Presley Oldham Is Democratizing Handmade Pearl Jewelry

The actor-turned-designer, nephew of fashion powerhouse Todd, channels his handicraft roots into a collection of zero-waste pearl jewelry meant to be worn by anyone and everyone.

Photography by Kyra Bennington

As early as Presley Oldham can remember, he was surrounded by handicraft. He admits to literally having grown up in the factory of his uncle, the design stalwart Todd, and spending his childhood making jewelry by hand with his grandmother. Though design and craftsmanship runs deep in his lineage, the aspiring actor had little intention of following suit. He had recently graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and relocated to Los Angeles to enter the entertainment industry, where he secured production assistant gigs for music videos while auditioning for more substantial roles on the side.

Then the coronavirus happened, causing all of his work to evaporate. Faced with little to no options in his field, Oldham journeyed to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to quarantine with his grandparents, who reintroduced him to the familiar pastime of jewelry-making. It just so happens that Oldham had been sourcing antique freshwater pearls at flea markets in New York and Los Angeles for years, so he began hand-making pearl chokers for friends in his spare time. Their positive feedback, as well as the newfound level-headedness afforded by being immersed in the American Southwest’s natural grandeur, motivated him to launch his namesake jewelry line with a zero-waste mindset at its core.

Oldham credits his uncle with instilling values of handicraft, longevity, and considered design early on. These principles form the cornerstone of his brand, which references an erstwhile era when garments were entirely handmade and heirloom jewelry was passed down through generations. No two pieces of his jewelry are alike, owing to the freshwater pearl’s organic origins. They’re also intended to be worn by anyone and everyone regardless of one’s gender identity, subverting the age-old association of pearls with femininity. Below, Oldham explains how the collection started, how his family influenced his design sensibilities, and how the fashion industry can improve on sustainability. 

Presley Oldham. Photography by Kyra Bennington

How are you passing time during the quarantine?

I’m lucky to be in Santa Fe surrounded by mountains and fresh air. You’re looking at how I’ve passed the time—the jewelry has been my main focus every day since March. Making these chains has become meditative and helps me find grounding in the current climate. It’s nice to hold something physical that you created and then pass it on to someone else. 

What stimulated your transition from acting into jewelry making?

The sudden surplus of free time allowed my jewelry to grow to another level. I’d been working as a PA on music videos and starting to audition again after moving to Los Angeles this past year. When Covid-19 started, my jobs shut down within a week. 

I’ve made jewelry since I was a kid and started again lately, so this is less of a transition, more of an addition. The idea for these chains had been floating around in my head and I needed to work with my hands or else I’d go stir crazy. I could have never imagined what it has grown into. Had I picked up my knitting needles instead, we might be somewhere quite different.

What draws you to the freshwater pearl?

They’re naturally unique and the only gem created by another organism. Visually, they’re so striking and come in so many irregular shapes and sizes that I’m endlessly fascinated. I love their biology: how the pearl forms as a defense mechanism against a virus invading the mollusk (this is a research rabbit hole I constantly go down). Their symbolic weight throughout history of being protective and powerful gems also adds an interesting texture.

Photography by Kyra Bennington

We’ve been conditioned into viewing pearls as feminine jewelry, but you specifically designed this collection to be worn by anyone. 

Pearls have been associated with the feminine throughout history—their watery origins, resemblance to the moon, and connection to Venus all formed this aura that tied pearls to femininity. In the more recent past, we smushed these feminine qualities into a box and created this cultural understanding of pearls as something ladylike, proper, and what the ladies with the big blonde hair wore to church on Sundays (for me at least). 

To beat the metaphor with a stick, I want to unpack that box. Pearls are inherently feminine, but that doesn’t mean they should be exclusively for women. It’s important for me to create a versatile piece that anyone can feel elevated wearing, whether you’re an older Southern woman wanting a twist on the classic pearl strand or a male-identifying person wanting to show their softer, more feminine side. As a brand, it’s important to show the pieces on the spectrum of people you dream of seeing them on. This has been harder to do during the pandemic, but it’s pushed me to find new ways of collaborating with friends and artists.

How do you know when you’ve found the perfect bead? 

I collected many of these pearls over time from flea markets, and have started sourcing from local vendors around Santa Fe. I’m attracted to pearls that are slightly off and wonky—unique pearls with their own funky voice. But I also try to utilize the materials around me. All of my 925 Sterling Silver wire is made and sourced in Albuquerque, and most of the pearls are from small shops in Santa Fe or leftovers from my first collection. I try to work in tandem with my environment and let the materials inspire me to create from there. 

Does the American Southwest inspire the collection?

Having trees surrounding me and space to roam around barefoot has been the biggest influence. I launched this company because of this space and freedom. It’s such a supportive and nourishing place to create anything—there’s so much room to think. Visually, my pieces are all organic and reflective of my environment. I tend to gravitate towards earthy, more natural colors and am constantly inspired by the view outside my window. The scenery, the backdrop, the light—I couldn’t ask for a better setting. 

Photography by Kyra Bennington

Tell me about your experience growing up around Todd Oldham. Do you find that his influence informs your sensibilities?

I was flooded with an insane amount of creativity beginning at a very young age. My uncle’s company was a family business, so each of my relatives worked there in some way. I quite literally grew up in their factory. Todd, along with the rest of my family, showed me that there’s a way to make anything happen—nothing ever seemed impossible.

Todd is a master at adapting, growing, and expanding his skills. He moves between industries without compromising the quality of his work, which is something I strive to achieve. Past that, the visual rolodex of his work is forever ingrained in me after archiving all of the collections for his 2016 retrospective [“All of Everything” at the RISD Museum]. The prints and fabrics are so familiar and comforting (they were what my baby blankets were made out of). There’s no way to separate that history from myself—it’s a part of my language. 

What has this collection taught you about hand-craftsmanship?

Letting go of perfection. I’ve learned to work with my materials and not force anything. Each piece is one-of-a-kind, so I try to find a flow from pearl to pearl and embrace their natural irregularities. There’s a conversation from link to link—each one slightly differs from the next. These variations influence the design and have their own beauty. I like to imagine the wearer while I’m making it, which helps me create a personality for the piece.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced launching a small business?

I’ve had to be ultra-realistic about what I can do and contribute to the world. “Move slowly, but intentionally” is my motto. I feel fortunate to launch a business during these times. There are obvious limitations, but it added another level of integrity to my company to start out during the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement. I’m proud to be able to collaborate with artists of all kinds and to use my work to raise funds for causes I care about. 

Photography by Kyra Bennington

A zero-waste mindset is one of the cornerstones of your brand. How do you think the fashion industry can improve on sustainability?

The immediacy of fast fashion and being able to order anything whenever you want plays a huge role in how we value items. We’ve sped up the production cycle so quickly that, other than having the finished product in our hands after the click of a button, we no longer have to think about any part of the creation process. This is wildly different from the time when garments were crafted by hand and valued for the effort and cost of each piece. 

We need to shift to a more thoughtful, balanced value system before we can produce any meaningful change in the industry. That being said, so many spectacular designers are dreaming up resourceful ways to effect change. Graysha Audren, in particular, inspires me—she’s engineering seamless woven clothing to help reduce waste and steps in the supply chain. We have to embrace, invest in, and support ingenuity like this.

What’s next for you?

I’m not sure what the next year looks like or what city I’ll be in (I’m in Santa Fe for the foreseeable future). I’m trying to build my company to be adaptable to any situation. I have lots of ideas for new products, from jewelry and clothing to home goods, and will expand as I can. The beauty of this time is that the world has slowed down. I’m embracing this new speed, taking one thing at a time, and seeing what good I can invest back into the world.

All Stories