Continuing to shed light on the masters behind some of the most notable lines of silver jewelry in this world, our next silversmith takes us to Malibu’s Bill Wall Leather. As a fabricator and manipulator of metals for over 30 years, Bill Wall’s designs are distinct due to their raw aesthetic, with details to be appreciated up close and from afar — this is due to Bill being completely self-taught and having a background in the construction of skyscrapers.
Not reserved to just silver jewelry, Bill Wall has made a name for himself making highly coveted leather accessories, all stamped with the Bill Wall Leather name. One of the more eclectic designers of our generation — much like his handmade pieces that see large colored stones, real meteorite shards, and gold — Bill Wall has seen it all. Having been incarcerated, stabbed, shot at, to making millions of dollars and then giving it all away, Bill’s story is in constant evolution, much like his approach to jewelry design.
With a new found audience in Asia, we caught up with Bill Wall for an interview during his stop at Vinavast while he was dropping off some newly-finished pieces. This latest 925 story explores the re-birth of BWL, his recent success in Asia, the inspiration behind his "Smiley-Face," and how he battled for years with his "disease" of the ego.
"I told him it was going to be 99 pieces of this and that, and then he went ‘Okay I’ll take all of it.’"
What is your earliest memory of silver jewelry?
My mom made jewelry as a hobby. My best friend Bruno, his mom was a jeweler and my mom’s best friend. I was around it and if it was a Saturday and my mom’s going to the jewelry shop/supplier to buy some stuff, sometimes I would buy something. Mostly it was fabricated, you could just weld a ring together. Something simple. I think around the age of 12, I made something for my crush or whatever, something like that. It wasn’t a career.
Can you remember the first item you ever made?
I do have one piece I made when I was seriously 12 or 13 years old.
Do you still have it?
This would be the similar version, this is not it. When I was a kid I mentioned going to the jewelry supply. I had limited tools available to make jewelry. These are two pieces of wire bent together. And if you took a piece of wire and just bent it around your wrist, it would be quite flexible. I took a drill, and I twisted two pieces of metal together.
I still have the pieces of metal from when I was a kid just sitting in a tray in my office. I took a piece out, and I made this bracelet. It’s now casted. The original idea was that it had a spring and hook mechanism so that if you got it around your wrist, it would be very springy and could snap together. But there’s no way I could hand wind you a piece of wire or two and create this over and over. So this would be the production version of it, but it is still very hand fabricated.
Was there a defining moment that set you off to becoming a silversmith?
No matter what job I had as a kid, I was always making jewelry for extra money. And then I was designing custom leather pieces. Anything from belts, wallets, jackets… whatever. That was my business. In the business, some of the hardware or accessories were silver. So I made one coat where the button was also a ring, and then a guy, his name is Mossimoto, he kept bugging me "Hey why don’t you make a small jewelry collection," and I’m like "Whatever you see in the showcase is whatever I make. You can buy it." After six months of him asking once per month, I told him, "okay, I’ll make a small limited collection. Come back in a month and I’ll have it ready."
I told him it was going to be 99 pieces of this and that, and then he went "Okay I’ll take all of it." I mean, I thought it was just the samples on the table, and he goes "No all of it. All 99 of everything." And I was like, oh shit, I’m gonna be in the jewelry business. We had a huge workspace so I just moved things around and then started making jewelry.
At that point did you think: "I should change my name from Bill Wall Leather to Bill Wall Silver?"
I registered the trademark when it was 1985, so it’s still the company name. But yeah, probably would’ve been good to have something related to jewelry at some time. But it’s an evolution. Being in the custom leather business was not my original plan. I built concrete foundations for skyscrapers and stuff. I was into engineering and stuff like that.
I have no formal training as a jeweler. I asked a lot of questions, and then I just figured the rest out. Some of the things we make would be very challenging for a regular or traditional jeweler to do. In China, they figure it out pretty quick. There are even people catching up to some of my fabrication. But I can do things with metal that even some of my staff, who have been with me for more than 20 years, can’t. They can’t do it. Only I can do it.
What do you think about the current state of jewelry in America?
Jewelry in America? I’ve been doing this a long time. Let’s say 20 years ago there was this movement in the jewelry industry, we were all friends. We were all friendly, and we all helped each other. So I would say hey Gabor, this person is looking for this thing, and I’m not really into production, do you think you could set it up for their production? I would give him a client, then he would bring me a client. Gabor actually set up all the machinery at the Chrome Hearts company and showed them how to run their factory for the first time. We were all friends. And then it all turned into some shitty secretive thing.
Why do you think that happened?
I don’t know if it’s greed or envy or what it is. But I don’t care who you are, I’ve been doing this almost 35 years. If I gave you 10 million bucks and every single tool in my office, you still would be 30 years behind because you wouldn’t know how to use any of it. So just do your own thing. But it’s not like that. I’ll make something, it’ll have some popularity, and then the next thing you know there’s almost an identical shape and diameter thing with a different motif, and I’m like why would you guys do that? You’re so talented, do something that inspires you. But it’s sad.
"…my friends calls what I do ‘mini-fabrication.’"
Is there a specific way that you would define your style of jewelry?
I build anything from a custom ring to a handmade car. This is a much bigger format, but it’s fabrication in some way. So I’m still kind of involved in building cars, and my friend calls what I do mini-fabrication. We’re making this hood to cover an intake system for a car, so this is a massive fabrication… it’s as big as this table. My engineering friends will show me what they are working on and I’ll just be like, "Hey this is what I made today. But it’s a miniature fabrication."
If I went through my list of hobbies you would just be like; "this a little ridiculous.” I try to only design things that I love. Try not to be something because of a trend or somebody asking about it. The happy face on your neck, I’ll tell you a short story about this:
Me and my sister’s husband, we were sitting down, he has an eyeglass store. There’s another company store nearby, but their logo/slogan is sort of like "fuck off" or "fuck you." So we were sitting there saying we should make something with a positive message, and I said "Okay I’ll make it." I made the happy face, which says have a nice day. I gave him 30 pieces, and I took 30 pieces, and we just gave them away to people. ‘Cause we were just sitting there, he’s my age and we work really hard, but who needs a negative message like "go fuck yourself" or whatever their logo is, so we did it sort of as a joke. But you can see the popularity. I mean, possibly 10,000 happy faces in the world that say "have a nice day." So that’s a story of inspiration, but it doesn’t explain exactly my style. But my style is… It could be inspired by something I wanna create something because of something I saw. So that’s kind of my style.
What was that one moment or situation where you knew you made it as a jeweler?
There’s a lot of people that I would say "Wow, how did you hear about me?" But I grew up in Malibu which is… well, Barbara Streisand lived on my street; Elton John had a house on my street, Sean and Chris Penn lived on my street. It’s just Malibu. Malibu in the beginning was just a garden and some horses, nobody wanted to live out there, and then it became… I mean, Clinton spent the night on my street at Barbra Streisand’s house. Some guy was smoking a cigarette on my driveway and I’m like, "Dude get your fucking boots off my car," and he’s like "Go back in your house." And I was like "Who the fuck are you?" He turned out to be Secret Service.
So I’m not overly impressed. The thing that was kinda cool was when I was at Starbucks with these two guitar players. They noticed Eric Clapton just getting a coffee and I said "You should go say hi to him," they’re like paralyzed. Paralyzed with fear. The whole time I am thinking, "He’s just a regular dude getting a cup of coffee, just go say hi to him." They refused. So I took them over and I’m like "Hey Eric, this is Paul and Paul, and they just wanna say hi to you but they’re way too shy to say something." And he goes, "Bill, you’re my hero," I’m like "Oh thank you very much, but why would you say that?" And he replied, "I was in Japan and I bought your personal wallet from this store." I was like oh cool. I mean, I didn’t know. But that impressed me that he knew who I was. But when it comes to celebrities, we don’t publicize it. I have a list of celebrities who would freak you out. I work with people all over the world. Royalty, all kinds of people like that. I was also born with some kind of weird thing, that is sort of like a color blindness to race and status. I think people all have a prejudice of some kind that is learned over time, but when I see a celebrity, to me it’s just another human being.
I’m guessing you have quite a bit of production now. What does a typical day look like for you when it comes to making a custom piece from beginning to end?
Being around for so long, I’ve lost a lot of resources. Somebody that maybe produces a zipper for us, is gone. Somebody that made our snap components, is gone. So recently my company went through some restructuring. The casting company owner which I worked with for 27 years was retiring. We thought her son would run it, then she asked me to run it. I don’t wanna run two locations so I couldn’t figure out what to do. I have thousands of molds, I mean, literally thousands of pounds of molds. You can’t just drop this on another caster. So what I did is I bought the company, I took all the employees into BWL, since they’ve already been working for me for like 26 years, and then I took the machinery I wanted. I then sold the company to somebody else that agreed to continue on the business for me. But this integral component could’ve just died out. Logistically, it’s been challenging to keep the resources going. We have all the molds in my building that we’ve been shooting in for 27 now.
This is how it works: The order comes in to me, hopefully by email; the email goes to Kristy. Kristy created a computer program for me that can ID every mold number. We print that out and we pull the molds, and then we put it in production. It goes down to the caster, gets picked up after it’s casted. We do all of our waxes and contain all the molds and things in our possession to protect the company. That piece of paper follows the items through production — it gets logged in, casted, and then it’s checked off a list. Whoever’s the best at cleaning or polishing or drilling or setting stones, does that. We have 13 people.
If it has a serial number, then it’s in my hands for a final inspection. It gets cleaned and polished. There are 17 steps. I have a photographic memory, so if I saw an order in my phone and I get back to the shop, I never look at a piece of paper. It may sound weird to you, but if I see it going around my shop, I’ll be able to tell them, "That’s not a synthetic stone, that’s a natural stone." You have to look at the order and then be like, "What the fuck? Oh yeah." I can remember almost every single thing I see. I have a chance to make sure it gets made right. Not everything does. If it’s got a serial number in it, there’s not one person in my company that does any engraving. Every piece you see with a serial number means I touched it.
"I got divorced and gave away almost all of my money. I walked out of my house with my gym clothes on."
You’re starting to gain a following in Asia now. How would you say your clientele has changed over the years?
It’s changed to a younger, more trendy audience. So I’ve had some big distribution. I’ve had offers in Asia that are part of huge distribution networks, and I’ve had all kinds of material riches. Like, I could just go buy a Mercedes and when it was delivered, just buy another one, but that’s not really who I am. It’s like that Los Angeles, don’t get me wrong, it could be that way in Asia too, but to me, I like to describe it as a ticking poison.
I used to care about what everybody thought about my outside success, so when I came to Asia, I wanted real relationships with real people. I didn’t take the huge distribution, I didn’t take the huge money. And like you see today, I’ve come to love my clients because we know each other, we work together. It’s not huge money, but I have a real relationship, and I prefer it that way. I’ve had the large distribution deals, and at the same time, have experienced millions of dollars worth of jewelry stolen from me. I have had clients lied to from the distros; they’d do all kinds of things, and I never want that to happen again. The version you see of Bill Wall and my client in your age group is a total rebirth for the company. It’s like starting completely over.
With that being said, in the past, were you also a different person? You’ve been doing this for decades.
Yeah, living in Los Angeles gave me the disease of the ego. I had the Pussycat Dolls dancing at my birthday party and shit like that at my house. It was like this whole outside world successful image thing. But to be honest with you now, I actually gave away a bunch of my houses; I got divorced and gave away almost all of my money. I walked out of my house with my gym clothes on. I never took a piece of furniture, nothing. Completely started over.
Would you say the divorce was the start of a rebirth? Or was it something else that triggered the rebirth?
No I still have the big machine working, the distribution and all that stuff, but it took me a while to figure out what was making me uncomfortable. It’s nice to have money. You can afford to do all kinds of cool things, but I didn’t need some of the things I had. It was kind of stupid stuff.
You have to physically take care of yourself, spiritually take care of yourself, whatever that means to you, and for me, I think I have to put some positive thing back in the world every day. There’s a lot of people that just wanna take. There’s a lot of greed. I’ve seen this destroy people. I had a bunch of millions, but it didn’t make me happy.
Maybe a lot of your readers’ dream is to be a millionaire or billionaire… but for me, I’m happier the way it is now. I’m with somebody that I respect and love — my wife. She’s never had the expectation for a Ferrari or Bentley in the driveway. She just doesn’t care about that. She does drive a nice car, but I chose it for her. I still have a lot of nice things, but I live a much simpler life. A much happier life.