You may have heard of Optimystical Studios. If you don’t know the name, Gentle Reader, I expect you have seen the swag. Optimystical Studios is the creator and purveyor of a host of comic- and geek-themed jewelry. [Full disclosure: I own many pieces of jewelry made by Optimystical Studios.]
Their pendants, dog tags, earrings, and necklaces are becoming ubiquitous in some corners of fandom, such as the Carol Corps or Hawkguys. But Optimystical is more than a store. They are activists, creators of jewelry lines devoted to queer rights, feminism, and other social justice causes.
I ran into the co-owners (and husbands) of Optimystical at Geek Girl Con this past weekend in Seattle, and was reminded of what a powerful force for change they have become.
Adrian Keith, Mick Keith, welcome to Panels!
Sigrid: Can you tell us a bit about your business? What kinds of jewelry do you make? What were your initial themes? How did you decide on those?
Adrian: Well I’ve been making jewelry in one form or another for the last 15 years. I got my start in silversmithing. But as I started attending more geeky conventions my styles changed to match, not only to feature my long term loves, but also what was missing from the convention floor in terms of fan jewelry.
Our first themes were actually steampunk and horror, believe it or not.
The horror pieces revolved around our ZombAlert pendants, which told your loved ones what your final wishes were if you were bitten by a zombie, and classic film art pendants. These pendants made from recycled film history books were the spring board for what most people think of when they think Optimystical Studios, recycled images glazed behind glass.
We were also making sparkly jewelry for cosplayers even back then, and dice jewelry for our gamer fans.
Now, wow, we have a lot of different themes, mostly it boils down to a few overarching categories. Like Fandom, that’s everything from Doctor Who to Hannibal. If it is a TV show or movie that has really excited passionate fans, we probably have done or are doing jewelry with it. We just launched new sets of jewelry for Harry Potter and Sailor Moon that are very cool.
Comics is pretty self explanatory, and what we are really known for right now. These are done with recycled materials, so your jewelry is giving new life to a comic that very well might have been destined for the dumpster. We also have some non-recycled pieces that artists have done for us, with the permission to use the images in our work.
Our Culture category holds everything from Classic Art (made with recycled art history textbooks) to Science!, while our Representation section is all about Pride, Identities, and Equality.
Mick: I’m pretty sure that Adrian covered it! Though I would say that deciding what kind of jewelry to make has always been pretty tough, but we’re always open to suggestions. A goodly amount of our jewelry got it’s start as someone asking us about a fandom or a comic character.
S: What’s a work-week like for you both? Who does what in the business?
A: I’ve been doing jewelry at conventions for six or seven years now, and yet if it is a convention week I always have this feeling of ‘Aaaah!’ the few days before we pack for a show. I never feel like I got enough done, no matter how much actually got done. But those are weeks with conventions, and they are a beast in and of themselves.
A non-con week, well, we probably work seven days most weeks. I mostly maintain the website, and do the majority of our photos, plus much of our social media presence. I am not a morning person, so if you follow us on Tumblr, you’ll notice a bunch of night-blogging. Working fromnoon till 4 or 5 am is not out of the ordinary.
I also do a lot of the production and design work. Our big crystal pieces (mostly Game of Thrones themed right now) are all my babies. I set a lot of the glass and dog tags, the trimming, and the final cleaning.
M: It’s a long week! Owning your own business is great, because you can make your own hours, but we’re both pretty harsh taskmasters. Honestly, Adrian handles a lot of the heavy lifting. We each play to our strengths, basically. I have neat ideas from time to time, and he can implement them much better and faster than I can. His designs are amazing. I have the technical skills to make any of our pieces, but he has a flair for design that I can only dream about.
That’s okay, though. There are a lot of things that don’t take design flair, if I focus on that, he gets to make more stuff. I end up handling a lot of the repetitive tasks, like making sure the pieces are properly sealed after being set. I spend a lot of my day making things show ready, putting jewelry on cards for display and such. I also keep everything organized. I’d make a joke about creative types being disorganized, but it hits too close to home. I like alphabetizing, so it works out.
A: I am not organized in a way that makes sense to anyone but me, so I am not allowed to set any of the filing systems anymore. Luckily the systems Mick has put into place make sense to me, and other humans too.
That’s what gets done, but one of the things I love about this job and company is what goes on while we work. We have a big TV in the studio and we watch cartoons. Not just cartoons, but we watch a lot of cartoons. We keep up on our favorite shows, we watch Avengers and Captain America: the Winter Soldier a zillion times, and we try out new shows so we know the shows and movies we’re making jewelry for. At the beginning of this year we main-lined all of Supernatural while we were prepping for ECCC.
M: Sometimes I get a little cartooned out, honestly. But at this point, we’ve got enough entertainment that we can always find something to watch. Recently that’s been Teen Wolf, but I have a feeling that we’re going to be re-watching Arrow here soon.
S: What was the positive tipping point for you as a business? When did you look around and say, ‘yeah, this is how we make a living?’
A: This is our fourth year in business. Prior to doing this I had some severe corporate burnout that pushed me to taking the plunge of doing what made me happy instead of what brought in a steady income. Mick was really supportive through that, and through the first two years of the business. But this is not a one-man-show. It never has been, and when I needed to bring a new full-time partner in, we looked at the finances, the possible sacrifices, and Mick took the leap too. Some months are Ramen months, some months are steak months, but I’m listening to my mom telling me “if you put your mind to it, if you work hard, you can do anything”. Kelly Sue’s #BGSD texts help too.
M: For me, the tipping point was two years ago. I was working full time at a job that I didn’t hate, but Optimysticals had really hit a wall without having another full time person. Before then, I helped out when I could, but we’d hit the point where it was go big or go home. We decided to go big, and I got to quit my job and joined the circus!
S: It’s my observation that your work is very important to grass-roots comic fandoms such as The Carol Corps, the Kamala Corps, the Hawkguys. What is your observation of this relationship? How do the emerging fandoms affect you? Why do you choose to represent the ones you do? How do you affect those groups in turn?
A: The three books you mentioned have really been so welcoming to female readers, and that is a big part of what drew us to them. Loving female heroes in the 90’s and not understanding why they had to be saved by the boys was why I took a break from paper comics that lasted until five or so years ago. Also, the fact that they are such upbeat books, even when they are sad or serious, I think we need more of that in comics. With as much GrimDark as happens in the real world, a little more Light in comics is a blessing.
M: I love new fandoms. Watching people fall in love with something is just fun. Really, we’re just happy that people can find something really meaningful in comics, or a TV show, or a movie, or whatever. If we can remind them of that meaning with a nice piece of jewelry, it’s a bonus.
As far as choosing fandoms to represent, well, every character is someone’s favorite. I want to have as many fandoms as I can. I may not see why a piece is important to a person, but it’s not my place to know that. Someone has a connection to it, and if having a talisman gets them trough a rough point, I’m glad to have helped.
A: I think ‘choosing’ to represent is funny, I almost feel like some of them pick us. I look at our most popular fandoms and comics, and our Science! line in general and see a couple of really big similarities. They seem to be the most welcoming to people of all gender identities, races, and sexualities, have a lack of gatekeeper behavior, and a strong desire to make things better. Some of the shows may be very guilty of queer-baiting, but their fandom embraces head-canons that make things inclusive, and that’s where we mesh. Groups that make spaces inclusive, while working to make inclusive the norm mean a lot to me.
M: I’m not sure if we shape fandoms. The Carol Corps, who are all wonderful people, by the way, are one of our favorites. We make Carol Corps dog tags, and I see them on people at conventions all the time. The thing I love the most, though, is that you don’t have to own one to be a member of the Corps. No one ever looks down on a fan for not having one. Sure, if every fan bought one, I’d be happy, but the fact that there is no gate keeping in the Carol Corps is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
I suppose that we make it a bit easier for fans to recognize each other, especially in lesser known fandoms or in fandoms that for whatever reason don’t get a lot of support from their parent company, and that’s always a good thing.
S: Tell us about the Science! line of jewelry! How did you decide on your Ladies of Science Kickstarter? How did that turn out for you?
A: The Kickstarter turned out very well. We were able to fund 20 Ladies of Science pendants, along with eight chemical formulas,12 periodic elements, and five Noble Gases in crystal. Plus we unlocked 10 Women of History and 10 Ladies of Literature, each with a five piece crystal set.
M: Ladies of Science was Adrian’s brainchild. The more research I did, though, the angrier I became. There are so many contributions to science that are directly from these amazing women that most of us have never heard of. It’s terrible that we don’t learn this stuff in school.
A: I was telling someone at RCCC that all of my role-models were women when I was growing up, and I was good in science. I think that I may have been more likely to pursue science as a career if I had more women in science to look up to. I can only imagine that would be even more true for a girl looking at the sciences. Doing research and digging into these corners of science and seeing how many women have created the building blocks of what we know and how we do, I was both amazed and angry. Why did we not learn about them in school? I know why, but it is so frustrating, because all of the information is there. And that anger and frustration, plus a love a science that goes back to my youngest years is why we wanted to do this project, and why it is so important to us.
The Science! Line is really cool because it’s this whole diversity of art, but that isn’t painted, isn’t sculpted by human hands. In our Biology section we have a pendant that is a picture of neurons and dendrites, it is one of the most beautiful images, almost like a tapestry, and it’s something that’s inside all of us.
M: The response has been overwhelming. Before we did this project, people would shop at our booth, and we’d have nice conversations. Now, we still have that, but a lot of the time people walk away knowing something they didn’t before. Knowledge is always good to have!
S: What are your favorite aspects of the sciences? Do you have favorite rocks, or stars, or sub-atomic particles?
A: I love all rocks. I am showing restraint by not blathering about ALL of my favorite rocks and how some of them form, and how cool it is.
M: He really does love rocks. If I was a jealous man, I’d be giving a lot of rocks the side eye.
I don’t really have a favorite subatomic particle, but I’m rather fond of electrons. Science, to me, is more about the method than about the specifics. I love the idea of testing your assumptions, and discarding the ones that don’t fit the facts. I try to do that in my day to day life.
S: How do you choose items for your Equality line? Which aspects of equality do you feel strongly about, either positively or negatively? How do you show that in your work?
A: We were talking about this question and it’s funny, the Representation (Equality) line has always been important to us, but not because we personally hit a lot of places on the various spectrums. I have this passion to protect those I see as ‘my people’, and to not see them erased or dismissed. The Representation line is a way we can both show a bright face that says ‘you are welcome and safe here’ but also maybe as a conversation starter and a learning tool as well.
We were at Gender Odyssey in Seattle earlier this year and were telling folks that our Asexual Pride jewelry was actually the first design we created after the standard Rainbow Flag. Queer people often joke that the B is made up and the T doesn’t exist in a lot of LGBT friendly spaces. And as true as that can be, the A get’s thrown under the bus on a pretty regular basis, if they are included, and personally we’re not all about that. Wanting to show a little extra love for our Ace friends we’ve even created a new pendant that merges both the Asexual flag and Harry Potter.
One of the biggest problems I have with the equality movements in general is that the common (LGBTIQA) acronym is both extremely limited and horribly broad. Each letter stands for one something, so as we grow and expand our language we keep tacking on letters. Several months ago we were introduced to MOGII, or Marginalized Orientations, Gender Identities and Intersex. I think it is pretty great because everything that is in the LGBT acronym is there, plus things like Pansexual, Non-Binary, and both Aromantic and Asexual orientations. Plus in 5 years when terminology has grown, we don’t have to readjust letters, everyone should still fit.
M: We started with rainbows, but it was clear right away that we needed more. The rainbow is pretty generic, and we have friends who identify in ways that are much more specific than just a rainbow. It’s an unfortunate thing, but a lot of those identities get glossed over. We decided that we couldn’t be a part of that. One of the first things we did to expand the line was to make Asexual pride jewelry. Ace people, more than most, get thrown under the bus, even in the MOGII community. There are people who thing that the A in LGBTIQA stands for ally! Look, I appreciate an ally as much as the next person, but the A stands for Asexual. Being an ally is great, but don’t put your ally status above folks who are actively persecuted.
From there, we just kept going. One of the great things about a lot of the MOGII community is our love of flags. It’s easy for us to take a flag, and make it into something you can wear. It’s talismanic, having a physical representation of something as vague as your identity. I don’t know if other people use them this way, but I know when I’m having a rough time, I can wear my flags and know that even if the world at large doesn’t see it yet, I am still a part of a community.
The fact that we have all of it on display is also great for starting conversations. People will ask about flags they aren’t familiar with, and so we can do just a bit of education there. There have been times, especially at more conservative shows, that having the jewelry out makes people feel safer. I had a lovely talk with someone about gender identity at a show once. This person was coming to terms with some gender stuff they were going through, and the fact that I was a guy wearing nail polish made it okay to talk about how the gender binary was really problematic. I got the feeling that in that community, there weren’t a lot of safe spaces to have conversations like that.
Those conversations are important. Sometimes, people who don’t know each other will start talking once they realize they’re looking at the same jewelry. Sometimes, it’s just the fact that they’re looking at the Representation jewelry that starts it. I don’t know if it’s happened or not, but I like to think that the fact that we have it on display has spontaneously caused friendships.
S: Fandom pairings! One of the things I personally love about your jewelry is that you support fannish pairings. What are some of your current favorite pairings, personally? What are the pairings you will always hold dear to your heart?
A: I’m going to paraphrase the Great and Wonderful Orlando Jones, It’s a big harbor and everyone can have their own ship. I may not get your ship, your OTP may be my NoTP, but dude, whatever makes you happy. It’s not like you smooshing Big Barda and Wonder Woman is hurting anyone. Also, I want that as a comic please.
I saw a photo of Irene Adler and Mystique being taken at Geek Girl Con, and realized that was something I shipped. Like it’s a weird realization sometimes, how certain pairings work together. Personally, I adore Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers. I really didn’t think I would like Carol and Rhodey as anything more than Bros who watch Top Gun together, but they have really grown on me. Then there are the Outlaws, I have an OT3 of Roy Harper, Jason Todd and Starfire; it could be a V, it could be a Triad, I’m not picky.
M: I ship Clint/Coulson. I ship it so hard. Most of my AO3 searches are for new Clint/Coulson. I never thought I’d be a Carol/Rhodey shipper, but it turns out I am. Darcy Lewis shipped with anyone other than Loki will always have a soft soft in my heart. Darcy is such a sweetie, I just want her to be happy.
A: I didn’t know you shipped Clint/Coulson. And I agree, Darcy & Happiness, it’s kind of how I ship Sansa and Happiness.
S: I’ve noticed that you always seem to have the Things of The Moment in your shop. How do you keep track of the rising and hot trends in fandom?
A: Tumblr. That is the super short answer. Really we just listen to people, for example we just kept hearing about Teen Wolf. So we went out of our way to watch it and know it so we could have it for people.
M: We have to have a market for the things we sell, so we try hard to listen to our fans and find out what they want. Social media has be so helpful for that. We hear about things on Twitter or Tumblr, and then we look in to seeing if we can make jewelry out of it. We have a lot of friends who clue us in to new things that we might have otherwise missed. A few of our friends suggested that we watch Teen Wolf, a show I never would have found otherwise. Now we have a ton of Teen Wolf inspired jewelry and a Google search history of “Why do I love Teen Wolf so much?” Google didn’t have an answer for that, unfortunately.
A: And sometimes we guess wrong. Would you like some Falling Skies or Fringe jewelry? Those two are a couple of the more memorable flops.
S: Yes, yes I would. Olivia Dunham/gun = OTP 4EVA. Where can you be found on the internet? At what conventions and events can folks find you in the near future?
A: We’ll be at Comikaze Expo Halloween weekend in Los Angeles. After that we should have a couple more conventions to finish off the year, and we’ll post them on our Tumblr and website once we have all the details in place.
To start off 2015 you’ll be able to find us for certain at Gallifrey One in Los Angeles and Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle. Obviously we’ll have lots more shows in 2015 to announce as well.
M: If you’re looking to buy stuff, you can always find us online at Optimystical Studios. If you’re in need of our particular brand of weirdness, we are Optimysticals on Tumblr or @Optimysticals on Twitter.
A: And if you want to help us bring more independent & daring jewelry to life, you can support us on Patreon and get cool perks too.
S: Adrian, Mick, it has been a pleasure talking to you both, as always. Thank you for your time, and I wish you the best!