Vice Versa: Sophie Thoerner & Hannah Traulsen – Interview

Vice Versa is a line of fine jewelry handmade in the USA. The line is crafted from 14k gold and high-quality white diamonds. Designed with time in mind, Sophie Thoerner and Hannah Traulsen have created heirlooms that feel modern but will stand up to a lifetime of intense wear.

Sophie was born in New York City. After graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design with a BFA in jewelry, she returned to New York City and began conceptualizing ideas for her own brand. The following years were spent learning the ins and outs of design and production from some of the industry’s most talented designers.

Hannah attended Barnard College and has worked in every facet of the jewelry industry. Her years of experience in diamond sourcing and production were the perfect match to Sophie’s highly skilled design background.

The duo’s years of experience in product development and production ensure that every piece of Vice Versa jewelry has been perfectly engineered to last a lifetime. 

Interview by Carly Kutsup. Photos courtesy of Vice Versa.

­­­­Carly Kutsup: How did the both of you get interested in becoming jewelry designers and at what age did this interest start?

Hannah Traulsen: Sophie’s really our designer.

Sophie Thoerner: I actually I went to an art school with an undeclared major originally, so I really had no idea what I wanted to do and I was kind of a mess. I wanted to pursue architecture, because my dad’s an architect, and photography, but I never really found my place in either of those fields. When I was studying them, I just hated it so much. I hated what I was doing. I was feeling super lost at school and a friend of mine was like “You know what? Why don’t you take an intro to jewelry class with me? It’ll be like super chill and super fun and easy.” I was “Great! That sounds awesome!” I immediately fell in love with it because I felt it was small scale architecture for your body. Even when we make the pieces today our process in designing them is very architectural and I we use 3d programs. We’ve actually designed a lot of our pieces on 3d programs that architects also use. I’ve kind of found my area in what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be because I really didn’t expect to do this.

CK: What are some of the programs you use to design?

ST: I use a program called Rhino 3d and I also use a program for rendering called Keyshot. If we are pitching to a client, a bespoke client or someone who wants to do a custom project that’s where the 3d programs come into play. We will typically build and design in the 3d program and then I’ll take that model in the 3d program and bring it into the rendering program. I’ll be able to create a hyper-realistic rendering of what the piece will look like so that I can send it to the client before we make it. It’s kind of a really cool way that they can see what it’s going to look like before they have to pay for it.

CK: How did the two of you meet?

HT: We worked together actually and I admired Sophie so much when I met her right away. I was like “Who is this girl? I love her! I want to be her friend. I want to do everything with her.” We just connected really nicely and we worked together so well, which I think is why a lot of people who go into business together and don’t have practice working together run into a lot of hiccups because you don’t really know what it’s going to be like when you hit the ground running. We had such a special advantage because we had worked together so seamlessly and it’s worked out really well for us.

ST: I felt the exact same way when I first met Hannah. I immediately was like “This is the person that I want to do business with and I want to partner with.”

CK: When did you finally make it official?

ST: Just this year right in August 2020.

HT: Yeah, it’s very new, but Sophie’s been working on stuff and developing this line in most capacities since 2018 so it’s certainly not like the brand just came together this year, but our partnership really started this year under the name Vice Versa.

CK: How did you come up with that name?

HT: So, my first sort of signature ring that I made is called the Versa ring and I named it that because it’s kind of like a puzzle toy. It’s like a modular piece. I designed it because I wanted people to be able to wear one piece of jewelry a lot of different ways. So when I was trying to come up with a name of what to name the ring, I finally settled on naming it the Versa ring and then when Hannah and I were sort of in the early development of what we wanted to name our company she was like “How about Vice Versa?” We had a very long list of names that we would add to. We probably had something around 15 different ones on there and we loved some of them. We would toy around with them and then this one just kind of really fit it and it makes sense.

CK: What kind of mediums do you work with?

HT: We do a little bit of everything. We do some pieces in silver and the next level in gold. We also use diamonds. We mainly use 14 karat gold because we like the color a bit better than 18 karat and it’s also a little bit more price friendly. It has durability and I think that’s really important. When you look at a lot of vintage jewelry it was made in 14 karat not 18 karat and I think the way that 14 carat wears is so integral to the brand because we’re really trying to make pieces that will last a lifetime. I also think that 14 karat has a little bit more integrity than 18 karat. It’s a little less soft. When we started making these rings we wanted to make them available to a wider consumer audience keeping in mind that not everyone can afford a $2500 gold ring so we wanted to allow for silver versions that would allow people to still buy into the design and buy into the brand without having to feel like they can’t afford something.

CK: Was the ring the first piece you ever designed for the company?

ST: Yeah, it was because I remember that the ring was the reason that I decided I wanted to start selling my own stuff because I all of a sudden had this like crazy idea and I just made it and then people started having a really great response to it. They really wanted to know more and see more stuff. It was the first piece that started the whole thing which is crazy to think about what inspired that. I’ve always loved chain and chunkier jewelry. I grew up riding horses and there’s this chain that goes underneath their mouth and it helps to control them a little bit more. It’s called a curb chain. I remember always loving the way that it felt in my hands when I would be cleaning it. I feel the chain motif is such a classic timeless idea that will sort of never go out of style. I think that, that’s what inspired it.

CK: How do your ideas flow from the beginning to the end?

ST: Usually, it’ll start with a bunch of texts back and forth between me and Hannah and I will be like, “Can we do this and do this?” and then it’ll start coming together. I will typically go into my 3d program and sort of sketch it and map it out and then start to tweak it and change it. But it really kind of just usually starts with a crazy idea and me just being like “Can we do this? Do you think this is okay? Will people buy this?” Then from the 3d program we will talk to our jewelers and try to problem solve and see how we’re actually going to make this piece because coming up with an idea is half of the battle. It’s more trusting somebody to execute the idea properly. Once we work out all the kinks, make some adjustments, tweaks and changes, then the final sample is usually born.

CK: Have either of you ever worked at a bench and created a piece from start to finish?

HT: I, myself, have never worked at a bench, but Sophie has.

ST:  When I was in college we used to have to do everything ourselves. I majored in jewelry and declared my major in jewelry at Savannah College of Art and Design. We had to do everything. We couldn’t outsource our stuff. I was in the studio every single day with like a torch and soldering stuff as well as sanding and casting. It was 100 hands-on. I actually miss it a ton, but I think that if I was in charge of having to manufacture our pieces we would get one piece done every six months so it just doesn’t really make sense.

CK: What would you say is your most popular piece?

HT: I think the piece that people want the most is the large Versa ring. I think it’s the thing that like draws people to us the most. I think the pieces that get purchased the most are the initial pendants and the Partner In Crime rings just because they’re a little bit more accessible. We’ve also had a really exciting year in engagement rings. We’ve also been doing a lot of custom work and a lot of bridal work. For me personally, it’s like the most rewarding thing. I love doing it and I love speaking with clients. I think it really lets Soph’s design work shine. It’s just so fun and special to be part of people’s lives in that way.

CK: I really like those engagements rings because I know, for myself, if I am going to wear one it has to have a low profile since I work a lot with my hands. The ring can’t get in the way of my work.  Was that the intention for the new engagement ring line?

ST: We sort of saw that there was a lack of attention being paid to functional engagement rings that you can wear every single day that won’t get in your way. The whole low-profile style I love so much because I want to put on a piece of jewelry and forget that I’m wearing it. I don’t want to have it like turning or poking me or if I go to grab something, I don’t want to catch my finger on something.  So, these stones are special stones. They’re called rose cut diamonds and they have that sort of flat profile that allows the ring to sit very low on your finger. I think that’s what makes them super special. We did something super cool too. We’re actually still offering it, but we just need to advertise it a little bit more, but we wanted to start doing 15% off of that setting for people in the medical industry because it’s our hope that people in the medical industry could wear these rings and also be able to take their gloves off without ripping them. They change their gloves a million times a day, nowadays, so it was definitely on purpose that we decided to have these rings sitting as low as possible.

CK: Regarding learning the facets of this industry, was it through college or were you working in the field and getting experiences?

HT: I’ve been in jewelry for close to 10 years now. I have no formal schooling in jewelry. I went to Barnard College and I had a liberal arts education. I absolutely loved it and wouldn’t trade it for the world, but when I was growing up my uncle was a jeweler. He was always like “Don’t get into this industry. It’s terrible. You’re going to hate it. Stay away. Don’t come near this.” I was like “Why would I ever want to do that. That’s so stupid. I have no interest. No thanks.” Then when I was in college a friend of mine was working at an internship and she said to me “My time here is coming to an end. I think you’d be great at this.” So, I started working in costume jewelry and production as an intern sourcing feathers and beads and wire and all sorts of wild things. I just loved it.

ST: Hannah is the queen of sourcing.

HT: I love sourcing things. I think it’s so much fun and I just took to it. I thought it was so exciting that you could go into work one day and a couple hours later you had a physical product in front of you. I just hadn’t seen that happen before and I thought it was really exciting. Then I spent four years in costume jewelry and I transitioned to fine jewelry. I’ve worked for a couple different brands in fine jewelry. Then I met Soph and the rest is history

CK: What would you say has been the most beneficial and the most difficult part, not just this industry, but running a business?

HT: I think the most beneficial part is just knowing that we can really do this on our own. We’ve assisted different brands in so many ways and worked for so many people and realized their visions for a lot of years. It’s been really exciting to kind of collaborate and come up with ideas and see them through to the end and realize that we can do this ourselves, we’re really confident and capable. It’s been such an exciting thing and I think personally for my self-esteem it’s been incredible. The most difficult part I think is that it’s a really saturated business and this is a bit more industry specific, but there’s so many exciting jewelry lines right now, especially women founded and people of color, coming into the industry. It’s been really amazing to see such an influx of new people in the industry. That’s not to say that they haven’t been here for many years, but it’s a really crowded space. I think carving out a niche for ourselves that makes sense, that’s unique and exciting and draws people in is challenging. It’s something we’re excited about doing, but it’s definitely hard.

ST: I think the most beneficial rewarding part of this is seeing a future for myself where I’m working for myself and working with Hannah. I don’t necessarily have to sit at a desk for eight hours a day or ten hours a day and that sort of idea of flexibility is really exciting to me. So, Hannah said that we’ve done a lot of custom stuff lately and I feel that is the most rewarding part for me because people will come to us with a story or a background and a piece of jewelry that they either want to repurpose or reset or they just want to start new and do something else. Everyone comes with a story, so it’s been really cool to create meaningful pieces for special people that have that sentimental quality about them. We made this ring for this woman whose dog passed away. We modeled it after the video game that the dog was named after and she was just so happy. This makes me feel this is totally worth it and this is what I want to do.

CK: Was that the ring that was in the form of a shield?

HT: Yeah, that’s the one.  It’s called The Zelda because the dog’s name was Zelda.

CK: What has been your hardest piece to make?

HT: I think the hardest piece to consistently execute is definitely the Versa ring because it is impossible to resize. So, the way we make it is that we 3d print using wax. We have a wax printer that 3d prints each side of the Versa ring and then we send those to get cast into gold or silver or whatever. Sometimes they don’t always turn out the right size and you can’t just take this ring to a jeweler and ask it to be resized. Resizing means that you cut the ring open, you take some out or you put it in, but that doesn’t work with this ring. It has been a huge trial and error process of figuring out how we are going to be able to mass produce these, but we’re getting there. We’re really getting there so I have a lot of faith, but that’s definitely the one that has kept me up at night for sure.

CK: I was going through the Instagram feed and saw there was a piece that was designed for the Netflix series Tiny Pretty Things. How did that come about?

ST: So, my boyfriend was cast on the show and when he originally went to Toronto for his first day on set he was getting fitted for clothing and outfits and other stuff.  The wardrobe department asked him like “Oh what about your wardrobe? What do you like a lot?” I had made him another necklace and he said “I really like this necklace my girlfriend made for me and I would really love to wear a necklace.” So they actually asked him to ask me if I would make his character a similar necklace so that was really cool. I made that from start to finish in four days because I was coming to visit him that weekend. I had to get it done or else it wasn’t going to be there in time, but that was a really cool thing. Now it’s all over tv and all over Netflix and people seem to really love it.

CK: Are there any other pieces you have planned for the website?

ST: Not yet, but I’m hoping for some more, would love to create some crazy big body pieces with chains draped all over the place for something, but as far as our core collection development we are currently developing some earrings, some bracelets and some different Versa combinations. We really want to start exploring using colored gemstones, maybe a rainbow one and donating a portion to an LGBTQ+ charity or doing an ombre effect. We really want to start exploring a little bit with color and seeing how that interlocking concept works with color because I feel it could be really cool.

CK: How hard is it to source your diamonds?

HT: We have a couple different diamond dealers that we work with. Some are in Israel. Some are based in New York, but it’s really important to us to understand where our diamonds are coming from so we are able to trace for the most part back to the mine. Not in every case, when you get into larger stones things tend to get trickier, but with our Mali, which are small stones that are set in the Versa, we know exactly where they’re coming from. I think it’s important to take accountability and know especially in an industry that is as complicated as this one with sourcing, environmental impacts and ethical impacts. That’s something that’s been really important to us.

HT: I would love to get into like using post-consumer diamonds and diamonds that have been recycled and taken from old pieces to just given new life because I feel like that’s kind of like upcycling in the diamond world.

ST: I think it’s a bigger project when you talk about doing small stones because you need such consistency and when you’re working in vintage you kind of get what you get, which is the beauty of it and also the difficulty, but I think it would be amazing to make pieces with recycled diamonds.

CK:  What other concepts have you been working on?

ST: We actually are currently doing a couple different custom engagement ring concepts that we’ve never done before. People have come to us and have been like “I want this. I want this, but this changed. Can you like come up with something for me?” so we’re sort of playing around with just making some newer engagement rings that we’ve never thought about making before.

HT: Because on the whole we’re pretty new, I think we’re trying to iterate on our existing silhouettes and kind of really get those into the world. I think they’re so beautiful and so if you spend so much time developing them I want to let them have their due. We’re definitely working on newness, but I also think it’s a big goal to just grow our exposure a little bit and let people see all the work Sophie’s done thus far.

ST: I do have something that I want to explore more in the future and this is more of like a long-term goal, but the reason people gravitate towards the Versa ring so strongly is because it’s a kinetic, transforming piece. I would love to figure out how we could apply that concept to necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Being able to customize and switch it out and kind of create your own based on the day. So that is definitely a long-term development goal that I would love to do.

CK: What advice do you give to someone who wants to go into this field? What kind of schooling will they need, whether it’s formal or informal?

HT: I’m a big proponent of informal schooling. I think it’s really important to learn on the go. I love just meeting people and asking questions. I think jewelers are some of the kindest people I’ve ever met and they’re so willing to mentor and have you learn from them as long as you’re willing to be respectful and put in the time and really to learn and listen to what they have to say. I’ve been so lucky just meeting people, asking them questions and sitting with them for hours being like “But I don’t understand like why doesn’t it work this way and why can’t I do it this way?” Sometimes they say “Enough. You have to go away for a little while”, but so many craftsmen who have devoted their lives to these things and you’re not going to get the experience that they’ve built over 40, 50, 60 years by sitting in a classroom. I believe that knowledge is really valuable, but I think there’s nothing like sitting next to somebody and wanting to pick their brain and understand how you’ve managed to make all these things work. So for me, I think it’s important if you hit the ground running and just learn as much as you can. Intern in places if you can and make that work. There’s so many people who compensate for internships now. It’s amazing and you should be compensated if you’re interning.

ST: I highly agree even though I did have formal training, but it could not have prepared me at all for the reality of what it is that we’re doing. Take classes. That is my main thing. Just like take classes and, I guess, for people who are just starting out as designers find something that is very a hundred percent you and your style. There’s so much jewelry out there that they say that you’re not original. There’s nothing really ever original anymore because it’s all sort of been done, but I don’t think that’s true. I think that you can absolutely like make a name for yourself in this business if you come up with original pieces. If you believe in your product and if you prioritize quality over quantity. Just stay true to your taste because somebody is bound to have the exact same taste as you.

Also, there are two different sides of the business. There are people who design and make themselves. They’re sitting at a bench but on a small scale operation. I’ve seen people that thrive that way in the industry, but I’ve also seen people who just design and outsource. There’s a place for everybody. I really think that Hannah is right, to just get as much knowledge as you can just by doing.

HT:  I also just want to advocate for more women, young women, in production. I think people are scared of it and it seems it’s this male dominated scary place along with “Oh, there’s big machines and maybe I can’t do this.” Yes, you can do this if it’s interesting to you.

ST: I think it’s so cool to see a woman with a giant torch. That’s so cool to me and I wish that more people felt that that was okay.

CK: Last question –  What do you think is harder, the designing aspect or the actual creation?

HT: I think designing is way harder because I don’t do it.

ST: I think the making is harder because I have an idea in my head and I don’t want to know how to make it. I just want it made. I mean I do want to know, but I can’t think about all the different things that could go wrong in making this or why this is impossible to make something.

To learn more about Vice Versa, check them out at:
Instagram: @viceversajewlery