Heart (& Mouth) of Gold
The 72 year-old Korean jeweler, affectionately dubbed ‘The King of Canal Street Grillz,’ was a prominent Downtown cultural fixture throughout the ‘90s, creating custom gold mouthpieces for everyone from Ryan Mcginley and Dash Snow to Leonardo DiCaprio and his entourage. Now an honorary member of the A$AP crew simply for the caliber of his caps, Goldcapp put Canal Street on the proverbial map as a hub for creatives from a diverse array of backgrounds. But due to the waves of gentrification that have swept the area in recent years, clients waned and his 261 Canal Street shop was sadly forced to close its doors.
But now, thanks to Kim and ON CANAL, the King is back holding court as part of the Bijules Incubator, a talent development program for emerging and independent jewelry designers, artists and brands located at 322B Canal Street. Drawing from her personal experience and success in the New York City jewelry market, Kim has created this mentorship program not only to provide opportunities for talent and exposure, but to foster a supportive community around a trade so near to her heart. So, when Kim came across Goldcapp, helping the legend to build a sustainable legacy was pretty much a no brainer. Besides the more obvious parallels, such as their careers and a shared Korean heritage, these two are synced, both creatively and philosophically.
When I stepped into the ON CANAL pop-up on a rainy evening last month, Kim was on the phone while Goldcapp was on his hands and knees constructing the space’s a door frame. Throughout our conversation, it became clear that Charlie is a man of few words and immense discipline; but Kim’s words on their relationship and ongoing collaboration speaks volumes.
Read our interview with Kim, below.
Tell me what you’re doing here at 322B Canal Street.
I’ve been a jeweler for the last fifteen years, and here at the incubator, I’m helping to foster emerging and independent jewelry talent. In that sense, I’m helping clear the path of some of the pitfalls that independent jewelers might have in the business in general, but also in design. Those are mistakes that I’ve made, and plenty of people have made, but I think it’s important for them to have an overall theory about how to navigate in the business of jewelry design. When I started in 2002, it was a real renegade time, and now it’s quite a different world and therefore a lot of the mistakes that could be made can be avoided.
What do you think is the relationship between necessity and creativity?
Necessity and creativity—for creatives, it’s the only thing that we have, which then makes it defined as necessity. So, even in our manifesto, if you can see in the front of the shop, it says: ‘Who we are determines what we wear. What we wear is not for everyone. Who we are determines what we make (as designers, and makers). What we make is also not for everyone.’ Then it goes on to talk about our incubator of talent development program for emerging talent and designers, artists and brands that create because it is who they are—it’s the only thing that we can do. So, the words necessity and creativity go hand in hand when you are a creative soul. It may not mean that you’re making a painting or singing a song, as a creative, all of those things become a need—a physical, and mental, and creative need to explicate, to expound, to produce.
Then it says, ‘Believe in what is right, do what is right, and support the right ones,’ because on every side of right, there is a wrong, and what I really want to encourage is that need to be right is what will drive you to stay creative—if that makes sense. Working in the fashion and luxury industry, there are so many things that we really don’t need.
Yeah, most of it.
All of it! That shit down there [referring to a rowdy VFILES party two doors down]—we don’t need that! But maybe they feel that because they need to feel better. As creatives, we need it to stay alive, so our level of survival is really almost instinctual—sort of like fight or flight. But we’re constantly fighting; we’ll never flee. We can’t, because we need to survive.
For example, Charlie is now making our door because he needs to help, and that’s part of the condition that’s happening here. When I touched base with him, five or six years ago, I really wanted to explore the mouth as a part of the body, because that’s what my system rotates on—what is neglected, because I must feed the neglect. So, I must evaluate different aspects of the body that have not been explored by fine jewelry. Of course, grills have been made since way back when, but there is a cultural stigma that I’m not really trying to ignite. What I’m trying to do is ignite an interest in one’s intimate aspect of the body, because the ears, that’s fine, but once you put something in someone’s mouth, it’s like fucking sex, and this man is 72 and he’s doin’ it every day. You know what I mean? That’s way intimate. It’s not like we got grills for down there.
We should—you guys better jump on that!
Right! I don’t know if he would be into that, but the point is that what is truly interesting to me is that this man has been doing this for so long, and unrelentlessly. That’s his uniform—some oversized shirt and a baseball cap, and he has all of his tools in his backpack, and that’s that. So, if you want something, he’ll run up to you no matter where the fuck you are, open your mouth, stick it in, wait five minutes, you shut up, he taps his foot, and then sucks it out and goes home and he makes it—that can happen within 24 hours. That instant gratification—that’s why he does it, because as soon as it’s out, he’s confident about finishing it within a very specific amount of time.
When I met him, I was like, ‘Holy shit, this guy has so much life—he’s got more life than I do,’ and he’s 35 years older than me. That was super inspiring—and I’m half Korean, too. I was like, ‘Yo that’s my people right here.’
You two were destined to meet.
Yeah, exactly. At that time, I was mostly following my own interests and now the tables have turned because of the time. If Charlie was set up in that big VFILES thing that just happened, he could kill it all day, all night, because they’re ready for that. But my clients, they’re more challenged to enter into that. When you show your teeth, you shine, and if you forget your earrings, you just open your mouth. It’s an even more impressive experience for the people who are watching you. So, with earrings, you may look ‘better,’ but with grills, people will be watching you more. It’s all this intangible, vice versa irony and humor that goes with playing inside of the body, because people’s perception is outside of you, and you can’t control it. With Charlie, he’s just an agent of change—he doesn’t give a flying fuck. And the minute he stops running, he’s tired—that’s why he always keeps running.
You’ve come to a point in your career where you get to be more selective about who you want to work with. What do you look for in a potential client?
After fifteen years of engaging with an audience, the fact that I don’t partake in advertising means that my strongest form of marketing is mouth-to-mouth, vis-a-vis—everyone is talking about it, and that is the strongest credence of support. So, normally, when people come to me, it’s already been filtered through a saturated market—they’ve already been filtered through their support system and when they finally land in front of me, they’re almost ready to go. At this point, I’ve never had a client where I’m like, ‘You’re a fucking asshole.’ Because they’ve already had to do so many things to sit in front of me—and that also goes to show what happens when you’re dealing with the mouth. Once again, it’s this very intimate thing and you really should make sure you go to the right person, precisely because of this intimacy.
The creative aspect for me as a designer has the same filter. The younger the crowd gets, the more outlets of information they have—like the internet—and they can go and source their own diamonds or whatever. But what they can’t have is fifteen years of expertise, diligence and context. So, they’ll find something and purchase it online, but they’ll never have an experience—they’ll have a made-to-order online fucking go-to Walmart kinda thing, and that’s fine, those people will never be my clients. It’s the same as buying an engagement ring at Tiffany’s—nope. That’s not my thing. If someone comes to me and says, ‘I love this Tiffany’s ring,’ I’m like, ‘That’s good for you.’ But that’s not our starting off point.
Right. Has that happened to you before, though?
That’s happened maybe twice. But I took that idea and whipped it into something way more organic. Normally, it’s a man that comes to me in that situation, because it’s an engagement ring, his hands are fucking sweaty, he’s nerve-wrecked and shaky and emotional. So, the one thing he’ll show me is the one thing he knows is risk-free, and that’s something that has already been accepted as an engagement ring staple. That’s great, let’s start there—taking that nervous energy and weaving into a more fruitful creative strategy for them so that when they actually exit, they feel like a weight has been lifted off of them. That ‘Oh shit, this woman really does have a point of view, but I’ve never been shown that before because the person who referred me to her got something really crazy and I’m more conservative…’ type of moment.
What I say to that is, ‘No, you’re not. You just don’t understand that this piece of jewelry—let’s just say it was a ring—can actually be different. Like, what about a diamond right here, so that when you’re close to it, the diamond is touching you?’ That makes it worth the starting point, as banal as it might be, because you gotta start somewhere. I’m holding and guiding the hands of those who want to be taught more, who want to be shown an experience that’s exclusive to them, using the basic building blocks of jewelry, but also weaving storytelling into it. That’s why working with someone like Charlie is rad, because he’s basic. For him, here’s no need to pussyfoot around, but my job is to come in and weave a story around it. Then of course he can do it—nothing stumps him.
There are so many parallels between you and Charlie, like the fact that you’re both Korean and make jewelry. But I think that the way in which your approach your craft, and the all-around philosophy you both have are also very similar—the biggest difference I would say is time. Is there anything that you’ve learned through this collaboration?
He has to run around a lot—he’ll run around in a Jamaica Mall, he’ll run around down here on Canal Street, he’ll go to Fulton—wherever he can get what he wants, he’ll go get it. One of the motivators for working with him, as we are like-minded in so many different ways, is to ease his running around. That’s what I want to do—I want to work hard, play hard, and eventually work less because I’m doing it better, and that’s what I’m trying to have happen for him. It’s that type of incentive that I’m trying to work on with this partnership and with this program, in general—to have that sensitivity to progress and know that you’re not alone, and also to be smart. He’s always telling me, ‘Work better! Work better!’
I’m gonna start crying—there’s just so much respect and reciprocity between you two. But finally, if magic were real—which it totally is—what spell would you want to learn first?
I would like to cast would be to influence those into more positive waters, and to try to negate that mass appeal that we just saw down the street [at VFILES]. It would be really nice to wave my wand, or say some words of importance, to make people focus on what’s truly important and positive. And like what we saw outside—that mass hysteria, that’s what fast fashion is, and I think it’s really getting in the way of finding true gems. So, even if it means that we have to work harder, for longer, and our trajectory is not as clear as those that might follow the well-treaded path, I prefer that. Because once you start thinking like a herd, you get absolutely nothing done—you get in your own way.
With my work, but also with my perspective, I don’t want any of those circumstances to get in the way of someone actually finding providence in what they do. Everything I make is supersaturated in thoughtfulness and individualism, and it’s not my own thoughtfulness, or my own individualism—it’s whoever chooses to put my work on. Their own experience creates their own story—it’s only guided by me. It’s just an object—it’s what you choose to believe in with that object. And I think with the grills, specifically—that is one of the most verbose things I have ever said without saying a goddamn word. I open my mouth, and people bug out. But it’s about changing perspectives. I’ve gotten so much heat in my career for making grills, and I’m just like, you know what? That’s your problem. I’m happy making things, and being creative, and helping others power through and navigate a very complicated market. So, go ahead and leaf through your Instagram at night to hate on what I’m doing right now. And guess what I’ll be doing? Working and sleeping.
To purchase work by Jules Kim and Charlie Goldcapp: private fitting appointments can be made online or directly in store.