A fusion of technology, craftsmanship and sustainability, Astor + Orion is a Seattle jewelry label that offers intricately designed pieces made with plated recycled metal.
Prototyped by Tomas Wittelsbach with his groundbreaking digital 3D sculpture techniques and cast in recycled metal at an ethical manufacturing facility in Thailand, every piece of jewelry from Astor + Orion celebrates the individuality of the wearer. On top of all that awesomeness, a portion of the proceeds from each purchase supports creative community programs at Tomas’ Alma mater, California Institute of the Arts. We are super excited to share with you our interview with Karen Hartman, co-founder of Astor + Orion! ❤️
Tell me more about Astor + Orion. What inspired you to co-found the brand?
Astor + Orion is a partnership between renowned American sculptor, Tomas Wittelsbach and myself. We were inspired by the beautiful interlocking shapes that can be found in mandalas and kaleidoscopes. We designed a jewelry line that was a modern take on those sacred geometries.
How would you describe your brand aesthetic?
What were you doing before you co-founded Astor + Orion?
I lived and worked in China for almost 10 years as a manufacturing agent and then spent a little time in Bali before our family finally moved back to the USA.
When did you first become interested in sustainability?
When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I became aware of the deforestation in the Amazon and it broke my tender heart. One day when I was at lunch, I noticed all of these soda cans in the trash. So I convinced my science teacher to help me start a program at our school where we raised money from recycling cans and gave it to a conservation group to buy acres of rain forest in Costa Rica. This was in the late 1980s and the idea that you should recycle or even care about the rain forest was pretty new.
That was when I first got the idea that recycling materials instead of sending them to the landfill could create a positive change.
What has your journey been like as a sustainable designer?
For many years, my journey as a designer was about searching for a medium that would let me make shapes that reflected the complexity I saw in the natural world. I was continually frustrated because it’s very hard to create products with complexity at an accessible price point. When I discovered Tomas’ work using a 3D sculpting software to design jewelry, I knew I had found the “missing piece”. By using this software, we are able to bring the artist’s touch back into the manufacturing process. It’s a very exciting time for me.
As far as my journey through social responsibility, I have a lot to say based on my time living in China and working with the factories there. In the decade I spent in China, something like 300 million people were lifted out of poverty.
In order to make such a big change happen so quickly, China paid a heavy environmental price.
That’s just the harsh reality but it also gives me hope because all of the effort that went into making sure people could eat is now shifting into protecting the environment and improving working conditions. Big changes are happening because they are approaching sustainability from a resource management perspective that requires skilled workers.
We should be doing more to highlight the pragmatism of system wide sustainability and social responsibility rather than selling it as a luxury good or alternative lifestyle.
Can you describe your daily routine? What’s your typical day like?
I like to drink warm lemon water and meditate for 6 minutes, and then I chant a devotional hymn for one minute. Ha-ha, just kidding. I’m dragged out of bed at 7am and I drink as much coffee as possible while getting my kids ready for school. I get into the studio by 9:30 am.
When I am working, flow is everything. I use a time blocking system so I can keep on top of all things I need to do in a week while making sure I get blocks of uninterrupted time for creative work. My creative time blocks are my favorite and I usually schedule them in the morning when the caffeine is still working.
Afternoons I work on different aspects of our business such as production, accounting or sales calls. I wrap my day up at 5:00 pm and shift back into Mom mode. If things are busy I do another work period after my kids are in bed.
What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?
Learn to say no.
Do you feel like marketing Astor + Orion as sustainable has helped or hindered the brand?
I think it has helped us because when our customers talk about our brand, they always mention that it’s made from recycled materials so clearly that’s something that resonates with people.
What are your thoughts on today’s fashion cycle?
I’m really happy that sustainable fashion is getting more attention but I would like to see more variety in design aesthetics. I’m worried that sustainable brands are painting themselves into a corner with an over-reliance on neutral colors and blocky silhouettes.
Sustainability shouldn’t have a certain look. Every brand should be sustainable.
How do you believe the fast fashion industry can begin to fix itself?
I think the only way forward is to stop being fast fashion. The business model itself is based on producing looks that are only designed to last a few months. The quality is so low that the fabric is pilling and seams are ripping after a few wears. Making these products is not only tough on the planet, it’s also tough on the people who make them. There is no dignity of work in that system.
How can brands manage their waste?
This is one of the areas that I am the most excited about. I love the Ellen MacAuthur Foundation for doing so much to promote the idea of a circular economy. The idea is that waste and pollution are designed out of our system and materials are kept within the system instead of ending up in the landfill. The technical challenge for recycling fabrics is significant though.
So I think the easiest thing for fashion designers to do is to look for ways to incorporate recycled or dead stock materials into their designs. This is why we are designing in stainless steel. It’s a material with a low toxic load and is already being recycled in high volumes. Our earrings are made from 70% recycled metal. This year we are launching a take back program for our customers to send us back any broken earrings so we can recycle them.
What brands do you look up to?
They are not a fashion brand but I love The Riveter. It’s a women-led, co-working space in Seattle. I really admire their passion and ability to demonstrate that building systems “by women, for all” is good business.
What advice do you have for other designers interested in sustainability?
Pick a topic and just get started. Call out recycled materials on your design sheet, swap toxic processes for a less toxic option or just think about reducing the amount of waste in packaging. Whatever it is, just start.
And now for some fun stuff. If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
Maybe a farmer? Who am I kidding? I already wake up too early. Design is my ride or die.
What are some of your hobbies/things you do for fun?
I love traveling and visiting museums. I was in NYC a few months ago and was able to catch the Heavenly Bodies exhibit at the Met. That was pure magic.
What is something nobody knows about you?
I once spent a few months working in a Hollywood creature shop. I meticulously painted layers of latex and paint onto giant bat wings for a horror movie called The Cave. It was a dream come true.
Who would you love to see in Astor + Orion?
I travel a lot. I’m looking forward to the day when I’m in an airport far away from home, I see this fierce looking woman walk by and I notice that she’s wearing a pair of my earrings. I can’t wait for that day.
Where do you like to shop?
I am so lucky that I live less than a mile from a street with a lot of great independent shops. My new favorite is RA Studio in Ballard, Seattle.
What is your most favorite thing to wear?
When I lived in Shanghai, I knew a tailor that made cashmere sweaters. The sweater he made me is so incredibly soft and the fiber quality was so high that 10 years later, it still looks new.
How do you wear your values?
Being a compulsive traveler, I have been dressing from a capsule wardrobe since before it was a thing. I buy well-made clothes and wear them for years.