In May, my partner Lucien and I went on a road trip through the Southwest. Upon his insistence, we went to White Sands National Park under the premise of a “sunset picnic.” Then BAM! Lucien proposed to me. It’s a really beautiful engagement story but this story isn’t about that… and honestly I’d like to focus on the GORGEOUS, SYMBOLIC, and HEART STOPPING ring he presented me with. I know material objects aren’t supposed to bring so much joy and a sense of finality and commitment… but damn… This ring sent me into outer space. Which brings us to the maker of the piece and the heroine of this Ziran Muse story… Megan Rugani of Maiden Voyage jewelry.
After the proposal we stayed with Megan at her home in Santa Fe for a few days. It was really cool to get to know this badass and inspiring woman who I already admired, albeit we’d never met IRL. But instantly upon meeting we connected and literally could not stop talking and comparing notes about design, running businesses, fashion, tattoos… a friendship was unleashed. We have a common set of values and we work hard to get what we want. I deeply respect Megan as a person, artist, and business owner. So of course we had to feature Megan as a #ZiranMuse.
p.s. We will be joining Megan + some other incredible makers at the Ex Voto Trunk Show in Santa Fe. July 31st. We will have one of a kind pieces as well as a special sale!
Give us some background, why jewelry as your form?
It would be really nice to say that I have deep roots with jewelry and adornment, and that’s why I got into it, but it’s actually because I was presented with a metal arts class. I was always drawn to metal because of my family. I come from a family of metal workers, but not in an artistic sense, because they're pipeline builders. I guess it just comes down to wanting to make my dad and brother proud. I think that it's because I came from a blue collar family, and I was always trying to prove myself to my older brother and seem cool. So by taking this metal arts class it was satisfying my urge to be in the arts in some way, and also do something with metal. I didn’t even realize that it was a jewelry making class. I was actually thinking it was like bronze pouring, fabricating, welding.
I wore jewelry, but it wasn't like I based my identity around it. So when it came to making jewelry, what really drew me in wasn’t necessarily like, “let me make something that I want to wear,” even though that was a really fun aspect of it. Like the satisfying nature of being able to create something, and then immediately use it as a means of expressing yourself. You can put it on your body and it’s satisfying. But when it came to making jewelry I just genuinely liked the process of doing it. Everything about it was just so satisfying.
That’s cool - something sparked just snowballed.
Yeah, I was taking the class at city college and it was 2 or 3 days a week. My instructor was like, “if you ever want to stay late after class you won’t really be disturbing anybody, you can do your thing.” So the entire semester instead of just spending 3 hours there for the class, I spent 6 hours there until the other class was done. I didn’t do it for a grade, I just genuinely liked it. I knew if I wanted to get anything out of this it was going to be from doing it right there, right then. I leached all the hours I could out of the class.
What’s your current inspiration and what symbols are you drawn to?
I’m drawn to more decorative elements. It’s interesting wearing the silks right now, because I think about textiles when I’m making. I like making these wide bands that have an engraving, which is like it’s own narrative. It’s these nature elements that are decorative but also have an architectural design, like a strip of pave diamonds. It has this clothing element. It's like you're wearing this silk robe that has buttons on it. You’re decorating the decoration. It’s a pair of pants with a belt. I’m thinking about garments when I’m making a band like that.
Do you make for a specific person or are you making things you like?
I do make for myself. I pretty much would gladly wear anything that I make - to an extent. If it's something custom then I might not, but if I'm designing it from my own mind then I am. I don’t like to brand in a way that excludes people, and I think my jewelry is unisex. It can be worn by 25 year olds and 50 year olds. I want to make it for anybody that respects it. For anybody that has a desire to purchase and wear things that are made with integrity. To connect to the actual maker and materials in an intentional and respectful way. That can be anybody.
It can be so limiting if it's for a certain person.
Yeah and some things are so branded towards a certain age demographic. I don’t want to be too much of one thing, but be in the “in between.”
I don’t make what that jeweler makes, but I shouldn’t envy that because that’s their thing and this is my thing. The world needs both of these things to be whole. There's enough room for all of us. There's room for this person to make that and there's room for me to make this. And theirs is beautiful and mine is beautiful in different ways. You don't have to be everything, you only have to be you. Which is so corny but really you only have to be you.
That leads to my next question. I love how you mix high and low, hard and soft, masculine and feminine - you seamlessly flow between these things. Is that who you are outside of jewelry? Do you think you play into both those realms, and your art is a reflection of that? Or is your art more intentional and you pull in these things?
It does come from who I am as a person outside of being a designer. Even though I said I like to be in between, I think what that really comes from is being so far in each direction that it creates a balance. I don't want to just go one way, one direction. I want to go really far in both. This informs my design process: I think about balance a lot. Sometimes people will ask me for a custom design, and they want to do this image on top, and this on the sides, and this… it’s all of these things going on. It always comes back to being balanced. It can’t be too heavy on this side or too heavy on the top. It’s even in the way you dress. Baggy on top and tight on bottom, or baggy on bottom and tight on top. It has to be balanced and even itself out. It can’t be too much of one thing.
What’s your creative flow and process like? How does it work from initial inspiration to final thing?
It usually comes from sitting in the bathtub and thinking of designs to make. They just stay in my head for awhile and then most of them just fly off into the ether and never come back around. But sometimes something will stick in my head, and when I have the downtime to try something new - which is usually in the middle of another project that I should be doing - but I’m like, “ok I gotta bang this out right now.”
I don't make a lot of drawings for jewelry. I think it's really cool when jewelers have these notebooks that are filled with all of these renderings. I wish that was me, but it’s not. I just go straight to it. I learn by doing and I develop the idea as I do it. So it changes a lot from the conception in my mind to manifesting it in materials. Which is something I personally really like about it. It’s the actual kinesthetic value of moving and making the thing… and it kind of just becomes what it's going to become. I’m not necessarily morally opposed to designers that use CAD (computer aided design) but I just can't even imagine it. It takes the life out of it for me. Because I can have this idea and draw it out, but I know that if I were to actually do it it would just change so much. I don't know if that’s good or bad but I like that it changes.
Why transition into being an entrepreneur and take on this whole other realm? What are the challenges, what do you love/hate, why?
I wonder about that myself on days and I think, “wow it would be so nice to sit and read outside, but instead I’m working.” In terms of Maiden Voyage, I want it to be successful so that I can keep creating. When I wasn't successful I was still working odd jobs, and then quit those odd jobs to go full time… I was just scraping by. That didn't feel good creatively, so I equated that the more money I'm able to make - and security I have, - the more liberated I feel to create from the heart. I'm not having to say, “I really need to pay rent this month,” which means, “I really need to create something that's going to sell.”
Anytime someone is making something to sell it's really not that exciting. There's not a lot of art in it. That's not fun or sustainable as a creative person. I want to be successful and make this my career, so it was figuring out ways in which I could market myself. I always want to take myself seriously as an artist and as a member of the industry. So I was always wanting to learn more and more, and not just jewelry making, but having an actual business.
Why start the brick and mortar shop Ex Voto, and expand beyond your own line?
I felt this momentum happening with Maiden Voyage. I was doing well and I've always wanted to have a physical space. This is ironic since most of my direct sales happen from Instagram, the internet plane, and my retailers. But I wanted to bring things back to real life. I want a brick and mortar store, and to have actual humans walk by and find us on a whim. Random people just strolling by. There's a nice magic to that. I wanted to bring it back to real life… and now we're doing a lot of our business on the internet anyways. Seems like we're glued to social media.
Once I conceptualized the idea to open a store, it all happened really fast. It seemed doable but overwhelming at the same time. But the minute I committed to myself that I was going to do it, and started reaching out to other designers, I realized how many people I actually know. How many people respect me, and that I respect as well. I was like, “there’s this solid little community here and people are happy to be a part of it. And stoked about it.” It just seemed like a great idea with a great collection of people and work. It’s a lot of work. But the kinks are being worked out and it’s going to be its own great thing.
There are times where I’m like, “fuck why did I do this to myself, why did I pile on another job and career on top of my own?” But honestly I don’t view Ex Voto as a money making thing. Yes it's going to eventually, but it's also a fun project.
So what’s the point of doing this? a) I always wanted to do it, and if I’ve had a thought about doing it, I do it to see if I can. That's who I am. And b) seeing the people in the shop super stoked. I have a lot of lines in the store where it’s their first time selling in a retail store. Giving someone an opportunity and chances is a really big thing for me. Because I've been given chances and opportunities that have fully changed my life, and allowed me to do what I want to do for work. I want to give that back to people if I can.
That’s cool - you’re taking the success and what you have and helping other people, building a community so everybody can rise.
I want to feel empowered to empower other designers and people. Like I said there's enough room for all of us here, we just got to work to get it done.
Where do you see Ex Voto and Maiden Voyage 10 years from now? What’s the ultimate dream?
For Maiden Voyage the ultimate dream is to have a solid workshop full of skilled jewelers. I’m already on my way there. Where pretty much every single part of the production process would be done in-house. I would love to make it so that I can pass my skills and design sense onto those jewelers so we can all create Maiden Voyage jewelry. Where I don't have to personally sit down and make everything start to finish. The things that I was once protective over… I can teach someone else to do that. I don't need to do these things a hundred times. So it would be great to pass all of the production work onto them and I would really love to focus on only doing bespoke, one of a kind, engagement and bridal, art jewelry. That would be great.
With Ex Voto, it's so soon to think about things down the road, but my intuition tells me it's going to be great. It would be really awesome to open up another location somewhere, maybe California which is my home state. That could be really cool. The idea of employing a good amount of people is humbling and like, “wow I literally created work. I created work out of nowhere. People get paid and can have a job that they like. They get to be involved.” That's fulfilling in running a business: being able to share economic wealth and work with people. That’s pretty awesome.
Ziran means natural, spontaneous, and free, to push away outside influence and embrace your own authenticity. Are you Ziran in your life? Does this idea mean anything to you?
As a person I think I am “natural, spontaneous, and free.” I kind of tear through the world. If I want something, I get it. If I like something, I consume it. I like to think that I'm mindful, but I also don't think I'm the most calculated person. I operate mostly on intuition, even in business stuff. I’m calculated in a way that I’m using my knowledge and experience in the last few years to make and form decisions about things. But a lot of the time I'm operating on my emotions and my intuition. I definitely do have outside influence. I think that humans naturally have outside influence because we live in a collective world. To not have outside influence would mean having blinders on. I don’t think it's boring to be influenced by other people. It can be done in a really beautiful and respectful way that's still true to who you are.
Sitting down to create, I hardly make drawings, but I will have some ideas floating around in my head. I’ll just loosely be like, “ok what I am going to make right now?” I'm looking at this ring, “what am I going to draw on it right now?” I just go for it. There's no time to sit. Life is long but it's also very short. I don’t have the time to sit around and make the perfect masterpiece all the time. Sometimes you're like, “that sounds good! I’m going to just go for it!” Sometimes it ends up being my favorite piece. Grabbing a thought that's running around in your head and then just running with it.
You made my incredible engagement ring. You worked closely with Lucien on it and it really captures my aesthetic and energy. I literally admire it all day long. So what was the inspiration!?
This is a situation where knowing about the client, their taste, aesthetic, and who they are comes into play. These two brilliant-cut traditional white diamonds are not something I would usually work with. I love them and they are absolutely beautiful, but they do have this traditional look to them. So I was like, “how can I take this thing that is so traditionally beautiful and make it unconventional?” Because these are not conventional people.
The fact that you work with your hands, you're active, you’re outdoorsy… there are these things about you that just functionally putting these diamonds into big ol' prongs sticking off of your finger… that’s not you and doesn’t work for you. I thought, “Kelly should have a really nice clean band that has a super nice weight to it.” Lucien and I had talked about the double dragons… also water was a big thing. So instead of just doing a round shape on top, I thought about a cresting wave. It sounded really awesome to me and it also has this crown-type shape. Royalty.
The same thing about balance - that's why I did the flames coming from different ways. One side is swooping down, and the other side is swooping up. It has this balance, this yinyang shape to it. Aside from that, I had to figure out how to draw dragons, which I thought would be easy. But it’s not. It’s so hard anatomically… you’re drawing something that's a mythological creature. I was like, “can I just see a picture!?” But you’re drawing on drawings so I had to put the claws and flames in there because that's what makes it a dragon.
Intention, thought, and respect are important values to hold as a brand (and in life!). The detail with which Megan created this ring showcases her artistry and sense of craft. We want to live in a world where all products/objects/works of art are created with this level of purpose and function.
Also huge gratitude to my love Lucien for so thoughtfully designing this piece with Megan. I love you.
Photography + Words: Kelly Wang Shanahan (@theziran)
Shot in Santa Fe, New Mexico. May 2021.