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J ColBy SMiTh oN ThE PsyChOloGy oF PiErciNg

Words by Rosie Dalton
Photography courtesy of J Colby Smith

J Colby Smith has been shaking up the piercing game for quite some time now. When I got my first piercing by him, he was still at New York Adorned and it must have been about five years ago. The addition was a forward helix that’s still my favourite piece to this day. Having now branched out on his own, with studios in both New York and LA, Colby’s success lies not just in his ability to switch out the surgical steel for rose gold. Nor is it his artful knack for curating a beautifully adorned ear on Instagram. More than all of this, it’s the therapy behind Colby’s piercings; the sense of self-expression achieved through body jewellery.

This is not the kind of jewellery you take off after a night out, but the kind that will stay with you for many years to come. It will absorb all of the good moments, as well as the bad and will likely court many an admiring comment along the way. Beyond all the hype, I think it is this that keeps people coming back to J Colby Smith — he makes you feel totally at ease and helps you discover the piercings that you really need; not just the ones you saw in Vogue last month. So to uncover some of the magic behind his craft, we asked him about his approach and what he perceives to be the modern psychology of piercing.

J Colby Smith has been shaking up the piercing game for quite some time now. When I got my first piercing by him, he was still at New York Adorned and it must have been about five years ago. The addition was a forward helix that’s still my favourite piece to this day. Having now branched out on his own, with studios in both New York and LA, Colby’s success lies not just in his ability to switch out the surgical steel for rose gold. Nor is it his artful knack for curating a beautifully adorned ear on Instagram. More than all of this, it’s the therapy behind Colby’s piercings; the sense of self-expression achieved through body jewellery.

This is not the kind of jewellery you take off after a night out, but the kind that will stay with you for many years to come. It will absorb all of the good moments, as well as the bad and will likely court many an admiring comment along the way. Beyond all the hype, I think it is this that keeps people coming back to J Colby Smith — he makes you feel totally at ease and helps you discover the piercings that you really need; not just the ones you saw in Vogue last month. So to uncover some of the magic behind his craft, we asked him about his approach and what he perceives to be the modern psychology of piercing.

ROSIE DALTON: When you think of the function of piercings, what is most important to you?

J COLBY SMITH: Strangely enough, more than aesthetics or jewellery or any of that stuff, it’s the experience. I really just try to make each piercing unique in its own way. Because my clients are spending a lot of money and I live in the real world; I come from a pretty humble background. So I just really want it to feel special and when somebody stops them on the street, I want that person to be like ‘hey I really love what’s going on here’. I just want [the piercing] to keep speaking to them I guess and that all begins with the experience.

ROSIE DALTON: When you think of the function of piercings, what is most important to you?

J COLBY SMITH: Strangely enough, more than aesthetics or jewellery or any of that stuff, it’s the experience. I really just try to make each piercing unique in its own way. Because my clients are spending a lot of money and I live in the real world; I come from a pretty humble background. So I just really want it to feel special and when somebody stops them on the street, I want that person to be like ‘hey I really love what’s going on here’. I just want [the piercing] to keep speaking to them I guess and that all begins with the experience.

“I think piercings tend to transcend different types of people you know; different sexes, races, and classes.”

RD: How do you go about trying to make it feel special for each person?

JCS: Well I’m lucky because the people are always changing. I think piercings tend to transcend different types of people you know; different sexes, races, and classes. I find that when I meet these people, they’re in a kind of vulnerable state, so I really just try to put myself in their place and feel what they’re feeling, then I play off that. I find that people give me little threads of information that they want me to pull on. They start out really nervous and tight and compressed, but the more I pull on that thread, the more they start to open up.

RD: There’s quite a lot of trust involved, so I feel like that sense of empathy would be really important in making people feel at ease.

JCS: Yeah and I think it feels organic, but there’s a little bit of psychology in there and it’s really interesting to get inside people’s heads. Especially with a stranger — they don’t really have anything to lose by talking to me and telling me about their problems with their boyfriend or whatever’s going on in their life. We just kind of get deep quick.

RD: I know that you fell into piercing quite naturally, but what is it that’s continued to intrigue you about the craft over the years?

JCS: I think more than anything it is the connection and the people. I guess it becomes a little bit addictive. I think now that I’m becoming more in tune with energy — and there is a lot of that, especially with anxious people, who are emitting this very intense energy — I can feel whatever they’re feeling. So when I do that piercing, I’m real close in a person’s energy field and feel kind of like I’m going through what they’re going through.

RD: I wanted to ask you about intuitive piercings. Not so much the ‘fashionable’ ones, but those ones that people are drawn to without really knowing why. Does that happen very often?

JCS: Yeah, quite a bit. I think we’re actually very connected as human beings, but we’ve kind of dulled our senses over the years. I find that aesthetically when I pierce, all I’m doing is looking at the anatomy and finding the most organic place to put jewellery; the body just kind of opens up. I think certain people have that same sense themselves; there’s probably an intuitive medicine behind it.

RD: How do you go about trying to make it feel special for each person?

JCS: Well I’m lucky because the people are always changing. I think piercings tend to transcend different types of people you know; different sexes, races, and classes. I find that when I meet these people, they’re in a kind of vulnerable state, so I really just try to put myself in their place and feel what they’re feeling, then I play off that. I find that people give me little threads of information that they want me to pull on. They start out really nervous and tight and compressed, but the more I pull on that thread, the more they start to open up.

RD: There’s quite a lot of trust involved, so I feel like that sense of empathy would be really important in making people feel at ease.

JCS: Yeah and I think it feels organic, but there’s a little bit of psychology in there and it’s really interesting to get inside people’s heads. Especially with a stranger — they don’t really have anything to lose by talking to me and telling me about their problems with their boyfriend or whatever’s going on in their life. We just kind of get deep quick.

RD: I know that you fell into piercing quite naturally, but what is it that’s continued to intrigue you about the craft over the years?

JCS: I think more than anything it is the connection and the people. I guess it becomes a little bit addictive. I think now that I’m becoming more in tune with energy — and there is a lot of that, especially with anxious people, who are emitting this very intense energy — I can feel whatever they’re feeling. So when I do that piercing, I’m real close in a person’s energy field and feel kind of like I’m going through what they’re going through.

RD: I wanted to ask you about intuitive piercings. Not so much the ‘fashionable’ ones, but those ones that people are drawn to without really knowing why. Does that happen very often?

JCS: Yeah, quite a bit. I think we’re actually very connected as human beings, but we’ve kind of dulled our senses over the years. I find that aesthetically when I pierce, all I’m doing is looking at the anatomy and finding the most organic place to put jewellery; the body just kind of opens up. I think certain people have that same sense themselves; there’s probably an intuitive medicine behind it.

RD: One of the earliest pieces you made yourself was a septum chain. Can you tell me about how you first got into making jewellery?

JCS: Well it was a combination of things. Part of it was just listening to clients. There were so many people that came in asking for other options. And just because [the clunky silver ring] is how it’s been done for twenty years doesn’t mean it’s what people are into. Being intuitive, I could sense that people were looking for more. My early piercing crew was pretty rugged, but once I started interacting with fine jewellery and appreciating the different techniques, I thought ‘someone should do that’. So I did.

RD: When you develop a new piece now, what is foremost in your mind?

JCS: I think I’ve simplified it now and think first about anatomy. I mean, there’s the aesthetic factor too, because I like to bring back stuff that’s been missed out. I really think about [which piercings] are prevalent now and move away from that. Mostly I just try to tune out everything else and make unique pieces.

RD: One of the things I find most fascinating about piercings is the sense of permanence. Certain holes will never close over and certain metals can be melted down and reinvented. Can you tell me about the particular materials you use and why?

JCS: It’s interesting because whenever I get interviewed by Vogue or whoever, they always ask me about the next trend. But I actually stick to quite classic things, because when I put [jewellery] in people, sometimes it’s in there for five years or more. I started piercing in ’98, but a lot of my current clients have been with me for the past 12 years, so I don’t want to alienate anyone, or make them think their older piercings aren’t relevant anymore. I use yellow, rose and a little bit of white gold now — yellow gold and rose gold are my favourites, because I spent so many years working with surgical steel. With everything I’m doing, I’m just trying to make it softer and more delicate.

RD: Why have you personally chosen not to wear lots of piercing jewellery yourself?

JCS: [Laughs], I think it started because the more tattoos I got, the more ridiculous I looked. When I was younger I loved the attention, but eventually I had the look of  a ‘piercer’ and that freaked me out. I wanted to be more anonymous and low key.

RD: One of the earliest pieces you made yourself was a septum chain. Can you tell me about how you first got into making jewellery?

JCS: Well it was a combination of things. Part of it was just listening to clients. There were so many people that came in asking for other options. And just because [the clunky silver ring] is how it’s been done for twenty years doesn’t mean it’s what people are into. Being intuitive, I could sense that people were looking for more. My early piercing crew was pretty rugged, but once I started interacting with fine jewellery and appreciating the different techniques, I thought ‘someone should do that’. So I did.

RD: When you develop a new piece now, what is foremost in your mind?

JCS: I think I’ve simplified it now and think first about anatomy. I mean, there’s the aesthetic factor too, because I like to bring back stuff that’s been missed out. I really think about [which piercings] are prevalent now and move away from that. Mostly I just try to tune out everything else and make unique pieces.

RD: One of the things I find most fascinating about piercings is the sense of permanence. Certain holes will never close over and certain metals can be melted down and reinvented. Can you tell me about the particular materials you use and why?

JCS: It’s interesting because whenever I get interviewed by Vogue or whoever, they always ask me about the next trend. But I actually stick to quite classic things, because when I put [jewellery] in people, sometimes it’s in there for five years or more. I started piercing in ’98, but a lot of my current clients have been with me for the past 12 years, so I don’t want to alienate anyone, or make them think their older piercings aren’t relevant anymore. I use yellow, rose and a little bit of white gold now — yellow gold and rose gold are my favourites, because I spent so many years working with surgical steel. With everything I’m doing, I’m just trying to make it softer and more delicate.

RD: Why have you personally chosen not to wear lots of piercing jewellery yourself?

JCS: [Laughs], I think it started because the more tattoos I got, the more ridiculous I looked. When I was younger I loved the attention, but eventually I had the look of  a ‘piercer’ and that freaked me out. I wanted to be more anonymous and low key.

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