No jewelry label has an origin story quite like that of James Banks: It literally began in the midst of a fairy tale. Once upon a time — well, actually just over 10 years ago — on the set of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Anne Hathaway, who was playing the White Queen, sought out the prop department’s master metalsmith, Heidi Nahser Fink. Hathaway wanted to have a special Christmas present made for her boyfriend, actor and producer Adam Shulman: a leather-bound sterling-silver pendant that looked like a book and opened to reveal a page engraved with a private message. Shulman loved the imaginative piece and shortly afterward met Nahser Fink. The twosome, who would eventually form James Banks, became fast friends, bonding over their shared love of jewelry and the stories it can tell.
“I was always mesmerized by the craftsmanship and inherent poetry of the designs in my mother’s collection,” remembers Shulman. Nahser Fink had been making jewelry for years for her own collection, which was shown in galleries, as well as for movies. Her best-known on-screen works are the Orion’s Belt worn by the cat in Men in Black (1997) and the replica of a gold Fabergé carriage used in Ocean’s 12 (2004).
Less than a year after Nahser Fink and Shulman met, they made their first collaborative jewel. It evolved out of one of their typically erudite conversations — specifically, about the inventor of the incandescent light bulb, Thomas Edison, and something that Hathaway had said. “When Annie was on a long shoot in London and I was doing theater work in New York, she told me, ‘I don’t feel like I have the lights in my life,’ ” recalls Shulman. The design made for Hathaway, The Lightkeeper, was composed of a small old-fashioned glass light bulb from a lab in Berkeley, California, with a metal setting crafted by Nahser Fink that allowed it to be unscrewed. Loose inside the bulb were 50 small black diamonds and one little ruby, signifying a phoenix rising from the ashes but also referring to the original light bulb’s carbon filament. “Like all diamonds, black diamonds are made of carbon,” explains Shulman. “Cool carbon creates the electricity of a light bulb.”
“Once people saw Annie wearing it, they wanted to know where to get a Lightkeeper pendant, and with her blessing, James Banks was born in 2011,” says Shulman. “The company was named after my maternal grandfather, who designed jewelry for my grandmother.” Every James Banks collection bears the hallmarks of the Lightkeeper: a vintage vibe, a mechanical component and layers of story behind the motifs and techniques.
Hathaway was also the muse for the company’s butterfly collection. “The inspiration for a character Annie was working on was a butterfly, and she wanted a butterfly jewel, but the only ones she could find were encrusted with gems or for children,” says Shulman, who married Hathaway in 2012. Shulman and Nahser Fink dove into researching a design that would fly, so to speak — neither childish nor overly bejeweled.
Ultimately, they decided to make the patterns on the wings in various colors of gold and other metals using an inlay process inspired by the work seen in Japanese swords during the 15th century. “It’s difficult to do,” says Nahser Fink. “You have to be in a Zen mode when you make them.” These patterned wings are attached to a hinge that forms the butterfly’s body, enabling them to be moved into different positions. The pendants that comprise the kaleidoscopic collection represent several species, including swallowtail, buckeye and asterope.
The James Banks Code collection was inspired by totems and the significant dates in a person’s life. “We were thinking about lots of things, including the idea of something that unlocks,” explains Shulman. “A key wasn’t dynamic enough.” After two years in development, Shulman and Nahser Fink realized their most complex piece to date. The Code designs have three-dial locks that resemble those on a suitcase. The jewel’s wearer decides what combination of stones, numbers or symbols will unlock the design, so each piece is personalized. The jewels have auditory as well as visual appeal, each turn of the dial making a clicking noise.
The design duo has used the Code collection as a source of ideas for expanding their offerings. For example, the Carousel bracelets are based on the rondelles of the Code bracelets, enlarged and ornamented with diamonds and colorful enamel, while the Codette bracelet incorporates a single Code rondelle.
After working together for nearly a decade, Nahser Fink and Shulman believe more strongly than ever in jewels’ narrative power. “I think jewelry has a poetry to it, and when you give it to somebody or customize it, you are adding your story to it,” says Shulman. Adds Nahser Fink, “When the jewelry gets passed on to someone else, the story continues.”