Jewelry designer Randi Mates started out in academia, not fashion. After earning an M.A. in Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center, she was hired as a historian for the Smithsonian Institution — a job that entailed researching "anything from turn-of-the-century toys to Italian paper dresses from the forties to ancient glass techniques," as she puts it. While working toward a Ph.D., she convinced her sister to enroll in a Greek and Roman metalworking class at the Jewelry Arts Institute with her. (She saw it as a potential bonding activity — "At work, I was constantly digging through archives and libraries with people three times my age," she explains.) She took to the classic craft, and in 2006, she started shopping her creations around at various boutiques; since then, her line has been picked up by Barneys, No. 6, Assembly, BBlessing, Castor & Pollux, and more.
Mates's designs blend metals, gems, and semiprecious stones — gold, silver, bronze, pink and black pearl, sapphire, citrine, black diamond, and tourmaline — which she sources on annual trips to the Gem, Mineral, & Fossil Show in Tucson. "I love mixing metals — I have no snobbery about it," she says. "I feel like incorporating a spectrum of materials gives the pieces a richer, more interesting look." Though her designs have an undeniably modern feel, Mates still finds inspiration in objects from the past. "I look at what I find beautiful and start researching," she says. "I'm not a purist; I end up where I end up." Click ahead to see more Aesa designs.BEGIN SLIDESHOW