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Today we talk with Dana Schneider, the jewelry designer who made the mockingjay pin that actress Jennifer Lawrence wears in the movie The Hunger Games. As you know if you’ve read the books or seen the movie, this pin (worn by main character Katniss Everdeen) is an especially important part of the story—a symbol of rebellion in a post-apocalyptic world.
When I found out I was going to interview Dana Schneider, the jewelry designer who made the mockingjay pin for The Hunger Games movie, I was excited. But I was also not sure what to expect from a woman who has made jewelry for more than 50 films and television shows (including Planet of the Apes, The Matrix sequels, and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), designed what Cher has described as “her favorite ring,” and is friends with Marilyn Manson.
Within moments on the phone, I realized I was talking to one of the most engaged, confident, and also humble and generous artists I’ve ever met. She loves what she does and at the same time is very clear about just how hard her work is.
She is equally passionate discussing the magic of movie making, heavy metal music, women with charm bracelets jangling beside her at the symphony, and her own work in her studio and her Etsy jewelry shop.
Can you tell me a little about how you got started designing jewelry?
I learned basic jewelry-making skills as a child from my father, who was an engineer: how to cast, how to solder, how to use a pair of pliers. I’ve always just naturally been a craftsperson. I’ve also always been a movie fan.
When I attended the Rhode Island School of Design, I planned to focus on animation, but in my freshman year I decided to do sculpture instead—foundry work with heavy forged steel, cast bronze, and aluminum. Then when I graduated, I decided I didn’t want to have a career as a fine artist.
I felt art was about communicating, and I knew that I was young and didn’t have a lot to say yet.
I got a job in the repair department at Tiffany & Co. in New York City. But I didn’t actually repair the jewelry—I did public relations for the repair department. And I learned how people use and abuse their jewelry, how they don’t want to think about chains breaking and pearls needing to be restrung—especially on pieces from Tiffany.
I realized that when people buy something, they want it to last, and I could understand that. I started my own jewelry business as soon as I left Tiffany, and I’ve been making jewelry ever since.
So how did you start designing jewelry for movies?
I was watching a trailer for The Matrix in 1998 and thought “I could do that.” If all these other people were doing it, I figured I could, too, and do just as good a job. So I moved to Los Angeles and a year later, with a lot of hard work and a lot of determination, my jewelry was appearing in films.
The first one was The Planet of the Apes. Eventually I made pieces for both The Matrix sequels. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve made sacrifices others wouldn’t choose to make in their lives or their careers.
I can tell you a lot of jewelers wouldn’t want to do this even if they could. Some years I might design 180 different pieces. I pull all-nighters, work 24 hours, get on a plane, fly to L.A., go the set, and THEN I get to sleep. But I love it.
Tell me about making the mockingjay pin for The Hunger Games.
Well, with The Hunger Games, the design was already established. The pin is on the cover of the first book. So it was an incredible challenge to replicate something that’s so clear in the minds of so many fans. Getting it right involved months of meetings, models, and plane trips. [Dana now lives in her hometown of Canton, Ohio, and “commutes” to her film work.]
I carved the original by hand using lost-wax casting. It is sterling silver plated with 22-karat gold and with an antique finish applied. It took a while to get that aged look right. And it took six different models to work out things such as where to solder the arrow on the pin and how to make it look delicate and yet have it still be functional.
When working on a movie, you have many different things to take into account. Jennifer Lawrence’s main costume was canvas, so the pin had to look delicate but be able go through several thick layers of canvas. And because I’d read the book, when the costume designer asked me to make the mockingjay pin, I knew immediately that I’d also be making the pin for the stunt double. You don’t want the stunt double to be hurt when wearing a piece of jewelry—that’s number one. You always have to think about things like that when making jewelry for movies.
And there’s no point in contacting you to buy a copy of the mockingjay pin, right?
Right. I have nothing to do with the ones for sale. Those are not a replica of my pin, but a computer-generated 3D model of the book cover illustration. I made only four finished pins for the movie. I always make one to keep and have as a backup. You never know when you may need that backup.
How did you feel it worked when you saw it 20-feet-high on a movie screen?
You know, I’ve been so busy working, I haven’t seen the movie yet. I’m hoping I may get to see it tonight!
Do you have to give up a certain amount of artistic freedom to work in the film industry?
For me, it’s the opposite. I don’t fit into the craft jewelry world, I don’t fit into the fine craft jewelry world, and I don’t fit into the fashion world. For me, there’s far more freedom in film work than any other area.
I sold my work through boutiques and places like Barneys for decades. Once you do that, the stores are the ones saying, “Turquoise is in this year. This didn’t sell, but this did—do more of that.” Why, as an artist, should you let other people restrict you that way?
Every movie is completely different. I’ve always rebelled against the idea in the jewelry world that you stick with a particular technique or material. I’d be bored stupid and feel chained.
I’m a movie fan, first and foremost. So I love seeing my work on the screen. The most important thing is that it lives up to what the fans want. Where 99.9 percent of jewelers just want to do product placement in a movie, I want to do the perfect piece for that film. I want to feel really good about whatever I create.
It seems that you really like the collaborative aspect of it.
Jewelry making is a very solitary thing. Part of what I like about what I do is getting to see behind the scenes of movie-making, to see the sets being built, and see a movie come to life. I get to read the scripts sometimes, and I will usually discuss the character or characters with the costume designer and maybe the director.
You definitely have to check your ego at the door in this industry. I’ve taken some pretty good hits out there, but no worse than in the fashion world. Until I actually see my piece in a movie, I don’t know if it made it in. Sometimes I only see my piece in the director’s cut. Or someone will see a movie my piece or pieces were in and say, “I didn’t notice that there was any jewelry in it at all.” That’s okay. Sometimes that should be the case.
I work well in Hollywood because I’m confident in what I bring to the table so it’s easy for me to hear criticism of my work. I take my deadlines and my responsibilities very seriously.
Being a lifelong fan of movies, I’ve always paid attention to how art factors into movies. Continuity, for example, is so important. It’s a cliché, but I was that little kid at the movies who’d see a guy with a shirt buttoned in one frame and then unbuttoned in the next. It drove me nuts.
It takes a lot of common sense to know what will and won’t work in movies. I have a great high-tech digital kiln, and I just recently bought Lark Jewelry & Beading’s The Art of Enameling by Linda Darty. I see amazing things being done with enameling, but it doesn’t have good application in film because you have to be able to do replications. So I’ll get to do enameling on my own. Glass is another one that doesn’t work for film—it’s just too fragile.
You have to work for the movie, not for yourself. But then I get to go back to my studio and do whatever I want. If I did nothing but film work, I’d feel claustrophobic, but I don’t. I get to go home to my studio! And with every project I work on, I learn something new, so then I can’t wait to use what I’ve learned in my own work.
So what are you working on right now?
I just finished making jewelry for Russell Brand in a Diablo Cody project. It’s a little independent film that doesn’t even have a title yet. The working title is still Untitled Diablo Cody Project.
The movie Cabin in the Woods is about to come out. I worked on that over two years ago. And then GI Joe Retaliation will be out in June. I spent three months working on pieces for that.
I’ve noticed you have an Etsy shop.
I want to give a shout-out to Etsy! Etsy has been the missing link for me. It’s given me more freedom than ever. It’s very democratic. I love it.
You have your own shop. You can charge whatever you want, and people can find you. I love the freedom and control that Etsy gives me over managing my time. If I get swamped, I can click and put my shop on Vacation Mode. It suits the lifestyle I have. I can get a call and have to be on a plane the next day.
Etsy gives me control and freedom. I’ve pulled out of all brick-and-mortar stores. The landscape for jewelers changed when the economy took a hit—getting paid from stores or galleries was often like pulling teeth. With Etsy you get paid immediately.
Do you have advice for others with Etsy shops or people thinking of opening one?
I watched it for a while first before I opened my shop. I wanted to see where it was going. I spent a lot of time seeing how things like the treasury lists work and what people are looking for.
Here’s my tip for people who sell on Etsy: Putting an initial on something will help it sell. I had my initial pendant years ago, and then I realized from studying Etsy that people are always looking for letters. If you put a letter on it, it will sell.
Any parting words of advice?
Once you realize that just because something has always been done one way does not mean it has to be done that way, it can open up all kinds of doors. You are always a student, always learning. If you reach a point where you think you’ve got it all figured out … well, then you probably don’t.
Okay, I’ve got to go now. I’ve got to be on a television talk show in Cleveland in the morning.
Wow, how exciting. Good luck.
Oh, I just want to be in my studio working!