By Caroline Jumpertz
Lydia Gobena is an intellectual property lawyer who started making jewelry because she has very small wrists and fingers, and couldn’t find bold designs that would fit her.
Lydia was interested in fashion and jewelry as a child, but it was only once her legal career was established that she made jewelry a sustainable creative outlet.
Her line, called Birabiro, is accumulating a devoted following via word of mouth, Etsy — and among New Yorkers who go to her annual trunk shows. Lydia lives in Harlem with her husband and two daughters, 7 and 6.
Q: You’re a trademark, copyright and intellectual property (IP) lawyer, so I would come to you if I needed help with what, exactly?
A: We represent a variety of brands and people, from anyone who’s starting a business through to the larger luxury brands. For example, with jewelry you have copyright protection. If you’re selecting a name you want to make sure it’s not a someone else’s trademark. You do not want to get a warning letter down the line. An IP lawyer is fundamental to anyone who is starting a business.
Q: Was starting your own business something that you always wanted to do?
A: I was always very interested in doing creative things and I used to make necklaces when I was little. I have small wrists and small fingers, so in order to wear big jewelry I really had to make my own. I started my business because there was only so much jewelry I could wear myself.
Q: So the law is your livelihood but the jewelry is your passion?
A: I think if I had to make jewelry for a living, that would be nice, but I really enjoy the legal work that I do. It is intellectually stimulating. Because my practice is international in scope, I work with lawyers all around the world.
Q: How did your work as a lawyer help your jewelry business?
A: Well I made sure that I had a trademark of my own that I could use, I filed and registered the mark in a few jurisdictions. Also, I know how to protect my brand; I know what’s covered by copyright and what’s covered by trademarks and what’s covered by design patents.
Lydia Gobena at her annual trunk sale.
Q: It sounds like you’ve avoided a lot of pitfalls that other designers might not know about…
A: Definitely. For some people, they might say “I want this name!” and start using it as their company trademark. In the U.S., your rights are acquired by use, so someone else might not have a registration, but they could still go after you. It is better to be protected before launching.
Q: If you had to choose your passion which would you choose, the law or the jewelry?
A: I think having them both is great because having a creative outlet through jewelry may in fact make me a better lawyer. I think a lot of people go to therapy, but I’m able to channel a lot of stresses through this creative outlet. It also enables me to look at legal matters a little differently which is helpful for my job and beneficial to clients.
I also like the mental stimulation of the work I do as a lawyer. It creates a nice balance.
With life, and with having children as well, you have to be very structured.
Wednesday nights are my dedicated jewelry night. Sometimes I’ll go in to the studio on a weekend, or I’ll take a vacation day and go to the studio.
I structure my life such that I am able to do everything — well, as much as I possibly can.
A: How would you describe your aesthetic?
I call it boldly organic jewelry. I love natural stones; I love large stones; I like metalwork; I like statement pieces. I’m not someone who typically makes delicate jewelry.
Q: What is your earliest memory of design?
A: I was drawing people in dresses when I was about 7 or 8, and I got into beaded jewelry in my teens. I did that throughout college. My first class in making metalwork was supposed to be September 11, 2001. Obviously one of the worst days ever happened in New York City. So that’s how I remember how long I’ve been doing it.
Q: What fuels you?
A: I love to think of things creatively; I am interested in fashion. It’s also weird in a way but I am interested in engineering, and that’s why a lot of my jewelry tends to be quite structural. I am interested in figuring out how you fit things together to make them work.
What fuels me goes through phases. There was a time when I was doing everything in circles, and my jewelry was comprised of lots of asymmetrical circles. Now my work is more structural. I also have some geometric pieces which are more symmetrical.
I walk around New York and there are so many things that you look at and that can inspire you.
Q: What would you do if you had unlimited resources?
A: I would do a lot of gold pieces. I’d love to be able to use diamonds. I would like to create things on a bigger scale as well as do a lot more marketing.
Although I think there is something in the imperfect stones, there is something in geodes that is immensely beautiful. You have a rock and you split it in two and you open it up and it has all these sparkling crystals inside. All of this beauty in them. That’s also why I like druzies.
Q: Do you have any advice for young designers?
A: Starting any sort of business, you have to love what you do. It’s really important to do what you love. And not that work is the be-all-and-end-all, but I think to a certain degree you have to have that passion to succeed.
For a young designer in particular, my advice is to have all your ducks in a row when it comes to IP, trademarks, to copyrights.
Now this is the lawyer in me, but what bothers me most is when people copy other people. You have to have your own voice and do something that is truly yours.
Q: What would be your advice to your younger self?
A: I probably would have started making jewelry a lot earlier. Doing a little more of the creative side. And to a certain degree, looking at what I studied. Maybe I should have gotten into science, which I am encouraging my daughters to do, because having that engineering or even architectural point of view is helpful, having that creative side is immensely important to create balance in one’s life.
Q: Who is someone you admire you’d like to wear your pieces, or appreciate see your work?
A: I am drawn to people like Iris Apfel. Bill Cunningham has also photographed me a couple of times on the street, but anytime anyone wears one of my pieces, it makes me very happy. Jewelry is very personal, and if someone likes one of your pieces, it’s nice that they appreciate a part of you.
Q: What is one lesson you’ve learned, and how did you learn it?
A: As I’ve gotten older, the one thing I’ve decided is to really be me, whoever I’m going to be. Obviously I work very hard as a lawyer and I make my jewelry, but the older I get I realize that I’m going to be the person I’m going to be.
I think once you hit your late 30s and early 40s you start thinking about who you really want to be, and you should be that person. When you’re in your teens and early 20s you’re very self conscious and you want other people to like you… and I still really want people to like me but I just want to be my person and be happy with who I am, and do what I want to do.
Q: What kinds of things have influenced your personal style as you’ve gotten older?
A: My father passed three years ago, and I lost someone larger than life. I started to realize that life is very short. After that point I wore more colors and started buying glasses in all sorts of colors; that was going to be my thing and I wasn’t going to be shy about it.
A lot of people go to therapy, but I’m able to channel stresses through this creative outlet.
What fuels me goes through phases.
At the moment my work is structural.
I have geometric pieces which are symmetrical.
I walk around New York and there are so many things that can inspire you.
Once you hit your late 30s and early 40s you start thinking about who you really want to be, and you should be that person.
Lydia Gobena: Jewelry Designs that Fit
Birabiro structural necklace
Birabiro statement necklace
Birabiro ring with Druzys
Birabiro ring design
Glass bead necklace
Birabiro Lava and Gimbi earrings