Rubella

Samantha Stillwagon, left, and Rita Salpietro, right, of Rubella, a local jewelry outfit based in Jersey City.

Rubella — also known as German measles — is a contagious infection best known by its distinctive red rash. Rubella is also the alias of two Jersey City designers named Rita Salpietro and Samantha Stillwagon.

Rita and Sam create custom handmade jewelry featuring antique tintype photographs,
chandelier crystals, skeleton keys, animal bones, human teeth and other anatomical objects.

Their creations can found on Etsy, Facebook, in various shops, or on the road during craft fairs and festivals.

I am a fan of Rubella, and their jewelry. I bought my first item from Rubella the other day. The piece is a gold brooch with a large ceramic tooth affixed to it. It’s for my girlfriend. For me, Rubella has carved out a niche somewhere between Oscar Wilde and Jeffery Dahmer. I don’t know whether to swoon or run in the opposite direction when I see their distinct line of objects and jewelry.

Rita and Sam, tell us about yourselves–what’s your background, and where did you two meet?

SAM: My background is in illustration and traditional photography. We met at NJCU in Jersey City. We were both Photo majors. Our friendship evolved when we both realized we had a love for Patsy Cline and medical oddities among many other things.

RITA: My background is in photography, accompanied by a longtime interest in collecting and creative writing. Sam and I met at NJCU. I moved to Jersey City from California (where I was living for a few years) to finish a degree in photography and she was the first person I really connected with in Jersey City, artistically and otherwise. We would leave class and find ourselves rambling forever about music, old cameras, graphic novels, and our favorite Taschen books.

Rubella

Rubella is the alias of your jewelry business. Why did you choose the name Rubella?

R: There is a very catchy nineties song by Smoking Popes titled “Rubella”. In the song, Rubella is the name of the love interest. We love the idea of the two opposing visuals: a beautiful woman and a not so pretty disease.

S: Rubella sounds like a beautiful feminine name while being the name of a sickness. Perfect.

What kind of jewelry do you make, and why should someone buy it?

S: We make jewelry that we wear. That’s pretty much how we started. We have always adorned ourselves with rather large pieces that we have made into jewelry.

R: The tintype pieces are my personal favorite. I hope they become our signature. The unique quality of a tintype is unmatched by current photographic technology. The idea of wearing an image of a deceased person isn’t strange to us; it’s a celebration of history and forgotten lives. In addition to the tintypes pieces, our jewelry features other objects of the past like old keys, chandelier crystals, antique hardware, and ornate coffin handles.

S: There’s something about actually wearing a piece of history on your neck that makes it more special than a lot of other necklaces.

The Tobias Necklace features an antique tintype pendant accented with a chandelier crystal and an old yale key, all hanging from a sturdy chain with clasp. Chain measures approximately 22 inches in total length and tintype and key together measures about 3 inches in length.

You make what you wear and wear what you make. This is perfect. What I find appealing is your attachment to photography, and the role photography plays in your jewelry. Who are some of your favorite photographers, and why?

S: There are so many photographers, and they all have different styles. Francessca Woodman, Lewis Carroll, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Stephen Shore, Joel-Peter Witkin, Bellocq, Weegee, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Sally Mann, Nan Goldin, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Gregory Crewdson, Pierre et Giles and Carte de Visite photography, stereograph cards, medical/anatomical and crime scene photographs and institutional mug shots. A lot of these photographers portray a lonely or mysterious feeling, kind of dark or plain dark. Some of the photographers work in black and white, and some work in oversaturated color.

R: I’m going to add Julia Margaret Cameron and her staged tableaux of women and children. I love that stuff. Actually, I don’t know the origin of a lot of the images that I come across and love these days. I guess that is the mixed blessing of the Internet, right?

Untitled Rubella brass tintype ring, valued at $45.

Rubella tends to use non-traditional mediums and methods in its designs. For example, the Henry necklace features an antique tintype, a religious medallion, an ornate charm, and a tiny metal hand that clutches a tiny paper burgundy rose. The Diana necklace features a preserved rodent femur bone. What’s the story? Why do you choose the materials you do, and how would you describe Rubella’s design philosophy?

R: All these objects have a past–and when paired together–they seem to tell a story or become a poem. They also connect us to the past.

Rita, I am going to throw you a hardball–high, fast, and inside. The past is past, what’s so great about it? Sam–no ducking–I expect a comment about the allure of the past from you as well.

R: That is a good question! I don’t think the past is greater than the present. However, for me, the past is aesthetically superior. There is a sublime quality to old images, and old things.

Rubella necklace

How long does each piece take to design? $50 seems inexpensive for handcrafted jewelry.

S: It depends on the piece.

R: Every piece differs. Many of the items that we utilize in our jewelry are things that we have collected over the years. We love these items. That is where the real value lies. Every piece is different and rare. But we also want the jewelry to be affordable.

As an artist, pricing artwork is difficult. In my experience, I usually undervalue my work, and sell it below cost. What I forget to put into the equation is what actually goes into an individual piece: time, labor, cost, as well as professional training which enable me to make the work in the first place. I know you spend time and money traveling around the area to find the objects you utilize in your jewelry. What is your experience of determining price of any given piece?

S: It is hard to determine value. Sometimes we think we under price our pieces. For example, when we were sitting behind our table at a craft fair, a man pointed to our tintype pieces, and said: “These should be more, this is too little, I’m telling you!” Some people think we might charge too much. They do not realize that a tintype is close to 100 years old! Each tintype necklace is a relic, a piece of history that can be worn around your neck! We try to keep our prices reasonable. We want to share with other people!

You have to market your tintype pieces to history buffs. Rubella has to take its line to the Antique Road Show. Rubella sells its jewelry on Etsy, in craft fairs, and boutiques. Which forum do you prefer, and do you cater designs to fit a particular venue?

S: I love craft fairs. It’s a chance for us to curate an atmosphere. We design our table with an array of objects, such as phrenology heads, bell jars, rodent skulls, flowers, old birdcages, vintage suitcases, photographs, and other things. It sets a certain mood. It’s like a home for the jewelry.

R: The feedback from the people that we have met during craft fairs has been positive. That’s one of my favorite parts of the process. I have been surprised to see how our work appeals to people of all ages, tastes, and styles.

Rubella

Sam, I like your comment, “A home for the jewelry.” In many ways, your presentations strike me as site-specific installations. I can see Rubella designing photo shoots, movie sets, and museum installations. Have you considered exploring installation and set-design as other forms of creative expression for Rubella?

S: I made miniature sets and photographed them a while ago. It was something I really enjoyed. Having complete control and kind of inventing your own world. It’s something I’ve actually been thinking about returning to. Rita and I are very concerned with our surroundings and the environments we create for ourselves such as living spaces etc.

R: I would love to do set design or interior decorating. When I was 14, I begged my mom to let me paint my bedroom walls dark blue and put up gold wallpaper on the ceiling. I even spray painted the ceiling fan gold! In retrospect, it looked horrible but I really did love hanging out in that little dark gaudy room.

Where do you see Rubella in the next few years?

S: In the next few years we hope to gain a larger fan base and do more art fairs and events. And I would love to have everything — time, space, and material resources — I need to make more custom pieces in my studio!

R: We always want our jewelry to be one of a kind. We also plan to get our work in more locations, which is already starting to happen this summer.

Where is Rubella’s studio?

S: I have a small studio space in my apartment.

R: I work in my apartment–make jewelry, watch eBay auctions for treasures, and photograph the pieces. It’s the place where I feel most comfortable and has turned out to be great backdrop for our vision.

If you could design a jewelry line for one celebrity, who would it be, and why?

S: It would be Theda Bara or Louise Brooks! They embody radiance, mystery, and they have a certain darkness that sets them apart from a lot of other celebrities of their time. I think some of the things we make are almost made for them!

R: Those are good answers! I’d like to give a tintype piece to some of the writers who have written about photography–Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. I’m not saying they’d wear it, but I’d imagine that they would find the appeal.

The artist Joseph Cornell made work–unsolicited–for his favorite actresses. He designed a devotional box for Lauren Bacall. I heard that Humphrey Bogart was furious, and refused to be in the same room as the gift. Have you considered designing a specific line of jewelry for living celebrity–someone in the public eye?

S: I have to think about it. I cannot think of any living celebrity that I care for. Maybe someone like Dita Von Teese.

What other kinds of objects does Rubella make?

S: We appropriate religious candles from the supermarket. We embellish the candles with anatomy images from the late 1800’s or hobo clowns, or snake charmers and fortune-tellers. We also add touch hardware such as an antique key or a charm of some kind.

R: Sam and I are always dabbling in something new — from baking and silk-screening vintage slips, to Sam’s intricate and wonderful illustrations. In the future, we could pursue all of our passions, but right now, our main focus is the jewelry.

Tooth brooch features a large faux tooth on an ornate brass setting.

For me, your work is similar to the devotional objects I come across in Catholic churches. Has religious art influenced Rubella’s aesthetic?

S: Most definitely. The idea of a relic comes to mind the most. I was raised Catholic, but I’m not practicing. Catholic art/charms/statues/architecture are something I have always loved. While sitting in church as a child, bored out of my mind, I would just look around thinking how creepy yet peaceful and lonely these saints and apostles looked. I think they are absolutely beautiful and sometimes tacky and absolutely creepy which all make for something pretty great.

R: I read a book recently that likened the character’s boredom to a tourist’s boredom of churches. I get this analogy of course, but I have never been bored of churches while traveling. I think the longest time I ever spent in one was at Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. It was a hot, dry summer day and it was so cool and dim inside. I couldn’t have dreamed up a better place to be alone.

This question, in two parts, is for Sam. Sam, you were born in Jersey City, and live in Bayonne. When did you decide to leave your home, and betray your friends? If Jersey City challenged Bayonne to a snowball fight, whose side would you be on and why?

S: I grew up in Jersey City. My family moved to Bayonne after I finished high school. As soon as I graduated, I moved right back to Jersey City. I ended up moving back to Bayonne because I couldn’t afford to live in Jersey City. Jersey City is where I’m from and made me the way I am probably–ha-ha. Obviously, I’d be on the side of Jersey City in a snowball fight.

This question is for Rita. Rita, you were born in Atlantic City, and were raised in Toms River. Which character from the Jersey Shore do you identify with most–Angelina “Jolie” Pivarnick, Jenni “JWoww” Farley, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, or Sammi “Sweetheart” Giancola–and why?

R: I can’t believe that I have an instant answer for this one, but it would have to be Sammi. I do a pretty decent impression. Plus, she’s the romantic of the bunch, right?

Rubella

I do not know. I have never watched the show. Let’s focus on Jersey City. What is your favorite diner? Who has the best jukebox, and where can you find a decent cup of coffee?

S: Our favorite diner is Miss America. We have spent many hours sitting in the original booths (which have sadly been replaced by modern booths) sharing ideas and talking over disco fries and gyro plates. I like the jukebox at Bobby Dee’s on Beacon by Christ Hospital. Their jukebox isn’t the best but it has some gems. The limited selection forces me to search through the whole thing and make a decision. And that bar is just insane.

R: Miss America, I agree. It is a shame about those new booths! I think we used to mention the awesome atomic patterns on the tabletops every other time we sat in there. I don’t go there very often, but the Juke Box at Lucky 7’s is pretty great. Coffee drinking is one of the few habits that Sam I don’t share. I drink a lot of it and usually make it at home.

Where would you rather spend your weekend, and why–inside the galleries of the MoMA or trash picking in an abandoned lot near the old Medical Center in Jersey City?

S: I’d rather spend my weekend dumpster diving and searching through the trash by the old medical center than hitting up MoMa. I have been obsessed with that old Medical Center since I can remember. I would like to have been able to go inside more than anything.

R: Can I do both? I’m just as comfortable sipping wine during an opening or digging out an anatomically correct spine model from a Jersey City Dumpster (real find!). However, I can’t say I would be as comfortable sitting across a table and staring at Mariana Abramovich. I’ve seen the current exhibition at MoMA and loved it, but haven’t had to guts to attempt to sit with her yet – Maybe one day soon before it closes …

Rita, you cannot choose both. This is not a game. This is life. Now, answer the question. What would you rather do over the weekend, and why–go gallery hunting in Manhattan or dumpster diving in Jersey City?

R: I have been trying to cut down on my “collecting” lately so I’m going to say gallery hunting. To get my fix, I would take photos with my iPhone so I could bring the artwork home with me. It’s a sickness!

rubella

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