In the 1970’s, when Mitchell Binder – designer and owner of King Baby Studio – was a teenager, he and his mother moved from Jackson, Mississippi to Los Angeles. It was when music reflected a new spirit of idealism, and new found freedoms. Musical artists like Hendrix, Joplin and The Dead ruled the airwaves. As Mitchell puts it “it was the ‘summer of love’ and my mind was officially blown”.
At 15, Mitchell became a jeweler’s apprentice and shortly thereafter began designing on his own. With his trademark, charismatic personality, he soon made the right contacts and quickly became the ‘go to jeweler’ for both Hollywood and rock stars. His fans ran the gamut from Liz Taylor to the rock & roll royalty of the era. The biker crowd soon caught on, requesting personalized jewelry and buckles. Being an avid biker himself, Mitchell has always considered the origin of his company “half rock & roll and half outlaw biker.”
Designing with men in mind, he soon realized many women were buying for themselves. In 2007, King Baby Studio officially launched Queen Baby for women, with extraordinary success.
Based in Santa Monica, King Baby Studio offers handcrafted pieces that unite chunky sterling silver with precious stones and leather. Mitchell’s creations are bold and substantial, featuring edgy motifs such as skulls and daggers for the King Baby line, and slightly scaled down feminine motifs such as roses and crowned hearts for the Queen Baby’s out there. Many styles span both collections appealing to that ever expanding “chosen few”.
Q: Where did the name King Baby come from?
A: The phrase “king baby” was coined by Sigmund Freud in the 1930’s. It refers to a mental condition where the patient really believes the world revolves around him. I can relate to that, and a lot of my clients have that same kind of feeling, where they think they’re the center of the universe. It’s the “I want it and I want it now” mentality, which I find humorous because I deal with a lot of jewelry emergencies. Just those two words together are hilarious. So that’s where the name King Baby comes from.
Q: What led you to seek out an apprenticeship with a jeweler at such a young age? You were only fifteen, right?
A: Yes, I was. I had just moved to California from Mississippi, and I had to get a job right away. It just so happened that was one of the first jobs I got. But even at an earlier age, I remember when my dad had a ring made for my mom. I was probably eight or nine years old, and he took me over to the jeweler’s house to pick up the ring in time for Christmas. I saw this guy’s jewelry bench and all his tools, and something just clicked. I thought “Man, I have got to figure this out!”
Q: I picture you like the mythological character Hephastus, welding in the underworld, making magical jewelry for the gods…
A: Yes, beginning with even the tools that are required, you really have to just feel the metal and make something out of nothing. Thank god I was good at it! I think I was really fortunate because I knew what I was interested in at a very early age.
Q: What inspires you? Music? Trends? Subculture?
A: I’ve always been considered the black sheep of the family. I could always relate to the outsider mentality – so when I make things, I make them for myself. When I try to find an audience, I realize that there are a lot of subcultures that support what I do. My work is not mainstream, and I never thought of my self as mainstream. But there’s evidently enough of an audience to support me, so that’s a good thing.
Q: That’s great. What kind of bike do you ride?
A: I ride several of them. Right now my favorite is a bike a friend of mine built for me a couple of years ago, and it’s an old pan-head Harley Davidson with a jockey shift that I made in sterling silver with a suicide clutch. It’s like a rigid old Harley Davidson, the quintessential outlaw bike that I used to dream about when I was a kid. And I’ve got another Harley Davidson road glide that I use for longer trips. If someone wants to ride on the back, I take that one.
Q: Which of your own pieces do you wear the most?
A: Usually when I finish a new piece, I wear it myself for at least a couple of weeks, to make sure that it’s comfortable and that it’s durable and that it doesn’t get hung up on my pocket. It’s like a road test. So I’ve probably worn every piece of jewelry that I’ve ever made. But what seems to stick, what I continue to wear, is the flag-buckle belt-buckle, and the flag ring that I’ve made a one-of-a-kind out of. It’s a basic flag ring from my collection, but it’s the combination of stones, gold, and silver that makes it unique. I always wear some of my motif chains. And there’s one 22 karat gold bracelet that I made for myself a few years back that I seem to always wear. The other stuff changes.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome in your career so far?
A: A couple of them. One is probably people knocking me off, which is just inevitable. I think I’ve gotten to a place where I’m okay with it, because I have so many things I want to make that I just move on to the next thing. But it is a little disturbing to see people or companies making money from my designs.
Q: I noticed your T-shirt with the slogan that says ‘No More Chrome Hearts Repairs’ so I think that’s probably what you’re talking about.
A: Yeah, I think you’ve got to keep a sense of humor about everything or you just end up miserable. And I’m a big fan of happiness and a big fan of fun, so I think humor is the key.
Q: And the other challenge? You said there were two?
A: Anybody that’s in business for themselves faces the financial challenges of taking care of employees and overhead, and as the company gets bigger there’s more and more of them. I really feel the weight of taking care of a lot of people on my shoulders, and I probably feel that a little more than I should, but I don’t know any other way. So I would probably say that, especially in the current economy… You know, my industry has really been hit hard, and I think I’m really fortunate, because in some areas we’re even doing better than we were last year. We’ve just had a record-breaking year financially, but it’s pretty scary when some of the big accounts, like Neiman Marcus, are cutting hundred – even thousands – of employees. It’s just a difficult time. I’m sure we’ll get through it, but it’s scary.
Q: Who are your favorite people you’ve worked with so far, and on what projects?
A: It kind of started when I was a kid, learning how to make jewelry. The first thing I did was literally sell jewelry on the streets on the weekends, like Ankhs and stuff. So during the day I worked for the jeweler, learned how to make jewelry, and created my own line. Then then on the weekends I set up as kind of street vendor in Westwood, California. And I met a lot of different kinds of people, like a lot of musicians starting their careers who wanted a lot of really big showy pieces that could be seen on stage.
So all of a sudden, just through word of mouth, I kind of became the go-to-guy for musicians. In that arena, I would say anybody from Bruce Springsteen, Neil Wolfram — who’s his lead guitarist, and Glen Hughes, going right back to Deep Purple, and Billy Idol…you know all these guys really weren’t who they are today. Even Steven Tyler…we were all at the beginning of our careers, so now, to enjoy the relationships I have with these guys is a whole different thing. We’re still the same guys who met each other on the streets, when they were just trying to get the thing that they wanted that nobody else would make.
On the other side, I was the guy who made a lot of things for motorcycle clubs. For some of the most notorious clubs in the country. I did the rings and the buttons for their vests and that sort of thing…the wallets for their chains. So there were two subcultures that kind of crossed over, and that was the essence of my dial. That’s what people kind of knew about me – that for the rocker or the biker, or some combination of the two, Mitch was the guy to go to. I still enjoy the relationships I have with all those people today, I don’t do the motorcycle club stuff anymore, because that comes with a whole array of problems.
Q: Fans of your designs certainly run the gamut.
A: Part of the appeal is that when people put my pieces on, it really becomes theirs. It’s the kind of thing where they can either pull it off or they can’t. Some of the celebrities, like Jennifer Lopez, and that ring that she wears — you know she wears that big rose ring — that’s now become the Jennifer Lopez ring. So part of the appeal, like I said, is that what I make really becomes a part of whoever wears it, if they can pull it off. Jewelry is meaningful on so many different levels, especially if it’s a lucky talisman. It can be very personal, or it can simply be a fashion statement that people are not that attached to, so they switch it up. But I find that my pieces seem to become part of the permanent wardrobe of my clients. There’s some core pieces that they just never take off.
Q: Were you initially nervous about designing for women?
A: Yes, I was. Because the whole concept of what I do evolved from my own desire for jewelry that I’m making for myself. I needed stuff that was really durable, really heavy. I work with my hands, so I am really hard on my stuff. And so the women’s thing…well I thought that the proportions had to be be different. In my first attempt at women’s jewelry I simply made things lighter and more delicate, and the reaction was “No, no, no. We want what you do, but for women.” So I went back to the drawing board, because the women liked the proportion that I had created for men. And some of the motifs have changed, like the hearts and the designs, but the collections are what both men and women wear. The hardest thing about women’s jewelry for me are earrings. I find them really boring to make. So that’s a challenge. That’s one of the reasons I put off doing women’s jewelry for so long, the whole earring thing. I just don’t enjoy it. But also, the reason is that it’s not something I can wear myself so I can’t figure out what’s wrong with it.
Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishments so far?
A: That I’m alive – that’s amazing! I made fifty-two this year, so that’s pretty great. Wow, I don’t know if there’s one specific thing.
Q: What are you striving for now? To go to the next level? To create new things, so that it doesn’t ever stop?
A: Exactly, it’s all about the journey. Those cliché quotes and things that you hear, well there’s always truth in them. If you’re happy to do what you do, and you’re able to make a living, there’s nothing better. So it’s all about time management. Who you want to spend time with? That’s my biggest battle these days, not enough time to do what I think I should be doing.
Q: How many hours a week do you spend creating?
A: Whew. You know, for me it’s a just a constant process. I get some of my best ideas when I’m traveling, I always carry my sketchbook, and write down ideas. It’s a constant process. I try to work at my design studio two days a week, and then at my other workshop, I’m down in the production area probably another two days or so per week. So my schedule is still pretty full with design and conceptualizing where we’re going next.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish next?
A: I really want to see if I can make King Baby a legitimate band, worldwide. So now I’m exploring the design of everything from clothes to bags, to eyewear to watches. With my same sensibility and aesthetic, to see if there’s an audience out there for it. This is the next step when you reach a certain level of success. I feel that I’ve got a really solid foundation, and now I want to see if we can move it to a much more international level that will lead to working with some really interesting people and businesses — whether it’s fashion or automotive. The sky’s the limit, really.
Q: Do you like getting feedback or critiques?
A: I love that, and that’s one of the reasons that I still do the personal appearances in stores and the trunk stores, because my goal is to keep things interesting. And as for the clients who wear the jewelry, whatever they have to say interests me.
Q: What are your mornings like?
A: I’m not a morning guy. Mornings are rough. On a good day, I’ll roll out of bed, go into my backyard, and try to make friends before the day gets going. But like I said, time is my biggest problem right now, so it’s hard to do that these days.
Q: How does California inspire your work?
A: When I moved out here, it was during a really interesting time. It was back in the whole summer of love, Hendrix, The Doors – there was a whole revolution happening. And I came from Jackson, Mississippi, which is about as far away from California as you can get. So I loved it. It was like landing on a different planet. Just the beach – the ocean – was something that I have never experienced. And so much of what young boys are attracted to. Fast cars and music and motorcycles and girls…you find that at the beach, especially in Malibu and Santa Monica. That’s what I did. Unfortunately, instead of going to school, I’d go out to the beach and meet new people. It was really an exciting time. I don’t think you can do it these days, because it’s a lot more dangerous now. But back then, it was safe to hitchhike, safe to talk to people. The environment was much different. It certainly set the stage for who I am today. So I just feel really lucky to have experienced it.
Q: Which pieces or projects are your favorite?
A: Probably the Lion ring. But that always changes. When I’ve made something and worn it, then it becomes one of my favorite pieces.
Q: What role should jewelry play in an outfit?
A: It’s pretty individual. It depends where you’re wearing it. It depends if you’re going to a rock concert, or if you’re a professional. One of the things I really like these days is that I’ve been having clients who are professionals – like lawyers – figure out how to wear m products on a daily basis without being too flamboyant. So I think there’s a balance. I’ve got some really fanatic fans, you know, who think the more stuff you wear the better. But I think the line needs to be drawn because at a certain point it’s kind of comical. I didn’t wear jewelry for a long time, so I really appreciate a really simple plain look. Now I’ll wear probably three or four bracelets every day, a couple of rings, three or four neck pieces. Somehow I seem to pull it off, but I guess, to answer your question, it’s very individual. It just depends on where you’re going.
Q: Who are your favorite artists, in any medium?
A: In terms of painting, I would say Diebenkorn. And music’s a tough one. I’m still old school, so I would definitely put The Doors and Hendrix at the top of the list. But I’m definitely enjoying the music that’s happening these days, as well.