We are coming at you with another indie owner interview! We are having so much fun connecting with indie owners and asking them about their process, so please feel free to let us know who you would like us to interview next!
We talked to the wonderful owner of Death Valley Nails, Jenn. She actually send us their beautiful Valentine’s Day Collection early February – our review can be found here! Honestly, her polishes are simply beautiful, and I can’t get over how fun the thermal she sent, Hollering Woman, is to wear. The pairing of the two shades – a pale peachy pink and a bright red – was also so unique. It was naivete and experience in one polish.
Jenn’s artistry is apparent on so many levels, and we had so much fun coming up with questions to ask her. So, without further ado, here is our interview!
*This post is not sponsored. All pictures used with permission. All opinions are our own. If you enjoy our content, please consider supporting us on Patreon!
IM: You have a deep background in fine arts and went from being a sculptor, to a filmmaker, to an indie polish brand owner. What elements of these fields to you bring into Death Valley Nails?
Jenn: I don’t view visual art, or filmmaking, as separate things from what I am doing with Death Valley Nails. The inclination to create, specifically with my hands, is just the way that I am. Death Valley Nails is a product of that “flow” in my life.
IM: What drew you to the desert, specifically Death Valley, as the element around which to base your brand, both physically with your studio, and thematically?
Jenn: Death Valley is on the way in and out of Los Angeles when I drive home. It is a place full of beauty and uniqueness, and it makes me feel really small in the world, thankful for nature, and a little melancholy. I asked a couple people what they thought of the name and they said that I shouldn’t use the word “death” for a brand name, but I couldn’t shake it. The visual palette of Death Valley is a strong inspiration for the kind of colors I want to create. I do not have a strong eye for design; I know what I like but I don’t know why I like it. I told the graphic designer who did my logo (Logan Clark) that I wanted alligators and snakes and he did the rest. Our packaging is naturally muted, brown tones because our packaging is biodegradable.
IM: How do you come up with your shade names? Some are obvious but others, such as Baptism by Fire and The Wolfman of Del Rio, are quite unusual.
Jenn: I hate naming polish! I keep an ongoing list of potential names on my phone. Most of the polishes in our current collection are named after places, animals, insects, or phenomenon in the Death Valley National Park. Beyond that, polish names are usually representative of things that I am reading or listening to in my personal life. Wolfman is an ode to a Terry Allen song. Baptism is from a bible verse. Shiloh is named after the Civil War battle at Shiloh. Our most popular color, Blackbush, was supposed to be named Blackbrush (a plant in Death Valley). I have dyslexia so when I was creating the product online I typed it in wrong and only realized that after the first purchase. Then it was stuck like that. I can’t tell you how many times I have accidentally ordered labels that said “Ghost Story” instead of “Ghost Town” because when I hear the word “ghost” it reminds me of the David Lowery movie.
IM: Do you have a process for “finding color”? How do you know when you need to make a color into nail polish? Do you develop colors by mixing and experimenting, or through formulating for a specific color you have in mind?
Jenn: The process of creating new colors comes from a place of obsessive curiosity. If I want to make a new red I will try it with a neon purple base, a wine base, and a yellow base and get three different reds. Then maybe you add in a little yellow or black. What if I add gold? I get obsessive about trying pigments together that I haven’t used before. Some of the colors that are coming out in our next release are colors that my friend @amelicacarrhart suggested that she hasn’t seen on the market before.
I have never seen a nail polish color and wondered how someone made it, I have a pretty good eye for what pigment brands use to create their colors. The colors I screenshot and try to recreate in a polish are from a bog in New Zealand, a lily pad from a Ren Hang photograph, red ochre in Iran… color inspiration always comes from nature, not from other nail polishes.
IM: Do you tend to create collections when you add new shades (such as the Valentine’s Day collection!) or do you tend to go for individual additions instead? Why?
Jenn: I don’t work in collections because I don’t think that all of the colors that I release need to fit under an umbrella of one thing (I called the colors I sent to you Valentines Day colors but there was not an official collection associated with them). A color means something different to me, emotionally, then it does to the person wearing it. We have around 15-20 new colors with each drop, and there really isn’t any uniformity in what colors we release. I don’t do colors for the season or for a holiday, I release colors based off of what I am interested in and excited about.
IM: What is your favorite nail polish formula to make? What is your favorite polish color from your collection so far?
Jenn: I am working on a huge new series of colors that is separate from the other colors that we currently have. They are completely different from anything I have done or seen done in the nail polish world. I wanted to push myself to make something more significant than nail polish for the sake of beauty. The series I am working on is polishes made from the pigments in rocks from specific places. I think a lot about missing home, and what home looks like and feels like to me. I can take a rock from a specific place back in Texas and make a polish out of it. So, the pigments I have been working on are made from literal rocks in Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona, with no added color to their natural pigment color. These polishes are physical powdered land that you can wear, and I hope that it is a way for people to feel a connection to the earth while enjoying the beautiful natural pigments that the earth creates. The polishes will be named after the exact places where their pigment was found.
A polish that is currently my favorite that will be included in this series is one made from cow bones. I love the idea of extreme-recycling; using what is left behind as a way to honor an animal. Dan Barber from Blue Hill at Stone Barns does this with their cattle bones that they repurpose into bone china. The bones I use in this polish were taken from the West Roots Farm which is run by a wonderful, young couple in the Antelope Valley. I hope that the bone polishes will highlight local farms that humanely raise their livestock on a small scale. The polish is a beautiful, earthy brown that has the most amazing texture – we are adding no other pigments to this, it is bone that has been heated and ground down to a fine powder with a mortar and pestle. I do all of this by hand. This polish is obviously not vegan as it is made from bone, but I hope that people can appreciate the intent behind it. We are donating some of the profits from the bone polishes to the Santa Clarita Valley Food Pantry. The process of learning how to break down rocks and bones has been a long one, but I am really excited about these polishes. I have always felt a deep connection to animals and to the earth and I hope that others do as well when wearing these polishes.
I have also been working on a biodegradable body/face/nail “glitter” paste for MONTHS and it is so close to being done. Because the pigment we use that is similar to glitter does degrade the shelf life cannot be long-term like it is with regular glitter, but I hope that the benefits of using an eco-friendly option appeals to people. I know that it does for me.
IM: You also make candles! We love that you found a low waste packaging option for them that is ALSO handmade. How did you come up with the idea and would you ever be open to a refill program for them?
Jenn: We do refill candles! If someone has a candle that they want refilled reach out to us! Candles have always been my thing, I am constantly buying them and had worked with multiple candle makers before launching Death Valley Nails. Using concrete as a vessel made sense because it meant we weren’t relying on glass from another country (most “recycled” glass that companies use come out of overseas factories) and it created something signature about our candles outside of the scents. I love making candles (maybe more than polish) and the process of making our vessels is start to finish a whole body experience. When I make a huge batch of new vessels my hands will develop blisters from mixing so much concrete by hand, but I love the process. I am always learning something new about concrete – it is feisty, and the end result is impacted by the weather, the structure it dries on, and how it is poured.
IM: We saw that you have a wholesale program as well. How does that work?
IM: Where do you see Death Valley Nails going in the future? You seem very dedicated to keeping it all handmade (we love! a true indie, so to speak). Do you see this as a way to bring others into the enterprise and creating local jobs?
Jenn: I don’t know where I see Death Valley going in the future but I am curious what kind of discoveries working with rock and bone will bring about. I do not see Death Valley Nails as a Los Angeles specific brand, and there is a good chance I will be moving out of California this summer. I do wonder how moving out of Los Angeles will affect us. As far as jobs, we currently employ our designer for new projects and a chemist for help with testing formulas over a long period of time and in different temperature environments. I would love to employ someone to help me make polish but I haven’t found the right fit yet. Coming into my studio is a very personal thing for me.
IM: You donate 10% of your profits to the Mojave Desert Land Trust (I’ve been to the Mojave Desert – an absolutely breathtaking place) and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation. How did you settle on these two organizations to donate to?
Jenn: I settled on the Mojave Desert Land Trust and Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation because I want to support organizations that preserve our country and its wildlife. We also highlight local organizations as much as we can – when we adopted our second dog from the South LA Animal Shelter we had a sale that was specifically aimed at raising money for that shelter. We are a super small brand, but I want to steward our resources in a way that not only physically gives back to causes that I care about, but creates a way for others to interact with those causes as well.
Thank you so much to Jenn for agreeing to this interview with us! It was absolutely fascinating to hear about the new earth and bones project that she is working on, and we cannot wait to see what she has in store for Death Valley Nails.