LADY BUSINESS: Rebekah Harris of Flotsam & Jetsam New York

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PHOTO: Earrings by Flotsam and Jetsam NY, Easton Schirra Studio 2013

Rebekah Harris lives and breathes culture and class, it comes effortlessly to her. She is the epitome of everything Ladybud Magazine stands for; she is a pioneering artisan with taste-making style and a conscious, forward-thinking view of marijuana in today’s politics and society. She is also classy, sophisticated, genuine and immersed in culture in a completely organic way.

Originally a student of interior design, she has branched out to create a series of collections of water-inspired jewelry that naturally etch their own place in popular culture by establishing a new standard—original quality work that appeals to the masses and created organically and sustainably in her Manhattan rooftop office. She is the sole proprietor behind Flotsam and Jetsam Jewelry and also the designer of all the High Times Magazine’s Cannabis Cup trophies.

Grapefruit and Orange Margaritas with Jalapeno-infused tequila.

Grapefruit and Orange Margaritas with Jalapeno-infused tequila.

The Flotsam and Jetsam studio sits atop one of New York City’s oldest Mikvehs in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a place for ritual water cleansings for Jewish women, particularly after menstruation or childbirth. The word “mikveh,” in Hebrew, is a direct reference to water and its cleansing properties.

I sat down with Rebekah on the rooftop of her studio in lower Manhattan where we shared some fresh hand-squeezed grapefruit and orange margaritas with shrimp tacos and hand-torched tortilla tacos with good friends and great views.

ANGELA BACCA: This is a really cool office location!

REBEKAH HARRIS: I like it because my name is Rebekah, the Biblical spelling, and it means “the lady of the well,” and the mother of Israel. It is kinda funny that I landed in this ritual bathing place. I am an Aquarius too; I am really into water… everything.

AB: How did you decide to get into metalworking?

RH: I was selling sponsorships for the cannabis cup in Amsterdam and this guy walked past [Alex Streeter]and he looked really cool, like Jimmy Dean the county singer and sausage king. I felt this pressing need to introduce myself to him, it was really silly. He turned around and said, “I am here to see Rebekah.”

Someone had sent him to me to perhaps sell jewelry at a table there in Amsterdam, and we became friends. I felt like my life really changed that day, and then September 11 happened and the travel industry kinda fell out so they hired me.

I was studying interior design and I didn’t like working with so many people for a job, artistically. I liked working with this guy, he made something and it would either sell or it wouldn’t sell, you didn’t have to have plumbers and contractors and codes, it became the most satisfying art form I have ever worked in.

At the end of the day I make something tangible, it’s not just a fashion object, its something someone might wear for 50 years and then pass on to their children, it’s more like sculpture or tattoo than just fashion.

AB: A lot of your stuff is very different; you can’t find anything like it anywhere. I am particularly enamored by the Astrology line, since you have a line for Cancers and I am one. Where do you draw your inspirations?

RH: Most of my inspirations are from the water. Each collection I do, I either draw from a place I have already been or I imagine a place I would like to go. Sometimes I compose things from places I have read about, so each collection is like a journey. The first collection I did was the Maiden Voyage, I was thinking a lot about my ancestors coming over from Europe, the Ellis Island days.

AB: What country did your family come from?

RH: I’m pretty American. I am a quarter Italian. I had a little bit of that experience from that, the rest is just American mix-up.

AB: What has generated your interest in water?

RH: I think sometimes when you really like something and you think about it a lot, you put out that energy and that comes to you. My parents named me after this Biblical chick at the well… I could swim before I could walk. I live on Water Street…

There is some point where things just happen and some point where the more you believe in something you just pull it towards you in a way. I like the idea of the metaphor of the ship. It could be almost like a church or a business. You have got your captain, the boss, your leader. Unexpected things come to you and you have to persevere. You run out of rations, you know, you are broke in life, and you have to weather the storm. The metaphor of the ship applies to life.

AB: Did you grow up by the beach?

RH: There were a lot of rivers where we were, in Virginia, so we would go out on the river all the time and the Chesapeake Bay. We would go out to the beach in the summer for the day.

AB: Are there any books in particular that have inspired your work more than others?

RH: There is Moby Dick of course; it’s like a Bible. Moby Dick is such a beautiful metaphor—Ahab who kills everybody because he is just so mad, so obsessed and jealous and angry and he can never get over it. Almost every lesson in Moby Dick is like a Biblical metaphor.

There is also this great book, Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls, which is about shipwrecks all over the world, people being marooned on islands and surviving. It’s all about survival.

There is another great book, Maiden Voyage, about this girl who’s father wanted her to go to college and she didn’t want to go to college but he wanted her to do something other than be a drug addict bike messenger in the 80s in New York, so he convinced her to learn how to sail and sail around the world by herself.

It’s a true story—she left when she was 17, she turned 18 at sea. She was the youngest woman to circumnavigate the globe. She became a writer and wrote several books. She went through the whole area of Somali pirates; a bomb went off in the Red Sea/Israel. She saw a really interesting part of the world.

I always give that book to people who are going through a hard time, its really inspirational.

AB: I kind of want to read it now.

RH: I would give you my copy…

AB: No don’t, you will never get it back, I am notorious for that.

RH: I gave it to someone who didn’t give it back… Do you have a favorite book?

AB: I have a new favorite book every week. Lately, my new favorite book is John Water’s Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste. I love John Waters and it’s kind of his manifesto on life, you know? I really identify with his views on everything, especially being raised Catholic.

RH: You were raised Catholic?

AB: Yep, 15 years of Catholic schooling!

RH: It’s funny those clichés, ‘Catholic schoolgirls gone wrong.’ I was raised Mormon.

AB: Really?

RH: Yeah, I have seen Ladybud do a bunch of Mormon stuff. I read the article on the Mormon drag queen, I thought it was such an interesting story; I was kinda touched too by how he was so accepted and so accepting. It defied my idea that it is a cult. He must have a very loving, strong family.

I don’t practice anymore, but it’s a mindset that you never undo. I am certainly glad I was raised that way. It gave me a good work ethic and a good sense of community, which is really healthy in your young life. I feel like it’s an all or nothing religion.

Being raised Mormon, I think the Catholics are a walk in the park, I hope I am not offending you by saying that—

AB: Haha, no, I don’t really identify as Catholic anymore.

RH: I love the pageantry of the Catholic Church.

AB: What are you currently working on for the High Times cup?

RH: I am working on a prototype for the United States High Times Cannabis Cup. This trophy is an eagle taking flight. It’s wings morph into marijuana leaves that hold the trophy cup. It’s symbolic of legalization taking flight. Still has to be approved though…

AB: That’s so cool, very American.

RH: Well and it’s also freedom, like breaking the shackles and becoming what it’s becoming now.

AB: Are there any pieces you are making now that are unique to the fashion and jewelry world?

The Water Bearer Pendant, designed to hold a small amount of liquid.  Flotsam and Jetsam NYC

The Water Bearer Pendant, designed to hold a small amount of liquid.
Flotsam and Jetsam NYC

RH: I think the water piece. I’ve never seen anything like that, probably because it is wildly impractical. If you aren’t a jeweler, it’s like building a house. There are a lot of processes; it is designed to seal fluid in it. An ancient practice of jewelry is a relic keeping; I love the death and remembrance.

Water is kind of my religion… the world is headed for some serious water-rights issues and drinking water problems. I like the idea that if you actually respected the water and believed in it enough just to carry it around and remember… or if you have a great day swimming in a pond in England, or you are on a beach here and you are carrying a bit of that day with you… that is totally unique.

AB: I hear the beach is good for mental illness, because of the negative ions. Apart from removing the scent of growing marijuana from the air, negative ion generators are known to relieve depression. A natural source of negative ions is waves crashing on beach.

RH: When I was a kid I always loved the beach. I would go and come home and break up with my boyfriend, almost like meditative… or crazy.

AB: Water is very healing.

RH: There is this book, The Hidden Messages of Water. They would say words or expose the water to music or an actual geographic location where something was happening and then freeze it and take a picture of the crystals. They would play beautiful classical music and it would form perfect crystals and then they would play like, Megadeath, and it would look fragmented and broken.

The world is 75% percent water and the water actually holds the sound waves and the energy of the earth, so it’s this giant absorbing thing that has always been churning since time.

AB:  You met Alex Streeter, who you work with and mentored you, by singing about chastity belts?

RH: Alex, the guy I work with… it’s like Charlie’s Angels, he is out in Arizona. He always liked to close the shop for a month in August, so during that time I was always trying to learn more. I really wanted to blacksmith before I had any instincts to do jewelry. I used to draw these heavy black lines and I always wanted to make them real.

Once I got into jewelry I decided to go do a work-study in England. I was staying at this place in the middle of the country, with this great character Bob Oakes, who ran the forge. He started this website and had people coming from all over the world, lots of girls. Everyone would laugh at Bob’s harem of blacksmith girls.

We all worked there. At the end of the summer he asked us to all go to the British Artist’s Blacksmith Convention with him. He lent me a tent and a sleeping bag. A whole bunch of us camped alongside a mountain in Wales. They were digging holes in the earth and smelting old pig iron, which is what real iron is. I got tired and was headed back to my tent and on the way I sat down in this room and someone broke out a fiddle, everyone was drunk and singing songs and he got up and sang this song about a chastity belt. It was an old blacksmith song.

Married in style: Rebekah Harris' Wedding to Chris Simunek, Editor-In-Chief of High Times Magazine

Married in high style: Rebekah Harris’ Wedding to Chris Simunek, Editor-In-Chief of High Times Magazine

AB: Because they used to actually make chastity belts?

RH: Right, it was like three in the morning and I thought I was going back to my tent, but then I stumbled into this room full of blacksmiths. I kinda learned the words at some point, something about this guy who wants to lock up his wife while he goes away so he gets the blacksmith to make [a chastity belt]. She falls in love with someone else and by the time her husband gets there it turns out the blacksmith had made a secret key so he could shag her on the side…

AB: I have never actually seen a chastity belt, how do they work? 

RH: Years before that, I made a chastity belt in school. They wanted us to make armor or something, something that protected two body parts, so I made a chastity belt with a garter belt over it. The garter belt theoretically protected your hipbones. I think it was kind of like chains, like little mesh chains….

AB: How do you go to the bathroom if you know, your parts are covered? 

RH: I think it would be more like a thong, so you could pee through it. I don’t know how anyone did anything during the times a chastity belt was relevant…

AB: It seems really unclean.

RH: Everything from that time seems unclean. Do you ever think about living in another time?

AB: All the time.

RH: What time would you want to live in?

AB: I don’t know, it’s hard to say that because if you choose any other time you will give up something you like about now, but you will gain something else. I think I would always like something like the early 20th century? You would have a lot of the same modern conveniences without the modern distractions we have now, but also… I don’t know, think of New York City at the time, it was all tenements and sewage rivers…

RH: When I think about going back in time I don’t think I would want to go back farther than the 70s. At the end of the day those modern conveniences like indoor plumbing are essential.

AB: Yeah, but these days we are plagued by technology. Everyone is obsessed with sharing what they are doing right now that they aren’t—

RH: They aren’t really living their lives. People are zombies now with their phones.

AB: Exactly.

RH: My friend wrote this book, and I remember this line from it, about how people come home and look at their vacation pictures and that is when they actually experience their vacation because they are taking so many pictures they aren’t really there.

AB: How is it being so immersed in the cannabis industry for you?

RH: Everybody loves the weed. When I worked my first cannabis cup in Amsterdam when I was 21, we had to sneak Patti Smith over. She was doing a secret deal, cause she loved Lenny Kay and Lenny Kay loves all the High Times people and she was playing without her record company knowing, so they wouldn’t have to charge that much.

I had to pick her up at the airport and sneak her in. We had Lee Scratch Perry in the room, Joey Buttafuoco and Dennis Hof. We had to keep these guys a secret because Patti Smith was such a badass and if she knew she was playing for these guys she would probably spit in their faces or walk off the stage or something. It was such a secret, but I remember it was an amazing concert. I saw her play like five times, but that was really a special concert. It was also just amazing to see all those people had [marijuana] in common. Everyone loves weed and today it finally looks like it is finally getting legalized.

AB: How do you see women’s roles in the cannabis progressing the cannabis movement and in what ways do I see the industry changing?
RH: Suppressing the growth of a plant forced people to grow indoors and advance hydro and grow technology with minimal energy. I have always admired and respected the renegade growers for growing under these adverse conditions and pushing the technology of gardening so far. When the illegal wall comes down I think the knowledge these growers / “former criminals” will really help in the future where we have to grow our food in adverse conditions and minimal energy.
As for women. They have always been in the scene. Marijuana itself is very female in its energy. The best High Times covers from the 1970’s were created by a female art director. As more people come out of the legalization closet I enjoy seeing the bar raised on the image of stoners. From bikini clad crotch shots and couch potatoes to the scientists, mothers, dot comers and adventurers that just don’t believe in imprisoning people for a plant.