PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIK TANNER
WORDS BY EMILY RAMSHAW
If you want to celebrate the beauty of an object—to revel in its associations and history—go to Monique Péan. Visit her in Soho, where she has turned her office and private atelier into a shrine to some of the most rare and beautiful objects in the world—objects that are simultaneously of the Earth and completely otherworldly, a delicate and collaborative balance between nature and craft. Her jewelry, of course, make up the objects in question. If you are a collector or a fellow admirer of beautiful things, you will be in good company with Péan. But even if you value the cerebral, say, or even the intellectual or human or artistic over the material, you will be swayed, because when it comes to Monique Pean’s jewelry, all of the above applies. These things? They contain multitudes.
In Péan’s world, objects are the story and people their storytellers—herself, chief among them. She discovered their power as a kid traveling with her parents (her father worked in development for the UN among other organizations). “When I would travel to see my father’s projects, my mother would always take me to see the local artisan gatherings and to see their work—that’s a huge part of how I was raised,” she says, the September morning light streaming into a massive loft window looking out on West Broadway. These crafts meant something to the people she met on these adventures, and they meant something to her parents, who collected them. When her sister died in a car accident at the age of sixteen, Pean decided that it was time to leave her work in the financial industry and find her own meaning.
“I took some time to think about what I’m truly passionate about,” she says. “I love to travel, I enjoy discovery, art, architecture and design. I thought if I could get up everyday and work with artisans and travel around the world and learn about their art and culture while I’m employing them, that’s the way that I want to move forward.” She found her answer in jewelry, a product of art and design to which we attach endless meaning (birth, family, love, loss), but, as soon as we make a piece our own, as soon as money passes hands, we forget its history, something that Péan, with her youthful exposure to artisans and their practices, couldn’t stand for. “When I started learning about jewelry making, I was horrified by how destructive mining is towards the environment and how awful it is for the people who are working or live near the mines. Mining enough gold for a simple wedding band leads to over twenty tons of waste. We think of jewelry as such a beautiful thing, but we don’t think of the fashion in which it’s made. So, I thought, I want to make beautiful things, but I want to make them in the right way.”
This lead her to Alaska and an indigenous community there who welcomed her into their homes and shared the fossils that had been passed from generation to generation—mammoth tusks that were thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of years old. For Péan, and for her collectors (the jeweler’s loyal name for her equally loyal customers), this gave her jewelry a story and meaning.
Sitting in front of a tray of some of her most treasured fossils—those too precious even to carve or render into jewelry that include the aforementioned mammoth, but also dinosaur bone, and, perhaps most extraordinarily, a fragment of ancient meteor that looks as those it’s been carved by the same art deco-inclined hand that dreamt up the Chrysler Building yet is completely natural— Péan could talk for hours about their intricacies. Like, for example, the 156 million-year-old dinosaur fossil from the Colorado Plateau that reminds her of Rothko’s work.
As with the Arctic indigenous community’s fossils, Péan hopes that her pieces will be passed from generation to generation. Her work is so striking partly because of the material she uses, but also because she remakes them using such modern shapes, inspired equally by Patagonian glaciers as by Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels in Utah. Her jewelry is based around the ancient and made into the new, made to sustain alongside the wearer and beyond.
Her sense of this has become more acute now that she is a mother herself. “Being a mom makes me even more appreciative of the artisans and their craft,” she says. “Oftentimes these techniques are passed down through generations and when your family grows and you know you’re going to pass things down, you feel very fortunate to get to know these artisans and have them bring you into their world.”
Péan’s work has taken her to visit artisans and go in search of materials in countries like Japan, Norway, French Polynesia, Guatemala, Easter Island, Antarctica… the list goes on. In fact, each of the seven continents has had a hand in creating her work. Walking through her atelier, looking at pieces made with antique diamonds (another favorite material), pyratized tusk, dinosaur bone, and many other truly mind-blowing materials while Péan waxes about their stories and inspirations, you will come worship these objects. They are beautiful, yes—so spectacular that the designer refuses to part with some of them—but the contain their own histories and stories: the millennia-long histories of the fossils (“pictures capture a moment in time, but fossils capture tons of thousands of years of time if not hundreds of millions of years of time,” she says), but also the individual stories of the artisans who made the pieces themselves.
“I think about purpose all the time. After my sister passed, it really made me a much more reflective person in terms of why we’re here and what we do while we’re here in the limited amount of time that we have,” she says. “When I create a piece and it goes to a collector, I often think of all the people who helped make it possible, especially working with materials that are not meant to be carved or set.” And so Péan moves the story forward, taking ancient things and exposing them to a new way of thinking. The object lives on.
Meet Alewya Demmisse, the inspired and self-aware model and artist who helped us bring Monique’s Pean’s treasures to life.
When it comes to purpose, it’s about embodying what you are in that one moment. Sounds like a small thing but it’s so big to be honest about who you are in that moment. It changes, constantly, and I act according to how I feel.
ON LIFE LIVED
I’ve lived five hundred lives in twenty-three years. My family is refugee from Ethiopia, my mom traveled from Ethiopia to Kenya where she had my brother, then Saudi Arabia where I was born, then London where we climbed out of asylum. In London, there was always a clash between my life at school and when I came home at night to my traditional parents. My father is Muslim and I grew up Muslim, but I didn’t fit in to my father’s ideals. Him and I always butted heads about what it was to be a girl. I was very much in my own spirit, but I wasn’t always comfortable with it so I would resist and fight everyone and everything.
Modeling came to me, I never thought about it at all. I didn’t think I could do it. At 19 I was meant to go to university and study math and philosophy, but I genuinely didn’t want to do any of that. I dropped out after two months, I went to an agency they signed me on the spot. From that moment on, my spiritual awakening started. Modeling was a battle in the beginning, I didn’t know what it meant or what it was, battling people’s perceptions of me. Now it’s easier because I know that this is why I’m here. I know myself better and I know the people I’m working with.
ON HER ART
My spirit guides my art, it’s being channeled, I’m in a meditative state when the pen moves, I start with the head and my pen moves, on, I just flow. It takes me two minutes to complete a sketch. My art has literally taught me everything about my spirit. It’s my purpose.
ON AMBITION AND SUCCESS
I don’t go there, it’s just one of those things. I just hope to get to a place where I’m always aligned. I think anything is possible, I just want to be at total peace. I think it’s strange that we perceive good food, time, peace, as a luxury. Why are these natural things a luxury and the man- made stuff we get from the factory is the norm?
MODEL: ALEWYA DEMISSE, WOMEN MANAGEMENT
MAKEUP: CAROLINA DALI, THE WALL GROUP
HAIR: MICHAEL SILVA, THE WALL GROUP
EDITOR: ELIZABETH CABRAL