but anyone who’s worked on social justice initiatives knows that those who are disenfranchised can’t wait for their guardians to free them; they must free themselves. While technology certainly has many adverse effects, it also can completely disrupt patriarchal industries by cutting out the various middle MEN. The internet allows consumers to directly access your jewelry company creating a space for women to come forward in a way that the brick and mortar based jewelry industry had previously prevented.
Women are buying themselves jewelry, often online. Businesses that do not adapt to the changing world and make way for women to engage in this predominantly male space will be called out and/or left behind. To me, this means that now more than ever, it’s the time for women to design and owned jewelry brands.
Who/what inspires you as a visual artist and jeweler?
I studied Art History at university and felt constantly reinvigorated and inspired by Louise Bourgeois, Ana Mendieta, Sally Hewett, Alexander Calder, pre-Columbian gold jewelry, predynastic bird deity figurines, Woman of Willendorf, and Cycladic goddess statues. Each of these artists/artifacts highlight women’s bodies in a way that resonates with me, even though the varied mediums of stone, drawing, embroidery, earth, metal, and of course, gold.
Your work epitomizes the intersection between art and jewelry. Could you tell us more about your installation projects and how this informs your jewelry?
Back to the Breast (2017) is an exploration of the breast at a large scale and public space. It is a temporary, interactive inflatable exhibit that invites people into space without hard lines instead of soft and fleshy, inside a breast. It’s made from a piece of experimental custom fabric, organic cotton coated in natural latex, which will biodegrade. I’m planning to compost it back into Mother Earth. This project was pivotal in the development of Elppin. The nipples of the installation were literally censored from the original design by male engineers. Naturally, the nipple would become the epicenter of my continuing projects. What’s so wonderful is that the intersection between art and jewelry is constantly changing, drawing from and being inspired dialectically, mutually dancing with and informing each other. For me, the focal point of this intersection is a reverence for beauty that both transcends and fuses these disciplines; this relationship isn’t always smooth; it’s sometimes antagonistic. This is where the magic is, where my passion comes alive.
Coming from a family dynasty of jewelers, how do your vision and practice differ from them?
Believe me; I never intended to follow my family legacy into jewelry; it’s something that started as a conceptual design project about the breast and turned into a line of ornamental pieces of armor and adornment. I’ve been deeply influenced by their value of beauty and their commitment to working with Bali’s master craftsmen. Much like the master jewelers they work with, they are tirelessly devoted to beauty and the majesty of earth’s material, handcrafted by people.
What are you working on now? Will you be developing more wearable art pieces using gemstones?
We are dreaming up rings, hair barrettes, cufflinks, and more. I am very tactile, so jewelry objects with a mechanical moving element, like the spinning nipple pendant, really excites me. I love the treatment of different metals and feel like there is so much to explore with silver and gold first, but I am extremely excited to start working with stones very soon.
What is your favorite gemstone?
I have to admit that pebbles have always entranced me for their uniqueness and imperfectness, especially blue sapphires, spinels, and rough yellow diamonds.
What has been the most important piece of career advice you’ve been given?
It sounds banal, but don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
With this in mind, what advice do you have for females starting in the industry?
The first bit of advice: work really, really hard. Do it yourself, but don’t be afraid to make yourself vulnerable. If you don’t know how to ask mentors, other people in business, and craftsmen with age-old knowledge. Chances are someone else has been in a similar position. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but riff on it. The internet is the place to go; how to take photos of jewelry, how does costing work, what about accounting? Check everything, then check again! Making this a habit will make the rollercoaster ride of jewelry (and life) just a tiny bit smoother, or at least then you’ll expect a few more of the potholes along the ride. You don’t know it all, and that’s okay. Don’t get too fixated, or you’ll miss the way the afternoon light catches on your creations.
Back to the Breast project installation view with Bali mountains.