Story: David Gonzales
Photography: Bill Cunningham
April 8, 1998
AFTER years at building a successful jewelry business in Australia, Ray Griffiths knew it was time to move on. Although his work had appeared on dozens of magazine covers and in countless fashion spreads, he had tired of appearing at the same places on the Sydney party circuit. He could have chosen Paris or London as his new home, but those towns didn’t have the allure of New York. He saved his money and planned to move to the city and get a fabulous job designing jewelry at some funky atelier before striking out on his own.
”Eventually, the day came when I had enough money to risk everything,” he said. ”Well, not risk everything. I had been in the business for 18 years and I was bored. I wanted to take on a new challenge.”
He’s bored no more, and it turned out he did risk just about all he had. A few weeks after packing all of the paintings, jewelry molds, art books and exotic knickknacks he had collected during his years of globe-trotting, he wound up in New York with just his suitcases. Everything else, which he had sent ahead by ship, vanished. The shipping company, he learned, went bankrupt, and he has had no luck since in finding the container with a lifetime of mementos.
Like it or not, the man from Down Under had to start over.
”Somewhere in the world, stuff is out there with my name on it,” he said. ”You never figure everything in your life would disappear.”
Perhaps some puzzled South Pacific islanders are picking through trinkets that washed ashore on the whim of a wayward cargo god. Perhaps his goods are stashed away in some musty warehouse. Mr. Griffiths has yet to figure it out, although he has asked his brother back in Australia to make a few inquiries for him.
It’s not that he wants a settlement from the shipping company, if one was offered. Money can’t replace what took him years to collect: sheafs of newspaper and magazine clippings, gifts from friends, original sketches of his designs. Worse, the shipment included a recently discovered bundle of letters his father wrote when he was in the military during World War II.
”All of a sudden, I had these things that connected me with him again,” he said. ”Just all the things you have in a life. You get wiped out, and there’s nothing left.”
It was as if he could not prove who he was. Gone, too, were the certificates and letters that attested to his skills as a gemologist. A handful of those survive, which he tossed into his suitcases at the last minute before boarding a plane to the States in September. One of them shows a sparkling, curvaceous curiosity: his ”Homage to Jessica Rabbit” earrings, which were finalists for the 1995 De Beers Diamond Award.
AT least his friends always knew he was a winner. Soon after he arrived, they banded together to help him rebuild his life and furnish his apartment. Each donated two of everything: spoons, forks, plates and cups. A jeweler pal from Australia, who grew up in Pittsburgh, gave him a set of tools she had left in her hometown. To pay the bills, an old buddy landed him a job at a clothing store in SoHo, where he works three days a week for a modest salary and clothing.
”I’m in retail land now,” he said. ”They’ve been very good to me. They give me outfits to make sure I look good, so when I’m in the poorhouse I won’t look terrible.”
He actually looks upbeat, considering. Two days ago, he got back to work, in a newly rented studio in the meatpacking district along West 14th Street. He hunched over a workbench, using a tiny torch with a slender flame to melt some gold scraps he later pressed into fine wire.
”It takes a little while to get back to doing this,” he said. ”It’s testing my patience.”
What else is new? He was able to afford the work space by moving from his Chinatown high-rise to a cheaper place on the Lower East Side. This time, he took no chances and hauled the stuff himself. Not that there was all that much.
The whole experience has left him with some good cocktail party stories, as well as a new appreciation for minimalism. That will be reflected in his new creations, since an artist is always inspired by his life and surroundings.
New York was still a good choice, he insisted. For that, he thanks his friends. Telling them, however, is another story. The day he moved, his computer crashed, taking with it all his addresses and phone numbers.
”Why didn’t the cosmos just write me a letter?” he said. ”What did I do in my last life?”