From Iceland — New York, Old Tools, Timeless Jewels: A Visit To Orri Finn Design’s Studios

New York, Old Tools, Timeless Jewels: A Visit To Orri Finn Design’s Studios

Published March 24, 2015

New York, Old Tools, Timeless Jewels: A Visit To Orri Finn Design’s Studios
Gabrielle Motola
Photo by
Gabrielle Motola

The couple behind Orri Finn Design—Orri Finnbogason and Helga Gvuðrún Friðriksdóttir—have a different, yet complementary, training in the art of design, jewellery and business. Helga studied Spanish and South American studies in Iceland and Madrid and has had a passion for jewelry since she was a child, always wearing and making her own. Without any formal training in it, she worked for a jewelry designer and was frequently encouraged to share her opinions about design. She ended up working with the marketing director and as a project manager.

Orri trained as a goldsmith and a diamond setter in New York. More on that later.

Straight edges, skeleton keys

For them Design March is an event where they have a chance to create beyond the wearable and incorporate additional elements like sculpture or dance or to create pieces out of their work which inspires them to stretch the boundaries of their creative powers. A glance at the pair’s Pinterest boards reveals that they are drawn to images of Native Americans: textural sepia images of heritage and objects and people from another world. Their work darkly echoes the Old West, or perhaps the Southwest, of the United States without being overly coloured in cloying corals and blues. Their current family of anchors, scarabs and braids will be joined this year by a new set of pieces inspired by the tools of the common worker.

While fixing up a house in the Westfjords, they came across a pair of antique hair cutting scissors. The simplistic yet elegant design got them thinking. Helga’s mother was a haircutter for a period of time, the scissors a tool of her trade. Included in the collection are straight edges, as well as hair scissors, skeleton keys, fountain pen nibs, and axes. For a quick minute they thought of sticking to murder weapons but decided that they didn’t want to put that kind of negative energy out into the universe. So they went with constructive objects of métier, even if they have the potential power to destroy. The wearer gets to decide the ultimate function.

Why not sail on?

Every piece, once cast, waits to be transformed into worn objects, a process they were in the middle of on the morning of my visit. Much of what I saw laid before me was silver, partially oxidised and rubbed clean, to give a blackness that acts as dimensional shading; gold; and more polished chains of equal interest and varying proportion. We chatted as they polished and assembled pieces from their new collection with a fluidity and mutual respect that begets synergy.

We talked about the feelings that come with creating something new and, by default, the previously new work becoming “old.” The question arises: has enough honourable attention been given to their previous works? The ambition to release one’s creations at a pace that’s absorbed gradually and thoroughly is understandable. But, as long as the winds of inspiration carry you forward, why not sail on? Besides, I come to realize that I, perpetually disinterested in jewellery, would greedily wear all their creations all at once. To my surprise and slight horror, I have begun a mental inventory.

Run the jewels…

The pair’s new workshop is located on that street leading up to the big church on the hill. The one with an impossibly long name that, ironically, is most frequented by tourists who cannot pronounce it. The workshop is charming and perfectly formed, complete with a dual hot plate for both work liquid, and copious amounts of coffee brewed in a moka pot. Even the walls carry an aesthetic that complements their work.

For Orri and Helga, DesignMarch is an event where they have a chance to create beyond the wearable, incorporating elements like sculpture or dance, or creating pieces out of their work. This inspires them to stretch the boundaries of their creative powers

Helga and Orri both spent time living in New York City, but they didn’t meet there. Helga’s purpose in town was tutoring the daughter of an Icelandic musician. Orri arrived to the city on a break of sorts, and did not expect to move there. In Iceland, he had found that it was next to impossible to gain the kind of apprenticeship he sought—the only way he could study something to do with metal work was enlisting in a shipbuilding course. Thus, upon arriving in New York, he jumped on the chance to apprentice with a diamond setter, earning his apprenticeship by first spending a period of time as a diamond runner. Quid pro quo, my son.

As a diamond runner, he was responsible for transporting tremendously valuable goods from point A to point B. He explained that diamond trade was often under a lot of time constraints to move pieces around once stones are set, and there wasn’t always time to arrange for an armoured car, complete with armed guards. Thus, a young man with a backpack, a pair of strong legs, a sense of adventure and no idea of the danger he’s putting himself into did nicely enough. Sure, there were instructions, like “never take the same route” and “never take the backpack off, even when you’re sitting on a train.” Still, equipping a young man with a backpack full of extremely valuable goods normally shielded by reinforced steel and armed guards seems like a huge gamble. Especially in New York City in the 1990s.

It happens

Orri eventually learned to be a diamond setter, an extremely valuable skill that has taken him far in his work. But the jewellery market began to decline and the stress of working in that way which is American left him with little reason to stay in the Big Apple. Back to Reykjavík he went. And met Helga.

It was one of those stories where you both think you’ve seen everyone in the bar and met everyone in the town, especially in one as small as Reykjavík can often feel. And then one day, it happens. This person walks into your life with the same interests and inspires you. They both worked for the same jeweller for a while. When they met, Helga was wearing more than the causal amount of jewellery. Orri laid eyes on her and thought, “Now, that’s the girl for me!”

They appear to have the kind of working relationship I both admire and covet.

The morning we spent together, Helga and Orri worked with cast objects to create what will eventually become some of the final pieces, arranging and assembling them with chains and jewels, the components and exact order of which was coming together before my eyes. Together they invent designs and assemble them in the way a band might work on the creation and refinement of songs. Once decided upon, Orri will join the pieces together or set stones as required, Helga also assembles the chains and pieces at some stages. In addition to the design work Helga spearheads communications for the business, essential for any business’s survival. They are a team in the best sense of the word.

Your thing

Let it be known that Orri Finn Design makes unisex jewellery which I was interested to learn of and is probably one of the reasons I find the aesthetic so attractive. However, much of the time this carries less merit in the land of the bejewelled than one would think. People, a lot of people, want to be told that jewellery is indeed classified as “acceptable” for men or women when buying it. “Are you sure this is okay for a guy?” a concerned girlfriend might ask before buying, say, a delicate gold braided ring for her boyfriend. The boxes people still wish to fit into are surprisingly persistent, even in Reykjavík, with all its gender equality.

I admired a draped chain mask on a the face of a mannequin bust and thought it would look fantastically elegant on a man. Okay, not your thing? Zebra Katz wore it in a music video he shot here, it’s apparently totally his thing.

Their stuff is fast becoming totally my thing.



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