When Frida Kahlo was 23, she had just moved to America with Diego Rivera, four years after she began painting. Kahlo is a source of inspiration for Alyssa Nguyen, 23, who owns and designs at Alyssa & Anna Fine Jewelry in Oshkosh, a brand she began three years ago.
“When I was younger, I always knew I wanted to be in the arts. My parents, they actually gave me an allowance to draw,” she says. “I mean they gave me one and five dollar bills and the designs were nothing, but that’s what they did.”
Along with French jeweler Cartier and Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, Kahlo influences Nguyen’s work, especially in her recent transition to more colorful, busier pieces. While today she works with diamonds, sapphires and other gems, she began in painting.
“There’s this funny thing in the art community: a lot of people say that you choose your medium based on your personality. I really like watercolors and gouache painting,” she says. “It’s probably because they’re really difficult to control and you can’t really fix your mistakes. I think I kind of approach life that way: I’m kind of all over the place.”
“All over the place” in her approach to both art and life, Nguyen’s family background draws from a broad variety of places too. Nguyen’s mother is Thai-Laotian, her father Vietnamese, her grandfather taught as a French professor, and her sister, Savannah, lived in Milwaukee, where she attended the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Before she started there, though, Nguyen and her sister took computer-aided design (CAD) classes together.
While CAD helped Nguyen bring her two-dimensional art to 3-D life, this architectural side of jewelry poses some of her biggest challenges. “A lot of the times, you get ideas to make things but it doesn’t work when you actually, physically build it,” she says. “Because you’re working with a really small object, and a lot of the times the way I want a certain stone to sit, it can’t sit that way.”
Nguyen found guidance in Paris, where she recently studied high jewelry with French jewelry, watch, and perfume company Van Cleef & Arpels, and practiced gouache painting. Before CAD, French jewelers drafted their designs in this style of watermedia.
“The gouache is where it started: they would make a technical drawing, and then they would make the painting where they would render it as lifelike as they could without looking at a piece to draw. You have to know where you put in the lights and shadows and everything from your mind.”
Intricate gouache “blueprints” of her designs adorn the pale walls of her shop on Oshkosh’s 9th Avenue, where her own glittering display cases reveal how far Nguyen’s come in just under two years. Yet her art, she says, remains most important in her work.
“We create everything in house, so all of our jewelry is handcrafted from start to finish,” she says. “We do it mainly because we’re really passionate about the creating, versus the business. The business is just so we can do what we love.”