Activist, jewelry designer and bee enthusiast Michele Benjamin loves Mother Nature’s amazing offerings. And since she was always interested in jewelry-making and art, the Forest Hills-based, Made in Queens (MiQ) maker felt compelled to capture a variety of cute little critters, in the form of eye-catching, affordable charms that symbolize wildlife conservation, women’s empowerment and other causes.
“I enjoy observing the beauty in nature and then translating it into jewelry, portraying my impressions of starfish, dragonflies, butterflies, bumblebees and more,” Benjamin said. “As an artist, I’m always on the lookout for new ideas that inspire my designs. I was creating organic shapes that developed into nature-inspired designs and the bee [charm] was created two years into my jewelry practice in sterling silver design work.”
That unique bee also appears in her logo and trademark.
The designer’s heirloom quality collections are offered in art galleries, cultural institutions and boutiques in the U.S., as well as online nationally and internationally. Her iconic bee design can be seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art Shop in Manhattan, Bruce Museum Store, on the runway at New York Fashion Week (NYFW) and on Amazon.
Benjamin emphasized that these collections support several causes near and dear to her heart, those “that help people in our communities.”
The buzzing bee (part of her 18K gold vermeil collection) caught the eye of “Thelma & Louise” star Susan Sarandon, who can be seen wearing the charm necklace to a recent 30th anniversary reunion event for the movie in Los Angeles, as she posed for the paparazzi on the red carpet with co-star Geena Davis.
And the same photo was featured again on “CBS Sunday Morning News” on July 25, which aired an interview with Jane Pauley and Davis on improving opportunities for women in the film industry.
Sarandon purchased her bee at the Whitney Museum Shop, according to the designer, who told QNS that she’s very proud of her Made in NYC status as well.
Both Made in Queens and Made in NYC support local manufacturers, designers, artists and makers in the five boroughs and in Queens.
“They recognize the amount of work that goes into creating our products, for both the creativity and also the manufacturing aspects, and promote local designers and manufacturers by connecting us with New York audiences,” Benjamin said.
Made in NYC and Made in Queens provide retail venues, workspaces, incubators, workshops, pop-up shops and seasonal markets. They promote makers in person, by email blasts and on their websites. And, since creatives never stop creating, there was also a pivot to offer virtual workshops and other networking opportunities when COVID-19 hit.
“By offering NYC and Queens makers all types of interesting, innovative ways to market our products, they instill a sense of belonging and entice more exchanges among the designers, and as a result, we have gotten to know each other and enjoy being a part of something larger, while having our creations represented by them,” Benjamin added.
This “NY Tough” maker always believed in giving back.
“During COVID, I pivoted, adding custom embroidered bee and liberty masks, and donated hundreds of PPE fabric masks to essential workers and their families, while continuing to create jewelry,” she said. “I donate jewelry to silent actions and also make designs for fundraising, in order to support organizations like Housing Works, Big Brother/Big Sister, Empowers Africa and more in order to provide food, medicine, housing, to the underserved.”
According to the MiQ maker, her one-of-a-kind women’s empowerment pieces have a lot of meaning behind them.
The purple pansy design represents the purple flowers worn by women Suffragettes in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. On the back of each piece, an equal sign (=) symbolizes equality.
Activist jewelry designs are inspired by the Statue of Liberty crown and also boast an equal sign for equality, in support of equal rights, women’s rights and gender equality. Other activist liberty designs contain the words, “persist,” “love,” “pride” and “ERA” – all with an equal sign.
“I began my career working in a Madison Avenue Gallery, where I met art dealers who sold jewelry, prints and paintings made by well-known artists, such as Picasso, Miro and Leger,” Benjamin said.
After earning a BA in art history from Arizona State University, she completed post-graduate studies at Parsons School of Design and specialized jewelry design courses at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), including fabrication techniques, lost wax and professional jewelry production methods.
While her home studio is where the magic happens, the artist has jewelry manufacturing facilities that produce her designs, both in Queens and in the Jewelry District in Manhattan. She creates volume orders of jewelry for customers, both nationally and internationally.
The busy creative has worked on projects with U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, creating a pin for the promotion of the National Women’s History Museum at the Smithsonian.
Her collections are certified as “Made in New York” through the New York Economic Development Corp. Her “Key to the City” necklace and liberty pin designs were commissioned by New York City Store, located in Downtown Manhattan at City Hall.
In June 2019, Benjamin served as arts envoy on behalf of the U.S. Department State, teaching jewelry, art and women’s entrepreneurship skills to promote women’s empowerment in Cambodia, and wildlife conservation in Laos.
In November 2019, she received a Global NY STEP grant from the New York State Economic Development Corporation for travel to Dubai, including Gold Key Service from the U.S. Department of Commerce, in order to promote “Made in New York” products overseas.
The bee jewelry was created in 2014 and introduced into the Whitney Museum Shop shortly after the inauguration of the new Whitney Museum of American Art building by architect Renzo Piano, in 2015, according to Benjamin.
“There has been a very popular selection of bee offerings in multiple iterations, including necklaces, charms and pins, since 2015,” Benjamin said. “Currently, the Whitney Shop is featuring the bee pins in sterling silver, 18K rose and yellow gold-plated sterling silver.”
So, what does the bee symbolize? Benjamin said it is representative of the extended Whitney family, and the hive is symbolic of the Whitney Museum – “a home for artists and art lovers.”
“The real beehive, located on the rooftop of the Whitney, produces flora honey, which ‘sweetens’ the art world and our daily lives,” Benjamin said.
These days, everybody can use a hefty dose of sweetness in their lives.