A couple of years ago, T. wasn’t doing so well. Feeling disappointed with the job market, she slowly developed a successful home-base jewellery line in Portland, now known as Upper Metal Class. T. jewellery designs are elegant, simple and edgy and will add glam to any style. We caught up with T. and gained an insight into her world, her family history, and her incredible commitment to community work.
Lola Who: How did you started Upper Metal Class?
T.: My brand started at a time when I was sort of in between jobs. I had gone through so many different types of jobs, and what I thought were my passions, but none lasted long enough. I worked jobs that were mentally unhealthy, with bosses that were cruel and unfair. I always worked hard, but never felt appreciated and didn’t feel any value or satisfaction until I was lucky to find my last job. I ended up at a production company that made commercials where I worked with some of the nicest and caring people I have ever met. However, it was only freelance, and it wasn’t something I was very passionate about. So during my free time, I ended up taking a couple of jewellery classes for fun. I made pieces for myself to wear and one day my boss asked about my little earrings and she ended up ordering a pair for herself. From that day forward, I began to receive more requests from other people and it snowballed into a small business out of my closet of a room.
Lola Who: What inspires your designs?
T.: I like to keep that person in mind who likes simplicity with a cool minimalist touch. My inspiration comes from architecture, geometric shapes, nature, math, science, and objects.
Lola Who: How would you describe your personal style?
T.: I love a classic t-shirt, jeans and sleek black ankle boots. I also like to dress up in fun modern printed tops and dresses.
Lola Who: How would you define your personal values?
T.: I believe in just being who you are and always having an open heart.
Lola Who: Can you tell us about your background and upbringing?
T.: Times werent easy for my family when I was a child. My mother survived the Vietnam War, lived in a camp and was lucky enough to make her way to the U.S. with me in her stomach, my two brothers (one sick with leukemia) and my uncle to start life over, to learn a new language, and lifestyle along the way. When I was little, I remember helping her with small sewing projects shed take home from her second job as a production sewer in the fashion industry. She didnt have money to constantly buy new clothes for a growing girl, so she made my clothes herself. Her love for nature and plants eventually led her to go back to school for landscaping, which turned into a very successful business. When I turned 12, she started taking me along with her team during the summernot only to keep an eye on me, but also to put me to work digging in the hot sun. Now my mom is retired and whenever she travels back to Vietnam, she uses her own money to help poor families and orphans. Through my mother I learned to reach for my dreams with hard work and determination. I will always remember where I come from.
Lola Who: How would you describe life in Portland?
T.: There’s a certain kind of care and support that I find within the communities that seem to bring people together. The green life and natural beauty that surrounds the city is like having the best of both worlds. You can have that city life with the awesome restaurants, shops, museums while being able to do a quick drive to some of the most amazing forests, hiking spots, rivers and all what nature has to offer.
Lola Who: Can you tell us the story behind the name “Upper Metal Class”?
T.: My husband has been a huge supporter of my jewellery business, so when the time came to decide on a name for my line, we brainstormed and brought it back home. We each grew up in poor neighborhoods that had a great sense of community, with a common goal to better ourselves by striving toward the idea of an upper middle-class lifestyle. With that, comes strong values, hard work, determination and knowing where you come from. Upper Metal Class symbolizes and embodies all of these things.
Lola Who: Do you support any local charities, and if so how?
T.: I’ve supported many different charities in the past usually through donating jewellery for silent auctions or raising money through profits of my jewellery to help fund organizations. I currently donate to Life Center Northwest, a non-profit that I’ve been helping since 2011 through a particular piece called the Niki Necklace, with all profits going to the organization. I also donate my time as a hospice volunteer, which is basically spending time with people in their last stages of their lives, whether it’s someone who is terminally ill or going through the natural old age. I feel honored to be a part of their lives.
Lola Who: I read that you went to Vietnam recently. How was your experience there and how did your trip influenced your design?
T.: I went to Vietnam in 2013 and it was really an amazing trip. My mother, family, friends and I went to help out some people in need. It was such a humbling experience reminding me of how much we tend to take things for granted and to be grateful for everyday. Honestly, the trip hasn’t quite influenced any of my current designs, but I do keep a mental log for future ideas.
Lola Who: Do you have any travelling plans for 2015?
T.: As of now there are no scheduled trips, but I’m hoping to find an amazing last minute deal to Iceland, Europe, Asia or whatever sounds good at the moment.
Lola Who: What advice would you give to aspiring jewellery designers?
T.: In the end, it’s jewellery and not brain science, so just have a good time. The important thing is to enjoy the process.
More designs from Upper Metal Class here.
By Helene Hidalgo