Since the dawn of mankind, humans have had the primal urge to adorn their bodies.
“I do see it as very instinctual,” says Maria Tash, who is continuing this age-old tradition with her innovative piercing techniques and carefully considered jewellery creations. She points to the historical evidence –from the Native Americans to the Maasais to the Inuits, the act of piercing the body has been prevalent throughout human history.
“It is definitely a way to assert individuality, as it reflects what’s going on in your brain,” Tash says.
“I would also say, historically, that it was a way to honour nature, so a lot of feathers were used to honour local birds, particularly if you look at Africa, where you might pierce a lip and put a plate in it to honour some bird or other form of wildlife.”
Adding anything new to a tradition that has been around for millennia presents considerable challenges, Tash acknowledges. But this is what she has done since launching her eponymous brand in Manhattan’s East Village in 1993.
She has been at the forefront of moving piercing from the fringes of popular culture, and placing it firmly in the luxury sphere.
She rejected the existing piercing traditions of the time, which were largely coming out of San Francisco and tended towards the extreme – the thick steel circular barbells popularised by Jim Ward, founder of the first piercing studio in the US, being a case in point.
“Things like circular barbells were inspired by Tiffany key chains, but they were really thick. There was a lot of creativity in that world, and I give them a lot of credit,” Tash says. “I also spent a lot of time in San Francisco, I got married to someone out there who is also in the piercing industry, and I was part of the scene. But it was not, I thought, that beautiful or practical. Even though I had a lot of respect for it, it was not where I thought it needed to go.”
Instead, Tash’s creations consist of delicate gems in myriad shapes. Five-pointed diamond stars are suspended from the uppermost ridge of the ear; shimmering pearls and opals hug the septum; and a smattering of rubies cascade from the navel. Designs created specifically for helix, daith, conch, contraconch and tragus piercings transform the ear into a mini canvas.
Most recently, Tash has debuted the Tash Rook piercing, where the entry point, as well as the wearable components of the jewellery, are all concealed under the ridge of the rook, or the uppermost ridge of the inner ear, allowing the pieces to cascade over the conch; and the Tash Helix, where the entry point is hidden under the upper fold of the helix, the upper cartilage of the ear.
“Trying to create something new is difficult,” Tash says. “That’s why, with the Tash Helix and Tash Hidden Rook, it takes me a while to come up with these things, but it’s been a lot of fun and I’m really proud of them, because making something new that people haven’t seen before, in an industry that has essentially been around for thousands of years, takes some effort.”
Even as a child, Tash would layer on her mother’s necklaces, finger rings and clip-on earrings, she says. “I guess I had a predilection for layering very early on.”
But it was in her teen years, as she was increasingly exposed to the music and visual messaging of the new wave punk and Goth era, that her interest in piercing was consolidated.
Visits to Manhattan’s West Village and Greenwich’s famed MacDougal Street, and then two terms spent at King’s College London as part of her astronomy degree at Columbia University, sealed her fate. In the UK capital, she discovered Kensington Market and had her nose pierced. Twice.
“You were coming out of the 1970s and ‘80s, and then you had new wave goth and punk. That’s really where I started to see a lot more asymmetry. Where you would do one helix piercing high up and people tended to favour one side, which kind of matched the hair, where, for example, you would shave one side of your head, or pull your hair in front of your face on one side. Those were the things I hadn’t seen before and it also reflected in the jewellery.
“When I lived in London, I found some silver hoop earrings that had been run over by a couple of cars. I liked they way they looked hammered and I didn’t care that they were imperfect; it was more interesting that way. I don’t think without new wave goth and punk, I would have had that attitude. I think some of the raw edge, beaten-down things and asymmetry were liberating,” she explains.
After launching her initial location, Tash spent 10 years in Manhattan’s East Village – in what she refers to as “a very off-the-beaten-path and hence cheap-rent location” – before making the move to the more mainstream Broadway, where her rent was 10 times higher. She was still having to counter stigmas around the idea of piercing.
“When I opened my second store, on Broadway in 2004, I put a sticker in the window that said ‘luxury piercing and piercing spa’. People would come in and say: ‘What on earth is a piercing spa?’ It wasn’t like we were doing aromatherapy and a massage with it, but I didn’t want to just say piercing studio, or piercing boutique; it was more than that for me. It was a new attitude, high-end, and I was trying to use language that was associated with that.”
She has since expanded to Rome, Dublin, Harrods in London and Dubai, where last month, she opened her second store in Mall of the Emirates.
She has also become a firm favourite with celebrities, counting Rihanna, Zoe Kravitz, Blake Lively and Jennifer Lawrence among her high-profile fans. She even pierced Rod Stewart’s ear lobe a couple of years ago, and says that she is seeing a revival in interest in piercing among men, fuelled by popular celebrities proudly sporting theirs.
“We’ve seen recently a lot more men interested in ear work, and I think that’s got to do with stars like Maluma, Bad Bunny and Justin Bieber. And look at the K-Pop boys; if you look at South Korean culture, there’s a lot of men getting ear piercings. For men, they have to be braver to do these things; it’s still less socially acceptable. And I think it takes celebrities to normalise it.”
Tash’s initial introduction to the Middle East came via a pop-up in Kuwait five years ago, and her excitement and appreciation for her regional customers is palpable.
“When I first started thinking about going there, I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest with you. The perception was, if you are covered, are you going to be interested in what we do? I was very intrigued.
“I was thrilled with our first pop-up in Kuwait. Even though women were wearing the hijab or the burqa, there was so much creativity and appreciation for really well-made stuff and luxury that I just didn’t know about, and that was my ignorance.
“I love the fact that we are in the Middle East. It has been integral to the business. Personally, when I am creating something and I’m not sure if it’ll work, but I personally love it, I’m like, I’m going to put it out in the Middle East. It’s the first place I think about testing something new or something bold, because the reception is so good out there. I’m very pleased by how creative the clients are, and how they push me. The world should know how wonderful and creative and appreciative the women are.”
The tastes of her Middle East clients align with her own personal preference, she notes – more angular cuts, bigger stones and things that are “edgy and unique, but of high quality”.
Next on the cards is a boutique in Kuwait’s The Avenues Mall, with further regional expansion under consideration.
“Why wouldn’t you want to go to an area where people appreciate what comes out of your brain,” she says. Nonetheless, it’s a trajectory that her younger, geographically insular self could not have even begun to imagine, she admits.
“I sit here in my condo in Manhattan and it’s amazing to think that while I’m asleep, people are out there buying my product across the world. It’s amazing; it blows your mind really.
“Sometimes, I think it’s really important to imagine what my 18-year-old eyes would think of where I am now. And then, using that same analogy – how much more is possible?”