Up-Cycled Eco-Conscious Jewelry

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From Glenwood to Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, Zass Design is making its mark.

By Ruhama Wolle
Photography by Amber Robinson

In our disposable culture, fast-changing trends and cheap manufacturing means we throw things away without a second thought. The result is a waste crisis as plastics clog the ocean and landfill sites expand. Yet an inventive mother-daughter team from North Carolina is changing the rules for style by designing jewelry with a focus on sustainability. Zulay and Stephanie Smith, the founders of Raleigh-based Zass Design, are creating positive stories of transformation and making a real impact.

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Both graphic designers by trade, Zulay began making earrings from a collection of printed magazine materials while daughter Steph used football tickets from her alma mater, East Carolina University, as the basis for her first originals. In 2009, with the support of family and friends, the two jumped into the idea with intense optimism—and they haven’t paused since.

“Our inspiration comes from the natural habitat and using those materials in our earth and turning them into something that would not be thrown out—a piece that would be worth something,” Steph says. “It’s very different now than when we started in that sustainability and [living] eco-friendly were not at the forefront in 2008 and 2009.”

Desiree Hedrick, a student at north carolina A&T state university, took home the 1st Place Best of Show award and a $1000 prize.

Desiree Hedrick, a student at north carolina A&T state university, took home the 1st Place Best of Show award and a $1000 prize.

Zass Design has continually evolved by using different materials to create its beautiful bold, geometric-style jewelry. A range of materials—from aluminum cans to Formica samples, vinyl records, laminate countertops, and acrylic—have become the foundation for unique jewelry collections. Meanwhile, mother and daughter are linking up with industrial companies, such as architecture and interior design firms, to purchase their obsolete scraps and sample booklets.

“Now, we are trying to build a bigger momentum,” says Steph. “Our dream is to one day set up a recycling center—the first place people would think of to throw away their cans, paper, and plastics. In the meantime, we are currently in discussions with the Guggenheim, which is one of our new accounts.” (Yes, that Guggenheim—the esteemed Manhattan art museum.)

When asked what her favorite part of this journey has been, Steph had many answers, but says, “Being able to work with my mom has been the best part; it’s fun and it doesn’t feel like work—and it still doesn’t after 10 years. When you land an account like the Guggenheim and they recognize your work as art and want it in their museum stores—that’s the climax of any artist’s career. I want people to feel like they are wearing a unique piece while simultaneously helping the environment.”

The future of fashion is unpredictable, but the industry’s traditionally unsustainable practices have had an extremely negative effect on our earth’s resources, a dark side that’s now impossible to ignore. Steph says she knows one thing is for sure: “Fashion has a new wave of heightened self-awareness—pops of individualism as people are more open to being bold and to being the only one who is being bold.”

Everyone plays a part in keeping the momentum going, and the Zass Design collection reminds us that we can change the world together, starting with ourselves. “It’s great to be in a hub like Raleigh, with a sea of entrepreneurs doing the same thing,” Steph says. “Even brewery and wineries are blowing up their cans with cool designs that we can work with.”

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