by Michael Raver
Former dancer and contortionist, Jal Dhanani-Wade finds immense strength and confidence in the power of a good workout. On the hunt for something to remind her of this, and to keep her motivated—a sort of talisman—she decided to create an object herself. She applied for a metal-smithing and jewelry design degree at FIT and, in 2017, unveiled (the aptly named) Benchmark Collection, a boutique jewelry line that draws its inspiration from lifting weights. Handmade in Brooklyn and cast in solid 14k gold or sterling silver, the pieces are made to last and Dhanani-Wade sees them as future heirlooms—reminding generations to come of their own strength.
How did you get your start designing jewelry—was it at FIT?
To be perfectly honest, I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t tinkering with jewelry. I remember being on the playground as a child and, instead of playing kickball with everyone else, I was scouring the edges of the woods for seeds to burrow holes through the center of with my pencil so I could string them onto fishing wire. I moved from Tennessee to NYC in 2009 to study metal-smithing and jewelry design, and after several internships and a few real jobs in the industry, I decided it was time to fine-tune my aesthetic into a cohesive collection instead of relying on one-of-a-kind custom projects. I quit my day job, and went for it.
What is it about the symbols you use that inspires you?
I really just wanted a solid gold weight plate that I could give a little squeeze to remind me what my personal goals are. I couldn’t find it anywhere, so I sketched it up and made it happen. After holding it, I realized that it was the perfect intersection of two things I love: fitness and gold. Some people love a tiny weight plate to encourage them to keep taking small steps toward a goal, some get a bigger one after achieving a goal, some get an engraving around the outside edge to carry a mantra around on an object of strength. I just love that anyone can attach whatever idea to this object that brings them a little bit of personal encouragement.
What is it about working with metals that moves you?
Working with metals is incredibly gratifying in that it typically takes a lot of very grimy steps to get to the best part: cleaning the piece to reveal the final shine. It can take a lot of problem-solving, as typically no piece is without flaw from the start. Figuring out how to navigate around pits and dips in the metal, what abrasives or polishes are necessary to give it the aesthetic you intended, how to attach a thin piece to a thick piece without melting it, how to make something strong enough to last a lifetime or two. Each piece is a little puzzle.
Tell us a little about the collision of weight-lifting and feminism in your jewelry.
Growing up, the weight room wasn’t really a place I’d see women. There has long been a stigma of females who lift weights getting “too bulky” or “manly.” I am so happy to see that being brushed aside. I’ve also noticed that a lot of the women I connect with on social media have a similar theme as to why they started working out: to prove to themselves that they are strong and capable, to take up the space they want to take and get the gains they want to get. Also, I should note that while the majority of my customers are women, there are plenty of people of all genders who have purchased my work for themselves as well. I love that.
What’s your hope for people wearing your pieces?
That they feel self-assured, empowered, and glowing… My work just catches a little extra light for them. It seems like people appreciate the handmade aspect of it too. I put a lot of love into each piece from start to finish and it’s extremely gratifying to me when people feel that.
Images courtesy of The Benchmark Collection