This designer creates jaw-dropping jewelry inspired by video games
A lifelong love of Warcraft, Zelda, and other games paved the way for Kelly Young to turn a passion into a profession.
Kelly Young wears her heart on her sleeve. Well, more like on her fingers, neck, and ears. As a lifelong video game fanatic, Kelly creates jewelry designs inspired by her favorite games: World of Warcraft, Legend of Zelda, and Animal Crossing.
The result is Soulbound NYC, an online store featuring jewelry that is as intricate as it is beautiful. But success was not always a given—here’s how she cracked the code and turned her passion into a profession.
Did you grow up playing video games?
My dad was an investment banker and worked ridiculously late hours. I grew up on Long Island. He worked in Manhattan, so he wouldn't get home from work until midnight or 1 a.m. And his unwinding ritual when he got home was to fire up the Super Nintendo, or later, the Nintendo 64. And eventually I caught onto this and I would wake up when my dad came home, and I would sneak downstairs and play video games with him. So that was kind of the only time that I really had to just spend with him during the week.
So that's how it really started. And I'm the oldest of four kids, so that all got passed down. All the video game systems originally were my dad's and then they became ours. Even now, we still all play video games every single day.
And so how did you decide to take that passion and make it a career?
Even from elementary school, loved to draw. I was always making fan art, like Legend of Zelda fan art, Sailor Moon fan art. Just total dweeb. Then I became really interested in drawing and art in general, just through drawing my favorite characters in video games and anime.
When it came time to go to college and decide what I want to do with my life, I was like, well, I guess I'm gonna go to art school and be an illustrator. Maybe I'll work for Blizzard and do concept art for characters for video games. So I went to the Rhode Island School of Design.
I discovered that I loved making things with my hands. Even when I was studying fashion design, all of the collections I made at school were video game-inspired [laughs]. We would do one big collection at the end of the year. It was inspired by Death Knights and World of Warcraft. My senior thesis was actually inspired by Lord of the Rings.
I could never stop basically making fan art, no matter what I'm making. It's somehow expressing my love for video games.
What is the hardest part about translating from an idea—something you designed in a computer—and then creating something physical?
Most people have a very hard time visualizing what a physical product is going to be in real life.
At the end of a school program where we had been using CAD every single day, only me and one other person really felt comfortable using this program. Everybody else in the class was like, “I still don't get it.” And actually some of them even paid me to do CAD work for them [laughs] after they took the class. The other person who was able to get it was another gamer.
The whole concept of clicking your mouse and dragging to rotate something in 3D space—people just could not get that. And I'm like, you know, I've been doing this in World of Warcraft for years now [laughs].
The thing that I sometimes have a hard time with is, when I’m staring at a design on the computer, I'm zooming in a ton. And I'm dealing with details that are a fraction of a millimeter. So a lot of times I forget how small this thing actually is going to be in real life. So sometimes when I'm designing a new piece, I think it looks great, and then I make a test sample and I'm like, “Oh my God, all these details that I spent so much time on are so small that you can't even see them in the final piece.” Or they're so small that when you polish the ring, they're gone [laughs]. You need to exaggerate details in the 3D model because in real life it's so much smaller than this looks and there's gonna be some shrinkage when the piece is cast in metal, and then additional shrinkage when it's polished.
Well, that's what I wanted to talk about, because your jewelry is so intricate, but the inspiration comes from graphics that are much simpler. Can you talk to me about that juxtaposition?
My goal with every piece that I design is, I want this to have the sort of geeky inspiration that evokes the feeling that I get when I think about this video game or this anime. But I want this to be a beautiful design that if someone had no clue what the inspiration was at all, they would be totally cool buying it. I actually have people that will buy pieces of jewelry that have no idea what the inspiration is behind it, and they don't care. That's when I know that I've done a good job. And if you are a big geek and you really like the inspiration behind this piece, then it's just like this special thing for you.
Especially when we're dealing with engagement rings. When someone gets engaged, your whole family wants to see that ring. And I always think about—I don't want someone's aunt to make a rude comment if this isn't just a beautiful ring on its own. I don't want people to be like, what the heck is this? I want them to just think, wow, that's really beautiful. I also want these designs to stand the test of time. I don't want it to be trendy. So I kind of try to mix vintage jewelry elements into video game inspiration.
Press play on the video above to see Kelly’s process of designing the Band of Intellect, a ring inspired by the Kirin Tor from World of Warcraft.
Do you ever feel more pressure because you have this tie to the inspiration?
I do, a little bit. Especially when it's something that means a lot to me. The first real collection I did, I made a huge mistake. It was very simple and everything just kind of looked like pixels. I thought it was cute—I love pixel art and everything, but I was trying to appeal to the masses too much. I was a little afraid of going very specific, and that just appealed to nobody, basically.
I was like, this is wrong. I should just do what I really want to do. And the first collection where I really went for it was all inspired by Ocarina of Time, which is my favorite video game ever. And I did feel so much pressure because I was like, I've been staring at the visuals of this game, making fan art of it since I was like, what, seven years old? So it felt like the designs had to live up to that. And that's a lot of pressure.
The other thing I feel pressured by also is I wanna make sure that if I'm making a piece of jewelry based on a video game or an anime, that I really understand the source material. People ask me all the time if I can do a collection based on Final Fantasy. I would only do it if I played those games extensively and really understood them. I can't fake this. So probably not, because I've never really been into those games. Or, people ask me to do Kingdom Hearts jewelry all the time. If, one day, I got around to playing all of those games, then I would feel like I can do it. But I don't wanna make jewelry based on something I don't understand on a deep level or that I'm not super passionate about, because I think it shows.
When you play video games now, are you able to disassociate and get lost in the game? Or you're always just like, that's a cool texture? Wait, that could be something, that could be something?
No, I'm able to disassociate. [laughs] That's why I love them so much because it's my only time to kind of shut off my brain and decompress. I'm very bad at relaxing, but when I play a video game, I'm in another world so I don't have to think about everything else I have going on. Which is becoming increasingly difficult with children though. [laughs] My daughter's almost two.
Can you tell me about the Warcraft-inspired pieces you have in your collection?
Eventually I would like to have pieces that are representing each of the original classes from vanilla [classic] WoW. I only have a few right now. I have a priest, mage, warlock, and kind of half of a hunter. The hunter engagement ring I've been designing and redesigning for a while. I can't quite get it right.
Eventually I want to have representation of all of the classes, because that game specifically is how I met my husband. Not through the game, but we had been family friends for years. We went to high school together and we just started hanging out when we were 14 years old. And that meant: I'm gonna go to your mom's house on the bus after school. He had two desktop computers set up in his room and we would just sit next to each other for hours playing World of Warcraft.
He introduced me to that game and that was, I think, 2006. And we still play it together today. That has a lot of meaning to me. And I always played a priest. He either plays as a warrior, a rogue, or a hunter. I think there are a lot of other couples like us that bonded over this game. And you kind of identify with what class you play. So I hope to eventually have representation for each available class that you can play in terms of an engagement ring, a wedding band, a matching men's band, then maybe some earrings and necklaces too. It's my long-term goal.
And then you recently got married, right? Congratulations.
Yeah. Thank you. I'm kicking myself now 'cause we were dating since we're 14 [laughs] and we thought like we could have gotten married anytime. And we chose June 2020 for the wedding date [laughs]. Why did we wait so long? We were engaged in 2018. And of course we had to postpone the wedding [because of the pandemic].
We finally did have our big wedding this June, exactly as we planned. It was Zelda-themed. But subtly so. It's the same with my jewelry. It was absolutely beautiful. And if you didn't know all the references, you would have no clue. We had a four-string quartet. They're amazing. They're called the Triforce Quartet [laughs]. They take video game music and turn it into classical-sounding music that a quartet can play. So the whole time they're playing video game music, but if you didn't know, you’d think it's just beautiful classical music.
And I'm sure you made your own ring?
I did. Actually, when we got engaged, my husband designed the ring because I'm so self-critical. I knew if I designed it, I would just be, “Oh, I should have done this, I should have done that.” So he came up with the design and then we sat down together and did the CAD 3D model, so that he was involved in the process of me even making the 3D model. Then we picked the diamond together and then I made it, and then I gave it to him and I left it up to him about how he was gonna propose to me. [laughs]
Was that video game-inspired as well?
No, he just wanted to do it quickly 'cause he was so nervous. [laughs]
What do you think it is about today's culture that makes your shop successful? I'm just imagining if you tried to open your store 20 years ago, it would have had a different reception.
When I started the business, I was just going off of other jewelry designers that I had worked for previously. And for all of them, [success] was: You gotta get your jewelry in retail stores. That's your bread and butter. The costume jeweler I worked for was selling to Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom. Then I worked for a fine jewelry designer and she was selling to smaller little boutique shops. I thought that was the only way I was going to have success. I was paying thousands of dollars to go to exhibit at these trade shows where buyers from stores would come around and look at your jewelry and decide if they're gonna buy your jewelry to sell in their little retail shops.
I did that for three years. I had to set up a whole display case and everything and people would be interested in my jewelry. And then when I told them it was all inspired by video games, they would laugh and they would walk away. And I had people tell me, “Don't tell anyone what the inspiration is. That's really off-putting.” And I was like, I don't wanna do that. If I have to hide who I am and what the inspiration is for my work, I don't wanna do this. So I decided, you know what? I'm not even gonna try to get into these stores anymore. Screw it. I'm just gonna go full-in on social media and spread the word myself and sell directly to customers. Because that feels better to me anyway.
I like the fact that when someone emails with a question, I'm the person answering. I'm also the person picking out your gemstones. I'm the person making the jewelry. I'm the person driving it to FedEx to ship it to you. And then tracking the number on your package to make sure that you got it and you signed for it. It just feels better to me that it's so personal. At the time I felt very defeated that these stores were not interested in my jewelry, but I've had so much success just leaning fully into the geekiness of myself and my brand.
I just make jewelry for myself and for them now. And I'm not apologetic about it. Sometimes I make something that the reference is so unbelievably specific. Like, last year I made a few little pendant necklaces with some extra stones that I had on hand that were skinny, long rectangles. I couldn’t think of what to do with these. And what I did was, I recreated the hotel room key from Majora's Mask. You have to pretend to be a Goron and check into a hotel and you get this key. My sister and I love Majora's Mask and specifically that quest line. We'll get this reference, but I don't know if anyone else in the world is gonna get this specific reference.
And sure enough, so many people do. I think that because of the internet and because of social media, I can just connect directly to people that just get it. And I don't have to worry about changing myself to please store buyers or please anyone, really. And I'm just making whatever I want to make. And if people love it, then that's great.
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
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