For Jewelry Designer Rolly Robinson, “Nature Is The Queen”

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Rolly Robinson wants to take our call outside. Chatting from the porch of their home in New Jersey, the designer and co-founder of jewelry line isshi is thrilled that it’s finally warm enough to soak in the sun and luxuriate in the fresh air. The weather, as tedious a small-talk topic as it can be, is indicative of something larger for Robinson: a topical embodiment of their lifelong appreciation for nature, which regularly appears in their work. Among other catch-up topics? Dolly Parton and our early days spent working side by side at a fashion publication. I was a burgeoning fashion editor and Robinson, a skilled and sometimes underutilized graphic designer, would leave handcrafted paper dolls on my desk for me to discover. I still have one safely tucked away.

We’ve come and gone a long way since then. I, for one, left NYC for Robinson’s (kinda) home state of Tennessee. Robinson, on the other hand, left the graphic design field, managing a few luxury boutiques before finally launching isshi, the whimsical jewelry line that’s caught early praise and attention of fashion industry insiders.

But we weren’t on the phone to chat about our past. Just a week prior, model and entrepreneur Bella Hadid released the first fragrance for her perfume collection Orebella. In the advertising campaign, she wears none other than an isshi necklace, and not much else. It was a crowning moment for the designer who’s been doggedly working on the line since 2019.

“I hadn't heard anything from anyone on the team,” Robinson says, recounting how early elation from the possibility of getting their jewelry shot deflated after months of silence. Photoshoots can be fleeting. Sometimes looks and pieces that are called in by stylists — and even photographed — don’t make the final cut. But months later, while running errands in the city, Robinson received frantic messages. “My former partner was calling me and texting me and was like, ‘B*tch, call me. B*tch, check your text messages.’ And it's the campaign photos of Bella and the necklace. And I was like, ‘Oh, my f*cking God.’”

The necklace in discussion: a custom long, multi-layered pearl extravaganza inspired by John Galliano’s stint at Dior. Really, the piece is simply a continuation of Robinson’s longstanding fascination with nature and what it can provoke. “I want to celebrate nature [in isshi] and really put her on the forefront because nature is the queen,” explains Robinson.

Robinson moved to Sevierville, TN, which sits at the base of the Smokey Mountains, with their mother and sister when they were six. “It’s where Dolly Parton’s from,” Robinson proudly noted. The country superstar and Robinson have a good bit in common: larger-than-life personalities, unbridled conviction of personal style, and a hypnotic charm rooted in Southern hospitality that veers toward playful mischief rather than cloying sweetness. Sevierville is also home to the singer’s theme park, Dollywood. Welcoming heaps of tourists each year, the town is perhaps overshadowed, or at least informed, by the park’s blonde-gilded halo.

Growing up in this setting, it’s no wonder that Robinson’s personal style and jewelry design often marry these divergent influences. In isshi, collections frequently blend the accessible surrealism found in Dollywood with the surrounding majesty of the mountains. Organic materials are bent and hammered into extraordinary shapes and illusions, offered at a relatively budget-friendly price point. Robinson’s outfits, too, celebrate individuality, resourcefulness, and self-acceptance, tenets Parton laudes in her songs.

To Robinson, the jewelry line is the culmination of an isolated childhood spent in the company of nature. “My house growing up was surrounded by trees,” they recall. “And this was my first introduction to true nature. There were snakes and owls and scorpions and all these crazy bugs and raccoons. There was something about playing outside in nature, in the dirt with the leaves and rocks and trees. That whole element just totally unlocked this other part of my brain.” In fact, their childhood is still a bubbling stream of inspiration. Robinson says that their mother’s “fierce” fashion sense and their early fascination with cartoons, specifically Japanese anime, are longstanding cornerstones of their overall aesthetic for both personal dress and design, too.

Nurturing an early fascination with art, Robinson would sketch beloved animals and insects with a fervor. This would lead Robinson to earn a degree at The Arts Institute in Florida. It was during their time at The Arts Institute, however, that their focus swung toward fashion. Robinson would log countless hours at the library, they recall, pouring over books about design and illustration, anything they could get their hands on. Finally, with a degree in tow, Robinson moved to Manhattan to take on the fashion industry, working as a graphic designer in digital media, where our paths crossed.

But graphic design felt restrictive to Robinson. Searching for a bit more freedom, Robinson found a home in luxury retail, working and managing a range of boutiques like Gucci and Chanel. Unfortunately, Robinson was laid off from one such role in 2019. After spending some time with family to recover from a hefty dose of burnout, Robinson was captivated by jewelry collections that had started to invade their social feeds. They began constructing concept pieces for what would ultimately become isshi.

With an early collection completed, Robinson reached out to a friend who was a co-founder of small, now-shuttered showroom that represented jewelry lines. Agreeing to take on Robinson, she encouraged them to add more pieces to the collection to show at fashion week in February 2020. Robinson successfully showed in New York and Paris that season, and after building momentum, they encountered a major snag: The world shut down.

But Robinson was undeterred. “When we were in lockdown, I really had the time to put energy into my second collection, which was a collection of 30 or more pieces,” they say. It also served as an opportunity to advance the line past its original pumped-up rambunctiousness, settling into a daring yet wearable, avant-garde demeanor that pays homage to their childhood. Each piece is handmade and features locally-sourced, ethically-produced materials, Robinson continues.

The fashion industry took note, with the brand appearing in the Sex and the City reboot, And Just Like That. In season two, Lisette, Carrie’s noisy neighbor and jewelry designer, wears an isshi sculptural necklace while she lives every designer’s nightmare: Her collection is stolen by rogue cater waiters. Celebrity supporters like Espresso singer Sabrina Carpenter wore matching bracelets and earrings for red carpet appearances, and FKA Twigs wore pieces from an archival collection. Additionally, retail heavy-hitter Nordstrom now carries the line.

And while some might want to relax and savor their accolades, Robinson has continued to push their creativity, incorporating new methods and materials into designs, like hand-felting wool and other textiles. These new techniques debuted in isshi’s Spring 2024 collection, Lamentation, the first installment of their “Heartbreak” trilogy, which was inspired by a breakup Robinson recently went through. “This collection is about finding peace and tranquility and beauty even amongst the chaos of the world,” says Robinson. In the collection, shipwrecked delicacies range from tangled necklaces boasting starfish baubles and mixed metal links. Dropped ear cuffs adorned with floating pearls outline the ear as if finishing a Matisse sketch, and a spiraled bracelet evokes the hypnotic murmur of the ocean. After all, suffering from a broken heart can sometimes feel as if you’re swept out to sea without a life raft.

Isshi Spring 2024

Courtesy of isshi


But Robinson has built their own safe harbor, gushing about isshi’s forthcoming Fall 2024 collection and second chapter of the trilogy, Prologue. Here, the grief of a ruptured relationship is fermented for reawakening, Robinson says. For the designs, Robinson returned to their childhood stomping grounds, drawing inspiration from the mountains — specifically decomposition, spores, and rotting wood. It might not sound quite as glamorous as past collections, but don’t be fooled. Decay can be a useful thing. Found from mountain crest to echoing holler, it initiates transformation and growth. Without it, flora and fauna would remain in an arrested development, not unlike the unchanging rides and motifs of Dollywood. But Robinson is doing anything but standing still: Shipments for isshi Fall 2024 begin in September. Designs for isshi Resort 2025 are already underway, too, they share.

The afternoon sun has begun her slow descent into the horizon, painting my office in golden light. Throughout our conversation, I’ve watched the shadows grow long, stretching over my neighbor’s lawn. I’m not surprised to hear that Robinson’s been doing the same from their porch in New Jersey. Some things never leave you, it seems. Over the phone, a symphony of car horns and sirens erupt, and I ask Robinson if they can hear the first rattles of the cicadas that are just beginning to emerge in Nashville. They don’t, but we laugh and promise to set up another call soon, the next one will be decidedly more gossip and less shop talk. “Bye, queen!” Robinson calls in their typical, exuberant energy. And with that, our call is finished.