In Conversation with Eco-Conscious Jewelry Designer Kat Radka – Infusing Inspiration into Design.
by James Golike • Apr 01, 2021 | INTERVIEWS

Inspiration wells from many sources, seeping out from our experiences’ surfaces and springing up from deep reservoirs within ourselves. And nowhere more apparent is the impact of inspiration than in the jewelry of Balentria, founded and owned by Kat Radka. Every Balentria piece is handmade by her in her New York studio. Finding inspiration from her childhood, heritage, and the social causes she believes in, Kat says she designs each piece to make everyone who wears her jewelry feel “outstanding.”

There is however, a fundamental difference between the inward action of inspiration and the outward action of design. Inspiration itself is a source used to articulate creative expression, but manifesting what inspires us into a tangible piece of work requires altogether different processes. Considering this I recently sat down with Kat to learn more about what inspires her jewelry, and explore how she realizes her inspiration in her work.

James G: How did you start out in jewelry? What inspired you to start designing and creating?

I’ve always liked making things with my hands ever since I was a kid. I remember even when I was in Kindergarten, I made this tiny little ring that was literally just a rock that I glued googly eyes to and then glued to a ring band. As a kid, I’d always collect sea glass and little things like that to make beaded necklaces. And I remember when I was in 11th or 12th grade, I got this hand stamping kit. I got these small brass plates, and I’d take a hammer with punching letters, and I’d start customizing necklaces for people. Just stamping little phrases and assembling them and selling them. Then I went to college and didn’t really think about it. I stayed creative in my personal life, but never thought about being able to make jewelry as a career.

After moving to New York, I was in this really weird time in my life. I was working a full-time sales job and really hating it, and it got to a point where I was so depressed that I quit out of nowhere. I was trying to figure out what to do next in my life, but making jewelry as a career still didn’t cross my mind. I wanted to do something that was for me, just to get my mind in a better place. I was interested in the process of making jewelry from scratch. So I looked up metalsmithing classes in New York and found a class and signed up for it. And that was the beginning of everything.

James G: When was is it you fully committed?

That was in the beginning of 2017. And yea I think as soon as I started classes I thought ‘I love this. This is what I want to do.’ It just felt right. You know when you start something, and it feels like it’s what you’re supposed to be doing? I had never had that feeling before. It always felt like anything creative I did was fun or enjoyable, but I didn’t get that spark.

James G: Looking back on it, what were some of the places you’d look for inspirations back in high school and during those classes? And was that process intentional or more passive?

In high school, I wasn’t really seeking out inspiration for what I was doing. It was kind of just’ people like this. I’ll make this.’ But then when I started taking classes and making more intricate designs, it was definitely me seeking out inspiration for jewelry.  

But I’m also obsessed with architecture. I’d look at architecture here in New York, because that’s what I lived in. Especially art deco architecture. A lot of my early jewelry designs are inspired by that period. I used to go to the New York Public Library in the sections where you can’t check out books, but you can look at them. I’d go through all of the art deco books, all the architecture books, and also the furniture design books. I loved seeing the fluidity of the lines in the designs and the ways angles fit together in them. Just seeing the small details and how they all fit together to create something larger together.

Then after doing that and seeking out what I wanted things to look like, then it felt like it started to come more naturally. After a point, I would just see something I liked out in the world and be able to take out a sketch pad and draw what that detail looked like to me and make a piece out of it.

James G: So when you were starting out, it was you wanting to absorb everything. And then as you got your feel for it was more “I know it when I see it.”

Yea, and it didn’t even feel like ‘That is going to be inspiration for my next piece.’ 

I think it came down to opening my eyes more and being more open to anything becoming something. That is where my inspiration ended up landing. Instead of seeking out something with the thought of ‘Oh, this is going to be my inspiration for a piece.’ It was more so ‘I like the way that looks’ and then turning that into a design by thinking about what I liked about what I was seeing and implementing that specific detail into the piece. 

James G: How does architecture and furniture design and some of the other areas you look to for inspiration meld into your jewelry?

I think what I enjoy the most about architecture and furniture design are the shapes and the little details. I love shapes, I see everything in shapes. For example, if I’m looking specifically at a building, I might see a beautiful building, but I’ll also see and be drawn to the detail of a little corner that may have three triangles on it. I’ll look at the way those three triangles fit together and use that in a design.

I like making pieces that you can wear every day, and to me, it feels like I’m taking that art that people walk past every day and often don’t notice and making it wearable. I feel like I put the fluidity and angles and motion from those designs into my jewelry.

James G: I noticed on your website that a lot of your jewelry beginnings and inspiration come from your heritage and also environmental causes. How do those play into your design?

My great grandparents were from Basque Country and then ended up moving to Cuba. My grandparents met, got married, had my uncle and my mom in Cuba and then moved to New York City with absolutely nothing. For me, my business is a dedication to them and their story. They worked so hard to get here to make a new life for their family, and when I was growing up, one of the biggest lessons they taught me was how to have a good work ethic. Dedicating my business to them is my way of saying thank you. Thank you for showing me that if I’m going through a hard time, that if I’m working in something I love and working hard at it, then I can achieve anything. My memories with them and the stories they told me about Basque country are always a constant inspiration for me. A lot of my pieces are named from Basque mythology because I loved learning the stories from my grandparents.

As for the environment, I’m really just passionate about the earth and environmental causes. It hurts when people don’t think they can make a difference, even if it’s the smallest difference. So for me, it was really important when I was starting out that if I’m going to be making something that I want it to be recycled. I use all recycled metals, and I make sure that all my gems and stones are sourced from people and places that follow guidelines to make sure they are ethical and earth-friendly. 

I have an entire collection, the Oceanus line, where some of the proceeds from each piece goes towards causes that help clean up the oceans. I really think it’s our duty to set up the next generations for success on this planet.

James G: From your first collections to now, is there a sort of progression that you’ve noticed with your design? Do they build off one another, or are they each an exploration into different styles and inspirations?

In the beginning, when I was heavily influenced by Art Deco architecture, I kept trying to make a lot of pieces that felt Art Deco. And a lot of Art Deco architecture is filled with right angles and perfect shapes. I’m a perfectionist at heart, and I slowly realized that it is not easy to make jewelry look exactly perfect when it’s handmade. It was driving me crazy. So I think I started moving more so into the direction where instead of taking exact shapes and angles from that period, trying to take whatever feeling that time period had and use that for my designs. I think over the years my jewelry has evolved in the way of becoming less rigid and more fluid and freer.

James G: In what ways is working within the boundaries of one source of inspiration for a piece or collection limiting? And in what ways is working and designing within one inspiration freeing?

I think it feels limiting when it doesn’t feel natural or authentic. 

For my last collection, the Ederra collection, I had a completely different idea for it initially then what it ended up being. I knew I wanted to make a new collection and when I actively started sketching things it all felt forced. Like I was trying to inspire myself to feel inspired. And as soon as I stopped thinking about what was going to inspire that collection, of course, the inspiration came to me. I ended up seeing a couch that I really liked, and I made one piece that reminded me of that couch, and that’s what turned into my entire collection. 

So, I think what is the most challenging for me is, when I feel like I’m trying to inspire myself to make something instead of just letting it authentically happen. It is limiting when your inspiration is forced to adhere to something, instead of using it as a source to play with a little more.

James G: Is there a new line on the way?

I’m actually making some changes with Balentria, where I’m beginning to move away from being a jewelry brand that releases all-new designs within collections.

I think people connect with my pieces more, and I find it is more fun for me when the pieces I create feel authentic. And I think the process of making an entire collection doesn’t feel as authentic as I want it to be for me personally as the designer. With collections, at times it feels like I have to force myself to use a certain design to make jewelry even if I didn’t have a piece in mind for that design. So for example with a collection, I feel like I have to make a set of earrings, even if I didn’t view earrings in mind for that collection. 

Moving forward I’ll be releasing pieces that I just want to make. If I want to make a one-off ring, then I’ll make the ring, or if I want to make a necklace and feel inspired to make this necklace, then I will. And I’ll just release them as standalone pieces.

I’m learning more and more about stone-setting. So the new pieces are definitely going to be more gemstone heavy. 

James G: How do trends in jewelry, or designs from other jewelers, or Instagram, for example, impact your jewelry design?

I like to create from whatever is inspiring to me at that moment in my time of life, and have people connect on that same feeling. There’s definitely the jewelry that sells, and there’s definitely the jewelry that is trendy. I could follow what those trends are, but those trends don’t always include the part of jewelry that I love.  

I feel I put a lot of love and energy into every piece, and my hope is that when somebody else is in a similar place in life or similar frequency that they’re going to feel attracted to it. That’s how I think about it. I really believe that there is energy in every piece that you can feel. And to me, if you pick a piece, it means that you were attracted to something that I was feeling when I was making it. That is a cool feeling because it makes you feel connected with jewelry in a different way than you might feel if you were to find a piece that might be trendy for a year or two. 

James G: Do you make custom pieces?

I do make custom pieces for people. I first make sure what they want coincides with my style, then I work with them to create exactly what they are looking for in a piece.

James G: Is there any advice you have for others about the process of incorporating inspiration into their design or their art? Or even finding inspiration?

Look for what feels right and natural for you. I think we all have something that brings us a joy we can’t explain when we see it. And I think that’s what your inspiration is. Be open to anything and everything and when you find that thing that brings you joy, use it.

You can learn more about Kat and Balentria jewelry on her website here

Written by
James Golike