Lisa Maita is a Philly born and bred jeweler and engraver. She has been a fixture of Philadelphia's historic Jeweler's Row for over a decade. We caught up with her to learn about a day in the life, how she got her start, and to get the scoop on her new Kawaii fine jewelry brand, Sisterfriend.
Tell us about your background and how you got started on Jeweler’s Row.
I guess I’ve always had an inkling for art. I found out I could draw by copying Pokémon cards in 4th grade. My classmates would ask me to draw their favorite Pokémon characters, and I loved their reactions. I was surprised when my drawings even looked relatively close, but I guess that was the beginning of my interest in cute cartoon art.
I went to high school at Hallahan, an all-girls Catholic high school in Center City, Philly. One of the nuns, Sister Francis, would help girls find after-school jobs. I told her I was into art and she said “Oh, there’s a jewelry store looking for someone.” This was November 2004. D’Antonio & Klein was looking for a delivery person for the holidays and they gave me a shot. My boss John, one of the top jewelers on the street, saw my art portfolio and liked it. I think he saw in me someone he could mold and teach the art of jewelry-making to. He took me on as a runner but would give me side projects when I had free time.
By 2014, I was 25 and had been on the Jeweler’s Row for 10 years, met a ton of characters, and had taken an interest in hand engraving. One day Alex Danta, one of the best engravers in Philly, encouraged me to branch out from running and doing side projects. He recommended that I join the Air Force (LOL), then he followed up with “Why don’t you give engraving a try?” So I did! I would go and practice every day before work for an hour. I’d mess around with layouts and cutting and fell in love with it.
An outsider may assume the jewelry industry is female dominated; is that the case in your experience?
OMG no! When I started there was one female stone dealer, one jeweler, two stringers, and one enamelist. Any other women on the street were delivering, organizing, or working the showroom. Most hands-on work is done by men that are my dad’s age. The cool thing happening now is that most new people coming to the street – jewelers, shop owners, etc. – are women! Which is very neat.
What does a normal day look like for you? How realistic is Uncut Gems...
The second I walk in the door I get a round of applause from my teacher. He probably thinks it’s amazing that I wake up before noon every day. The first thing I do is open the safe, look through the jobs I have, and organize – what needs to be done, what needs to be started.
When I’m engraving, I can really vibe out and be with my thoughts. The room I work in looks and feels a lot like my art room in high school. All engravings start out with a layout; I apply a light layer of wax to the piece and then dust it with powder, which allows me to draw on the piece in pencil without scratching it. Once I’m satisfied with the layout, I cut it out with sharpened stainless steel tools. After I dig out the metal, there’s usually a wake of scrap metal that needs to be smoothed out and polished. It’s a pretty tedious process — and it’s difficult to maintain concentration when you have multiple visitors coming in throughout the day — but that’s expected!
On the street, when it rains it pours. We’re either kicking it, chatting, listening to music, wondering about lunch — or it’s non-stop rush jobs: “Can you do this for the end of the day?” “Can I have this in an hour?” “Make this beautiful — do it fast and cheap.”
Not everyone on the street does the same thing, so going to someone else’s shop and hanging out is super normal. I get a lot of local visitors that I’ve known since I was a kid. It feels very college-dorm, being that we’re all stacked up on each other in a one-block radius.
The Adam Sandler character from Uncut Gems has existed on the street before, but that type of person doesn’t last long. We all know and trust each other on our block. If you’re not introduced it’s pretty hard to break that ice.
That being said, you could definitely make Uncut Gems II set in Philly and it would be filled with a wild cast of characters and plot lines involving fraud, death, kidnapping, and drugs. The clothes wouldn’t be as good though, at least not in this era. I would have it set in the 70s-80s when the shit was really popping off and the looks were rich.
“I wanted to make sure I was making something that was going to last, and that if you found it in the dirt 1,000 years from now you would still be able to wear it.”
How would you describe your engraving/jewelry style and who or what has influenced it?
I grew up classically trained in jewelry and engraving and a good amount of my fabrications are driven by the customer. You have to learn all the basics before you can go on your own path and break the rules. I didn’t really feel comfortable doing my own designs until about year 10. I wanted to make sure I was making something that was going to last, and that if you found it in the dirt 1,000 years from now you would still be able to wear it. I like to take classic forms and twist them ever so slightly — changing up thicknesses in doable places, adding color in the metal, or setting funky-shaped stones really make a piece look more interesting to me. I love the idea of something looking edible or like candy — so food is a big influence. Lately, I’ve also been looking at a lot of Italian modern furniture and vintage Danish lighting.
Tell us about your new project Sisterfriend!
Sisterfriend says it all in the name. Everyone knows what a ~pleasure~ Kelli is. She’s so easy to get along with and can turn into a friend instantly! I’m lucky enough to feel like Kelli is my twin. We love the same things and the same aesthetic, and we’ve been dreaming of making a kawaii fine jewelry line. It’s the vibe we love mixed with the custom jewelry quality I grew up with. Our obsession with mini objects can be easily transformed into precious metal; wear it and even hand it down as an heirloom piece. I think it’s hard to look at our creations and not crack a smile. They’re fun and a bit silly — it’s totally us.
Be sure to follow @sisterfriendjewelry & @bee_per to check out Lisa's work and keep in touch!
For custom work:
Dantonio and Klein
726 Sansom St.
Philadelphia, PA 19106
All photos by Breanne Furlong.