See How Decades-Old Photographs Inspire This Jewelry Designer

When Monica Rich Kosann sets out to design another bracelet, she often references the vast catalog of portraits she’s taken.


Google “Monica Rich Kosann,” and your first hit is the website of her business, which sells jewelry, home décor, and other wares that she designed. Founded about eight years ago, the company’s jewelry can be found in the stores of partners throughout the U.S. and abroad, like Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, and many smaller regional jewelers.

Monica Rich Kosann

But navigate to a corner of Kosann’s website and you’ll find a link to one of her more longstanding passions: photography. Since she was a teenager, Kosann took an interest in black-and-white photography, which she first pursued as an interest, and later as a job. “A friend of mine asked me to photograph her family and kids,” she recalls of her first photo-related paycheck, “but she said, ‘I want to pay you.’ I said, ‘You can’t pay me,’ and she said, ‘No, I want to. Because I want you to take this seriously.’”

For years Kosann made a living taking elegant photographs of clients’ families. Meanwhile, Kosann also nurtured an interest in antique jewelry, visiting flea markets, purchasing old lockets, and sometimes gifting clients these lockets with photos in them. Clients started asking: “Can you get me more?” and Kosann initially had to apologize, saying these were one-of-a-kind heirlooms. Then a light bulb went off. “That’s when I started the business,” she says.

Still, what’s interesting about Kosann’s creative process–and one reason why her photography is aptly featured on her jewelry website–are the ways her first career as a photographer continues to influence her newer one as a designer. “It was really organic,” she says. “It wasn’t that I woke up one morning and became a jewelry designer.” The two careers are thoroughly, creatively intertwined, though, with jewelry designs often deriving straight from Kosann’s photographic imagery.

The first time Kosann’s jewelry “quoted” from her photography may have been the case of what she calls the “gate locket.” Many years before, she had taken a picture of a young girl looking through a wrought-iron gate. Kosann had a fondness for the photograph, which she put in the rear cover of her own book. When beginning to design a new type of locket, Kosann remembered her old photo, and imitated it, making a locket that featured a gate-like ornamentation. “My photography is so ingrained in my brain,” she says. “As a photographer, you just always remember your favorite photos.” (It helps, she says, that she keeps them hung all around her office.)

As Kosann’s jewelry-making business grew, so did her practice of referencing or riffing on design elements that had appeared previously in her photographs. In one picture, a girl wrapped an arm over a twisting iron bar; much later, that design would become part of a scroll cuff bracelet. Another photo, of a girl playing in front of a wall of ivy, would inspire a series of ivied Kosann designs. And an image of a girl running along a brick floor offered the inspiration for a necklace reminiscent of a brick road. (For side-by-side looks at these images and the designs they inspired, see the slide show at the top of this post.)

Sometimes, photographs Kosann had taken years before have solved design puzzles she has been teasing apart. “I always thought the idea of a kaleidoscope would be a fun charm,” she recalls. But when she sat down to design a kaleidoscope-inspired charm, she wasn’t sure how to go about it, since it seemed the very point of kaleidoscopic images was that they moved. Then Kosann remembered an image she had taken of a young boy blowing bubbles through an intricate device that looked like a kaleidoscopic image frozen in place. That photograph ultimately served as the basis for her kaleidoscope charm.


Occasionally, too, Kosann’s jewelry designs derive not from a specific visual element of a photograph, but rather the picture’s overall energy. When seeking to design a charm for dog-lovers, Kosann remembered one of her favorite photographs: of a boy with his arms outstretched to the family dog. She looked at the picture to capture some of the glee that dog owners (even pint-sized ones) can feel towards their pets. “It was inspiring,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘How can you stamp this moment on a piece of jewelry?’” (Her answer wasn’t exactly cheap: a paw print made of diamonds.)

One of Kosann’s favorite stories of photographic inspiration involves the origin of a charm she designed for good luck. Kosann remembered the time she had been hired to photograph several young, hyper-energetic boys of in an Irish-American family. “They were completely wild, running around like maniacs, and their mother just left me alone with them: ‘Bye, see you later, have fun taking pictures!’” Kosann was lost–how would she get the kids to sit still?

In a flight of inspiration, Kosann finally grabbed the makings of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, setting them on top of a table cloth with four-leaf clovers. The promise of snacks finally helped lure the kids together, but Kosann couldn’t help but think that it was those four-leaf clovers that had brought her the real luck that day. Years later, as she examined the photographs, the four-leaf clovers stood out to her more than anything. “I’m not Irish, but I know that all people from all walks of life want to have good luck,” she says, so when she set out to design her charm, she dug out her photograph of the rowdy boys and set to imitating the table cloth.

For others who deal in visual design, Kosann counsels living a life outside of your work that’s rich in diverse images and textures. You’d be surprised in the way creative cross-pollination happens, even unconsciously. “It’s a creative process,” says Kosann of the way her photographic process has informed her other designs. “You see a photo, you have an image in your head, and it doesn’t leave you. You find other ways of expressing it.”

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal