Jewelry designer Catherine Zadeh is full of surprises. First, there’s her background: the Iran-born, Paris-raised, New York-based designer got her start in the business on a whim. Then there are the signature materials that form the core of her namesake collection: taga nuts (the fruit of certain palm trees), parachute cord, and‑perhaps most intriguing—the horn of domesticated Asian water buffalo. The designer’s favorite material, the water buffalo horn, is painstakingly shaped and crafted into bracelets, pendants, and cufflinks through a process unique to her line.
“These horns come from farm-raised buffalo in the Congo. Typically, the horns would just be discarded,” Zadeh tells us of her love for the material, which she emphasizes is entirely sustainable. Her affection for it comes from its similarity to a material that’s much less so, namely elephant hair. Originally worn by members of African tribes as a talisman of luck and protection, bracelets made from elephant hair became popular in Europe in the last century, where they came to Zadeh’s attention thanks to French actor Alain Delon. Seeking a more consciously-sourced material, Zadeh discovered the buffalo horn, and the results can be seen in her stunning collections.
We recently sat down with the designer in her midtown atelier to gain some insight into her design process and incredible materials. Read on to find out how a fateful elevator ride started her business, and why, for her, the most important accessory is confidence.
The Window: First things first, how did you come to be a men’s jewelry designer?
Catherine Zadeh: There was a period where I was a bit restless after my children were born, and my husband, who worked in the diamond industry, always knew that I loved to design and draw. He suggested I design a piece of jewelry for myself, and one set of rings really started it all. I designed them, then connected with a jeweler to craft them. One morning, I was dropping the kids off at school when I ran into a friend on the elevator. He noticed my rings and asked where I got them, since he was looking for a gift for his wife. I told him that I designed them, and he asked me if I was a designer. I said yes, and it was the first time I ever said that, right on the spot, in the elevator! He asked if I’d make a piece for his wife, and I said absolutely. He loved the way the earrings turned out and asked if I could make her more jewelry—from one necklace to another and another. Then, one day he said, “Enough for my wife—why don’t you design a pair of cufflinks for me?” It was great challenge, and when he saw how beautifully they turned out, he suggested I sell them to stores. It was never an idea that had occurred to me, but that was how my business truly began. That was more than 20 years ago.
Why have you stuck with men’s pieces over all those years? It seems a bit unexpected.
It’s unconventional—nobody does a men’s line before women’s, but it felt like I did men’s for a reason. I’ve always been drawn to men’s clothing. I’m very tomboyish and don’t wear overly precious jewelry. Doing men’s really helped me to hone my skill and my aesthetic. After cufflinks, I started doing belt buckles for men, and then moved on to bracelets and pendants.
How would you describe the ‘Zadeh man?’
I’ve always designed for men who don’t wear jewelry. In the past, men hadn’t been offered a line of jewelry that was understated, elegant, and not too ornate, so I think my style resonates because it’s all those things and with a European sensibility. It’s not heavy chains. It’s not overwhelming. It’s not feminine. It’s not rock n’ roll. When a man wears a piece, it says something about him, but at the same time, it lets his personality shine. It’s not about what you wear, but about who you are inside. It’s really effortless. People come to me and say that it’s jewelry with soul. The energy I put into it, they feel it. I design for men who are confident, who don’t follow trends, who are interesting and interested.
It sounds like you have a very clear, strong aesthetic.
It’s true. I don’t do beads; I don’t do chains; I don’t do skulls. I use really beautiful materials, like leather, precious metals, parachute cord, and the buffalo horn. I know that men don’t like to change their jewelry all the time and they want it to last, so I focus on very durable materials. You can shower and swim in these pieces, and you aren’t going to hurt them.
We need to hear more about this Asian water buffalo horn—can you tell us about how you came to discover it?
A little more than ten years ago, my brother was dating a girl from Zimbabwe. I’d fallen in love with vintage elephant hair bracelets, and I asked her if she knew of anywhere I could source that type of hair. She told me that, with endangered species restrictions, you couldn’t use the hair any more. But she had a friend who’d fled Zimbabwe during the political crisis there and was living in the Congo, and he’d personally developed this method of carving out the buffalo horn fibers and putting them together. She introduced him to me, he sent me a sample, and I thought it was unbelievable—it looked exactly like elephant hair. It’s since become the foundation of my jewelry company. It has really defined the line, which is strong, bold, unusual, and unexpected.
It seems like a labor-intensive process to create each piece. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
Yes, each piece takes a week to make. The artisan works on his bench, slicing each of the fibers from the horn and fitting each fiber together like a puzzle. The pieces on the inside have to be shorter, while the ones on the outside have to be longer, so that once it’s shaped into the cuff, they fit so tightly together that they don’t move. The fibers are initially straight, so you then have to soak them in boiling water to shape them. Once a piece is shaped and dried, we apply an oil to the fibers, which both makes them more durable and darkens the color to almost black. Then the clasp is sculpted, first in wax to create the mold, and then cast in the precious metal for that particular piece—18k yellow gold, white gold, or rose gold.
And what’s it like as a material? What can a guy wearing one of these bracelets expect?
Buffalo horn is a regal material. It’s so beautiful, and it transforms itself over time. As you shower, swim, travel, and live your life, the black patina wears off and the horn returns to its natural grey and brown coloration, revealing the texture that’s inherent. Each piece changes according to your skin’s chemistry—with some people, the bracelets patina very fast, and for other it takes years. I recommend that clients never take the pieces off. I think jewelry needs to be enjoyed and to be worn. I know that they’re luxurious pieces, but I don’t want them to be left in the safe and worn only occasionally. I want them to become part of your life. They’re so comfortable that that you barely feel them.
You’ve had your own brand for more than 20 years—has your aesthetic or style evolved over that time?
It’s more that I’ve changed a lot since I started. Today, I’m much more confident in the way I design. I used to listen to other people’s suggestions, and I wasn’t very secure. Critique can help you or destroy you, and I’ve used it to help me define who I am as a designer. I’ve found my voice. As a designer, you need to believe in yourself, believe in your aesthetic, and be proud of it. I’m not afraid to say, “I really believe in this and you should too.” I always knew I had a voice; I just needed to hone it. My family, my husband, my children, my clients, and my life have helped me shape that voice and to be who I am today. I’m now confident enough that I know I can share it with the rest of the world.