Studio Visit: Upper Metal Class



A few weeks ago, I stopped by the sweet studio space of wonderful Portland jewelry designer, T Ngu of Upper Metal Class. I’ve been a big fan of T’s work almost since the inception of the label, so over the years it has been lovely to get to know her, her stories, interests and, now, her dreamy workspace. T’s studio is bright, inviting, and full of plants trained by her momma to scale great heights. She works in a tidy environment with an inspiring work ethic, great focus, and discipline. The scale of most of her designs is so small, it’s no wonder why she stays so organized!

Some of my current Upper Metal Class faves are the Linnear Square Studs, the Serpent Necklace, the Serpent Earrings, the Smile Now Cry Later Emoticon Earrings, the Moon Eclipse Earrings, the Diamond Horseshoe Necklace, the Large Arc Necklace, the Presence Cuff Bracelet, and all the new jewelry holders. More HERE and follow @uppermetalclass on Instagram — so many stunning travel photos are happening right now!




Describe your line in three words.
Minimal. Subtle. Effortless.

Where do some of your biggest design inspirations come from?
Architecture is one of my main inspirations. I love all styles from Mid-century modern, Art Deco, Gothic, and Victorian — just to name a few. I just love the use of line, form, workmanship, and design on such a large scale.

When did you start Upper Metal Class?
I started Upper Metal Class in 2010 when I was between careers deciding whether to pursue a job behind the scenes in commercials and film production or as a wardrobe stylist. I ended up taking a few jewelry classes for fun so that I could make pieces that I wanted to wear with no intentions of making it into anything more than my personal collection. I made pieces that had an effortless style with subtle design details understood by people who love understated minimalism. Soon after, I started to receive jewelry requests from friends, family, and even people I didn’t know! They all wanted the same things. I realized there seemed to be a demand for the jewelry I loved making, so I started a small online shop and from there it just took off.

What would you say your focus or specialty is?
My main specialty is creating wearable minimalist pieces for daily wear. I make jewelry and holders that are versatile, effortless, and work for just about any style. When I first started, the very first piece I ever created was a pair of stud earrings and, as my number one seller, studs have remained my specialty. I’ve ventured into making necklaces, rings, bracelets, and jewelry holders which have all been so much fun.



What does a good, productive day look like for you?
The day starts off with a run in the morning to wake up and get the blood flowing. Then I head to the studio, check and answer all emails, get paperwork done, plan out the day, prepare for orders to be filled, finish and pack jewelry, ship them and get home at a decent time. That is pretty much a typical day, but rarely goes in the order planned because there’s always extra things that are added. Custom orders, designing new collections, coordinating/planning photoshoots, preparing for shows/events and so much more are always in the mix to coordinate.

What is your favorite thing that you’ve ever designed?
One of my favorite designs is not really the most popular, but it holds a great part of my heart. About a year after I started, I made a necklace that I initially called the “Concrete Necklace” — because it looked like a little chunk of concrete — I received an email from someone who wrote me a very touching email telling me the story about her life and how that necklace has meant so much to her. After hearing Niki’s story of her family of holocaust survivors, passion for helping chronically-ill teens, her own genetically-inherited health issues, how important the Concrete Necklace had become to her, and her truly inspiring outlook, we renamed it the “Niki Necklace“. All profits from the Niki Necklace go to Life Center Northwest to raise awareness about the need to register as an organ donor to help save lives.

Any personal favorite pieces that you’ve been working on?
This is a tough one! Lately, my very favorite pieces have been a few custom orders I’ve been having fun working on. There’s so much connection between a person’s story and what I am creating for them that it makes it all the more special to me. I am currently creating these sweet cuff bracelets that are simple yet have a nice clean form perfect for personalizing with the added touch of engraving. I’m making these for someone who wants to give one to her mother, her sister, and herself. The hand-engraving will be of their individual names in handwriting taken from their beloved late grandmothers old letters!



What is the #1 most awesome thing about owning your business?
To be able to be as creative as I want to be in all aspects of business!

Anything new coming up that we should know about?
I’m working on a new collection that I’m very excited about, but I don’t like to talk much about it since part of the process ends up changing or evolving into something else. One of my favorite new pieces will have an option to add personalized engraving in either cursive or block letters. I’ve found that people are always looking for an added sweet touch to give as gifts for their loved ones and I am so happy that this will be the perfect thing for it.

What are your favorite places to shop and eat in Portland?
That’s so very hard to say because, as everyone knows, there are so many amazing shops and restaurants in Portland!! The first ones that come to mind that I love are Betsy & Iya and Red Sail. For on the go and a quick lunch, I heart Ole! Ole! for Mexican food because it’s fast, cheap and so very good! And Nicholas for their Lebanese and Mediterranean cuisine. I love their fresh housemade pita (best I’ve had) and awesome platters.

On your own for dinner — what do you make for yourself?
I normally make a large salad and when I say “large”, it’s the size you would share with a family, but all to myself. I mix in romaine, herb spring mix and spinach with black beans, bell peppers and my own “dressing” (1 full avocado with a little bit of Braggs and smashed like you’re making guacamole) mixed in. I top it all off with a sliced Fuji apple. Sometimes I add stir fried veggies. I also have a quesadilla with a little bit of black beans and soy cheese, since I don’t do well with dairy cheese. I like to sit on my bed and enjoy my food while I watch a few shows, like Broad City, Girls (which I’m sad is over now) or a movie.

What are your current obsessions?
I’m obsessed with running. I love it because I get to be outdoors and it frees me from my thoughts almost like it puts me in a meditative space. I only started truly running last year. I would hear about people running marathons and for some reason it never crossed my mind that I could do it, but something happened and I figured why not try! So I signed myself up to run with a group to train and worked my way up from running a 5k, 10k, half marathon and then a full marathon. I eventually got into running on trails which I love since it’s a totally beautiful experience with being in nature and the woods. I stuck with my plan and ended up doing more half marathons and full marathons on my own on trails through cold, rain and some sometimes snow during the 6 months of training. I completed my first 50 mile race on April 2. It was tough but I did it in 13 hours and 29 mins and I plan to do it all over again. So, yes, I’m obsessed! I’m obsessed with nature, being fit, staying healthy, and meditating. It all keeps me in tune with myself during times when I feel all over the place.


What are you currently reading and watching?
I’ve been watching the Netflix show Chelsea Does — it’s really funny and interesting. I never really watched her talk show, but stumbled upon this show and actually really like how she brings out comedy and explores different subjects like marriage, drugs, race etc. As far as books go, I’ve been reading Mindy Kaling’s book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me. She’s super funny about her life growing up, being a woman and a minority.

Who are some designers who inspire you?
I love Hélène et Julien architects! Their @hejublog Instagram feed is full of inspiration — colors, shapes, and all kinds of visual eye candy.

Who are your personal style icons?
I love Audrey Hepburn for her classic, feminine, tomboy style. Her style can be minimal, understated and at the same time she can be bold while maintaining a very polished and feminine look. She represents the kind of woman who is strong, independent and she is giving in all ways, especially in philanthropy.


What are some other shops online that you love?
I love illustrators and artists, like Klai Brown and Kindah Khalidy

What 5 records would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island?
That’s a hard question, Jen!! Here are my picks: Transatlanticsim by Death Cab For Cutie, Pink Moon by Nick Drake, Dusk and Summer by Dashboard Confessional, Deloused in the Comatorium by Mars Volta, and Let’s Stay Together by Al Green.

#1 dream vacation?
To do a trip around the world for a whole year!

How do you relax and unwind?
I like eating snacks in bed with a good movie.

#1 pet peeve?
We don’t wear shoes in the house unless they are house slippers so it drives me crazy when I have my shoes on and I’m out the door when I realize that I forgot something because it means that I have to take my shoes off and put them on again.

If you could have a super power, what would it be?
To fly without any limits! How awesome would it be to be able to fly anywhere in the world?? What a dream!

What are your hopes for 2016?
I tend to like to feel like I always have control of my life and situations, but I realize things are just going to happen the way they do. The only thing I can control is how I react to them. My hope is that I can be more aware of that so I can appreciate and be more present in my own life.



Shop Visit is a Honey Kennedy series about shops and design studios found in Portland and beyond. Photos by Jen McCabe. ♥

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