Jewelry Designer Maria Tash Talks Through the A to Z of Piercings

MAria Tash portrait
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Piercings are more in than ever all over the world, most notably the season’s key obsession with multiple ear-jewelry pieces, as seen on the runways of Dior Fall/Winter 2016. With the domination of the trend alongside the sheer number of Google searches on where to get pierced  and the chicest jewelry to buy, celebrity piercer Maria Tash’s recent visit to Dubai for a pop-up event couldn’t have been more timely. Savoir Flair sat down with the piercing legend during this occasion to talk about gems, entrepreneurship, the don’ts of piercings, her influences, and more in this intimate interview.

Maria Tash earrings layout
Photo: Courtesy of Maria Tash

What was your first ever piercing and where?
Not surprisingly, my first piercing was my earlobes. I think that counts. Outside of that, I would say the upper-ear cartilage. I was 14 years old when I had my lobes done, and then started experimenting more in early college… so 17 years old.

Was it peer pressure or were you inspired?
There definitely were visual cues. I’m from Long Island, New York, and I remember going to the West Village in Manhattan, where I would see a waitress with a little cross hanging on her upper ear – it made an impression on me. You would see multiple cartilage and earlobe piercings with some of the punkier scenes emerging. I did see some inspiration. My initial piercings were on myself, and not professionally done – the angles are a little bit wonky, but they have sentimental value.

Did you have to hide it from your parents?
No, I have a lot of hair, so… [laughs]. I don’t remember my mother freaking out about that stuff. I do know with the nose, she was not happy about that — but not with my ears.

Your appreciation for the art of body piercing started in London. The city is known for grunge culture, which is often associated with piercings. Has this culture and music influenced you in any way, and was it something you personally enjoyed?
That reference had to do with the two years of college I spent abroad in London, and it was in the late 80s. It was sort of a goth and punk scene, where you would coordinate your jewelry with the color of your dyed hair. That was formative. I do think that the goth and punk scene is in my veins, and punk did originate out of London, in my opinion. There was also a scene in New York, but it was more theatrical and piercing-heavy in London.

So, I did notice that, but by no means was it professional – it was more shocking and unusual at the time. Also, I got my nose pierced in London twice, and I still have them to this day. I got them done at an Indian stall in Kensington Market. There’s a large Indian and Pakistani population in London, and I know I resonated with a lot of that jewelry… not with safety pins, for example. I’ve never worn safety pins in my ears.

My initial piercings were on myself, and not professionally done – the angles are a little bit wonky, but they have sentimental value.

Indian and Pakistani designs had a strong influence on you. How did you first get introduced to them?
A lot of it was through textbooks. In my college years of 17 and 18, I would look at books, a lot of which depicted Indian weddings, where they wear really elaborate nose and ear jewelry. I would marvel at that. I saw that detailed work and I admired it. I am a Westerner, so when I was younger, I liked white silver and hoops, but now I like more granulation. I admired the level of detail, but you can’t do it in the same traditional ways they do because we use different metals that behave differently.

So, there’s an influence from my time in London and the exposure I had to Indian and Pakistani culture, but I have taken elements of them and incorporated them into my Western taste and upbringing up in New York. I’m not Indian nor Pakistani by origin, but I just admired their work and all the great workmanship for years and years.

People usually associate piercings with rock ‘n’ roll, tomboyish style, but your work can be quite feminine. Are you trying to change that perception?
I don’t consciously try and change it; I just do what I think is beautiful. We have definitely put some jewelry on male rockstars and female rockstars. Yes, the jewelry is pretty and feminine, but I didn’t set out to change it, I just did what I thought was attractive. I think it [how piercings are perceived] has changed because it used to be, ‘Oh my God, you shoved something there.’ Now, it’s more like, ‘Oh wow, that’s so attractive and so pretty.’ It’s not a shock. There’s always a slight edge to it because it is unusual and there is a little pain involved, but it’s still beautiful… and it should be beautiful first.

Maria Tash earrings layout
Photo: Courtesy of Maria Tash

How do you feel about piercings on men?
I like them. Obviously, men are not getting pierced as much as women. There were quite a bit of men in the 90s – I’d say a 50-50 split in clientele, but now, not as much. Men are still doing their earlobes, some do their nose and septum, and some do their upper ears or nipples. Men’s jewelry is less ostentatious – either white- or black-metal titanium with stones, black diamonds, white diamonds, or tiger’s eye. There isn’t as much variation on it, but I do think it’s an area that should be nurtured, and more attention should be put on it.

Starting a business has its ups and downs. Did you ever feel like you wanted to give up?
I opened my first store called Venus Modern Body Arts in 1993, and we did fairly well right away because it was one of the first studios. It was in the East Village, and we got a lot of interest early on – even the Associated Press came in during my first year because it was something really novel. In terms of if I ever wanted to give up – no, not really. I’m semi-obsessed with it. There were times that were a little more trying than others. I moved to a Broadway location with higher rent and payroll. There were a couple times when I borrowed money to cover payroll.

Thankfully, that’s not the case as of late. I really give thanks to my mother, who believed in me and gave me the loans. I also mortgaged my condo, which was the main way I expanded, so I was very self-funded in the beginning. It isn’t like that now, but I remember those days and I remember running to the bank to cover cheques with a personal cheque. It’s a terrible way to feel. I think there are definitely always ups and downs, but you really have to stick it out, work hard, and hope that people believe in what you’re saying and buy it.

I never felt like I couldn’t do it because I was a woman, and that’s due to my mother.

When someone comes to you for the first time and wants to have her ears pierced, where would you advise to get it?
I would assess their complexion because that tells me about the metal color. For example, I’m olive-skinned and I like pink gold, but it doesn’t look good on me – white and yellow gold look better on my skin. I would look at their style to see if they’re ostentatious or minimalist.

Is there somewhere that you wouldn’t get pierced?
I don’t think there’s anywhere that I would not get pierced. I’ve never had my tongue pierced, but I’ve had the part beneath it pierced. The reason I say that is dental work.

What piercing do you think looks the chicest on women?
I like an area called the ‘tash rook’ – it’s the plane of skin right below the apex of the helix. It’s nice, the cartilage is thin, and it’s got a flat plane, so you could put a bigger design there and it can live happily. I like that spot. I think it looks cool and a little bit different.

Your industry is quite male-dominated. How did you find yourself getting ahead?
It is true that there are more male than female piercers – and entrepreneurs, I think – but with jewelry designers, there are a lot of women. However, I think it is just very difficult. I live and breathe the business, I work constantly. I think women have great potential, but they’re underutilized. Especially in the Middle East, we have to have female piercers and female staff, but I expect more women to resonate with my jewelry, so they want to sell it more.

We also have men as piercers and sales staff only – this is one thing I don’t worry about. You think of something, you go out, you do it, and you be ambitious about it. I never worry whether it’s a man or a woman. I never felt like I couldn’t do it because I was a woman, and that’s due to my mother. I don’t feel like I’m missing out, and I never feel like I can’t do anything.

Maria Tash earrings layout
Photo: Courtesy of Maria Tash

Which is your favorite of all your designs? Do you change your jewelry every day?
No. In fact, most people live with their pieces that are designed to be hypoallergenic and comfortable for long-term wear… so I don’t change things every day. People mostly change their first earlobe jewelry daily and leave everything else in – and if they do change it, it’s occasional and every few months. You can mix it up, but we find that people just do it mostly with hole number one, and not so much with the following. They tend to leave it in, so it’s more important that it reflects your aesthetic. When I like something, I have to make sure I really like it as I have to live with it, and that the design goes with many of the moods or clothes I have.

I do prefer pieces with gems. It’s a boring answer, but I like white diamonds, and I’ve always loved emeralds because I have green eyes.

How does the piercing procedure go with your staff?
If you came in and watched a piercing, everything looks like a medical procedure, like a doctor drawing blood. It’s very similar; we also use disposable needles. The backs are sometimes supported with a cork and other times with a clamp – whilst sometimes not at all – as it depends on the area of the ear. All of my staff are trained in my style of piercing, which means forward-facing angles. You’ll notice with people that got pierced with a gun or did it themselves, the angles are not right.

Our staff is trained so that the wearer can see the full jewelry. It’s a technicality, but there is a style to my piercing as well as the jewelry itself. We also like to show people what it’s going to look like before they get it done – just like when you go to a plastic surgeon, they take a picture of your whatever and show you the goal that they’re trying to achieve. We do the same sort of thing. We slide the rings onto your ear to show you, without the piercing, what it will look like before we do it.

Your piercings often have stones in them. Do you prefer pieces with gems? What’s your favorite?
I do prefer pieces with gems. It’s a boring answer, but I like white diamonds, and I’ve always loved emeralds because I have green eyes. I love those two stones. There’s sort of unusual stuff going on right now, like people making colored diamonds and using certain chemical processes to get unusual colors and sparkles of a diamond. There’s different shades of pink you could get, different shades of blue –  those are fun, too.

What are the don’ts before coming in for a piercing?
You don’t want to drink a lot nor take a lot of aspirin because you could bleed. Afterwards, you don’t want to touch it with dirty hands. You should, ideally, have an awareness if you have any metal allergies.

Maria Tash’s designs are available to purchase from Aubade with a three-day delivery time to Dubai.

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