Geek jewelry levels up with subtle, romantic Soulbound designs

Kelly Zogheb, center right, with models from her runway show during StyleWeek Northeast. Her collection was inspired by Pokemon Snap.

Geek fashionistas have a lot of options these days when it comes to  jewelry that lets them wear their favorite fandom or pop culture phenomenon.

Tracking down more subtle, sophisticated, romantic geek jewelry designs can be challenging, however. Fortunately, Kelly Zogheb is here with Soulbound, a New York City small business that offers ornate and delicate sparklers based on video games and geek culture.

Raised on Nintendo 64, which she fondly remembers playing with her dad, along with Japanese manga and Sailor Moon, Kelly began her design journey in middle school as a pixel artist who was part of popular online forums, like Eden Enchanted.

She studied Apparel Design in college, but discovered her passion for jewelry while creating a Pokemon Snap-inspired collection for a runway show at StyleWeek Northeast. She approached her new career ambition strategically, working as a jeweler in New York City and studying at the Gemological Institute of America.

In 2014, Kelly launched Soulbound as an Etsy shop. It’s since evolved into a thriving business featuring gorgeous, ethically-sourced designs based on World of Warcraft, MMORPGs, manga, Legend of Zelda, classic pixel games, and other fandoms.

A romantic at heart who’s currently planning her wedding to her fiance and World of Warcraft partner of more than 13 years, Kelly and her jewelry often play a significant role in video-gaming couples’ engagements and weddings.

The designer was generous enough to give me a detailed glimpse into her process and inspirations. We also talked about her obsession with The Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft Classic, what games she’s currently playing, the big sample sale she’s planning, and a pair of new ring designs that may have been subconsciously influenced by Reylo.

Kelly, watching her dad play Nintendo.

You’re a fine jewelry designer who creates beautiful pieces inspired by video games and geek culture through your business, Soulbound. Why did you decide to focus solely on video game and pop culture themed designs?

Video games have always been a huge part of my life. My dad was a gamer, so I was introduced to video games pretty much from birth!

I grew up on Long Island, about an hour away from New York City. My dad would commute to the city for work, where he had an incredibly demanding job. By the time he got home at night it would be well past my bedtime. He’d make himself a bowl of cereal and play Nintendo games alone to unwind. Sometimes I would sneak out of my room at night so I could play Nintendo with him, so my love of video games really started as bonding time with my dad.

From there, that love grew into a bit of an obsession. I started drawing Zelda fan art and burning my own CDs of the Super Mario 64 soundtrack so I could listen to “Dire Dire Docks” while I did my homework in elementary school.

I got even geekier in middle school when I became a pixel artist. I created a bit of a name for myself on popular pixel art forums like Eden Enchanted. I even taught myself basic HTML coding when I was 13 so I could create my own pixel art portfolio website.

In college, I studied fashion design, and my final thesis collection was actually inspired by The Lord of the Rings. I made armor out of metallic leather and one of my models had a detachable cape. I also designed a large collection inspired by Rainbow Cloud, my favorite level in one of my favorite Nintendo 64 games, Pokemon Snap.

Video games and art have been present in my life forever, so I think it was just natural that I would start a business creating wearable art that expresses my passion for video games.

Your design style is very unique. It’s delicate, ornate, and fanciful. What do you consider to be some influences on your personal style?

I’ve always loved medieval and renaissance art. It probably has something to do with my love of fantasy video games and movies that involve knights in shining armor and beautiful princesses (The Legend of Zelda, The Lord of the Rings, etc).

There’s a lot of geek jewelry out there right now, but a lot of it isn’t very subtle. Why did you decide to go in a more subtle direction with your jewelry designs?

This is exactly why! I couldn’t find any geek jewelry that wasn’t obvious or chunky. I find just sticking a symbol or logo from a video game on a ring to be lazy and boring, and this doesn’t usually yield beautiful design.

I prefer to design jewelry that evokes the same emotion that I feel when I’m playing that video game. It’s definitely a more challenging approach, but I think it’s more meaningful. When I design to express a passion that I have for a geeky thing, I think people can really see that passion in the final product.

You’ve launched a bunch of dazzling new designs this fall, including a pair of stunning Light World/Dark World rings. Tell me about the inspiration and design process for these beauties. 

Oh man, so much thought went into these rings! On a very basic level, I was trying to design more “traditional” Zelda-inspired engagement rings. I’ve actually been receiving requests for Zelda-inspired rings in a more traditional shape for a long time.

Soulbound is still a one-woman company so I really do read every single comment and direct message on my Instagram, even if I don’t always have time to respond.

Anyway, that’s where it started — a simple request from my followers. From there, the design got a bit more personal. My fiance and I designed my engagement ring just over a year ago using a long, rectangular-shaped diamond. I loved the fact that it wasn’t the standard round brilliant cut, and to me there’s something that feels really timeless and classic about an emerald cut.

Then I started imagining the most special places in the Legend of Zelda games, and I kept coming back to the Temple of Time. There’s a monumental and spiritual aura about it — with the long stone pillars towering over you.

That was the inspiration for adding the two baguette cut diamonds on either side of the center stone. The golden triforces on the side were a natural addition and, of course, to keep everything in my style, I added some ornate swirling forms to blend everything together.

The decision to create an alternate version with alexandrite was always in the back of my mind, because the themes of light vs. dark are so prominent in the Legend of Zelda series. I see Majora’s Mask as Ocarina of Time’s dark counterpart, and I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of the twilight realm in Twilight Princess.

I wanted the alexandrite version (the Dark World Ring) to evoke those same feelings of mysterious, dark, beauty that I feel when I play some of the darker Zelda games.

I know the rings are inspired by Legend of Zelda, but they also made me think of Rey and Kylo Ren from Star Wars. Am I crazy or was that intentional?

You are not crazy, but I don’t know if I would call that connection intentional. Maybe it’s just that my own personal passions tend to seep into all of my designs, whether I want them to or not.

I will admit I am a huge Reylo fan. I think their story is one of those classic “Beauty and the Beast” archetypes. A man who is a dark, destructive monster (the Beast, Kylo Ren, John Wick, etc.) is tamed and transforms into a kind and gentle human because of his love for a kind, gentle woman who brings out the light in him.

I think about the line that Snoke says with regard to Kylo Ren and Rey, “Darkness rises, and light to meet it,” quite often, and I’m sure it was in my mind when I designed the Dark World and Light World rings, even though I didn’t intentionally try to have Star Wars influence those designs.

Another of your new designs is the Men’s Armored Band, which evokes medieval knights. Tell me about the process of designing that piece.

This design has been in my head (and probably scribbled on a piece of paper buried somewhere in my desk drawer) for a long time, so it’s hard to say where I first got the idea. I used to live on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, just a few avenues away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They have an incredible permanent Arms and Armor collection that my fiance and I would never miss any time we were in the museum, so I’ve stared in awe at medieval armor for many hours!

I think armor is so beautiful, even in its simplest form — metal and rivets. That’s why I think the Men’s Armored Band works so well. It strikes that perfect balance between simple and special that I think is key when designing jewelry for men.

I know it’s probably like asking you to choose between your children, but what’s your favorite Soulbound design you’ve done so far?

This is the hardest question! I really do love all of my jewelry for different reasons, and I think I go through phases of favorites depending on the season. Right now, I’m really getting excited for Halloween, so my favorite piece at the moment is the Warlock Ring!

That ring also has a special place in my heart because it was so challenging to design. I almost gave up on it, but I’m really proud of myself for sticking with it! I want to make one for myself soon, but maybe with a salt and pepper diamond instead of the amethyst.

Soulbound jewelry is crafted in New York City, using recycled gold, conflict-free diamonds, and colored gemstones. Why is using ethical, quality materials important to you?

I’ve worked for companies (especially with my background in fashion design) who did not use ethically sourced materials or even ethical work practices, and I felt like it was eating away at my soul. I want to be proud of the jewelry that I produce, so I need to work with materials that will not harm our planet but also have not harmed any people in their mining and production. I’m so honored every time a customer spends their hard-earned money on my work, so it’s very important to me that what they receive is of the highest quality physically and morally.

It was Japanese manga that inspired you to begin drawing as a child and eventually pursue a career in the arts. Now you have a jewelry collection inspired by manga. How were you first introduced to those graphic novels?

Yes! In the mid-1990s, I fell in love with Sailor Moon. I remember finding a Sailor Moon manga book for sale at a really cool independent book store in Huntington, New York called Book Revue. I think I was there with my mom buying books for my summer reading assignment, and a Sailor Moon manga was on a random shelf totally out of place near the register.

I can still picture exactly where it was! I was immediately drawn to Naoko Takeuchi’s beautiful, feminine art style. I’m sure I begged my mom for that book, and that one random purchase quickly sparked a full blown obsession with all things Sailor Moon.

This was a real pain for my mom, because from then on all I wanted for my birthday or Christmas were Sailor Moon toys, dolls, notebooks, pencil cases, and bags that were almost impossible to find in the United States.

I introduced Sailor Moon to my little sister and our next-door neighbors, and pretty soon we were all playing pretend as different Sailor Moon characters in our backyards every day after school. I was always Sailor Jupiter and my sister was always Sailor Mercury.

What are some of your favorite manga? What is it about this storytelling medium that appeals to you?

Unfortunately, I don’t have as much time to read manga as I used to, but back in the day I read all of the Sailor Moon manga, much of Yugioh, Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (random, but I really liked the art style), Fullmetal Alchemist, and also the Pokemon manga.

I actually remember back in the ‘90s, the Pokemon manga books I had were more like traditional comic books, with large thin pages the size of a magazine.

You mentioned that you were introduced to video games by your father and spent your childhood playing Nintendo 64. Do you have any favorite memories related to that?

I have so many great memories playing Nintendo 64 with my dad. The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that my little sister and I were absolutely terrified of the electric eel in the Jolly Roger Bay level of Super Mario 64.

We refused to do any of the stars in this level (even ones that had nothing to do with the eel!) because we were so scared. We didn’t quite understand that the eel was only in that particular level though, so any time we encountered a “water level,” as we called it, we made our dad complete it for us while we hid in another room.

You mentioned that you also drew fan art and pixel art as a kid, and you even did commissions at one point. Tell me more about that. 

I did! That was really the geekiest (and chubbiest) phase of my life, but I loved it! I was a regular member of a bunch of pixel art forums, the most notable being Eden Enchanted. That forum was for all the cool pixel art people. Looking back, I actually gained so many skills back then that I still use today. I taught myself Photoshop and Illustrator, simple animation skills, HTML coding, and web design, and I also learned how to manage commissions.

You earned a bachelor’s degree in Apparel Design at the Rhode Island School of Design and worked in the fashion industry, but after designing some jewelry for a runway show, you discovered your true passion. What do you prefer about jewelry design vs. apparel design?

To be honest, I was a bit confused during my time at RISD. I went into college planning to be an illustration major. I thought maybe one day I could become a character illustrator for a video game company. RISD has a system where you’re forced to take the same core classes as everyone else during your freshman year — drawing, 2D, and 3D.

Drawing class should have been my favorite, because it was comfortable and familiar. 2D was a bit hard for me because it involved painting in color, and I typically prefer to keep my artwork black and white. 3D was totally new territory. I really struggled with my 3D work, but for some reason I liked it the best. I realized I enjoyed creating a tangible object, and decided to pursue a major that would allow me to create beautiful three-dimensional objects.

I knew I had a real interest in jewelry, because I had always loved jewelry (I get this from my mom), but I was afraid that it would be hard for me to find a good-paying job after college if I majored in jewelry design. This was around the time when Project Runway was at its peak popularity, so for some reason I was convinced that there were plenty of design jobs available in the fashion industry.

Studying fashion design at RISD was wonderful — it really was just like Project Runway. We each had our own cutting tables and mannequins, we made all of our patterns from scratch and sewed everything ourselves. Our garments were even judged by a panel of prominent fashion designers at the end of every semester.

Working as a designer in the fashion industry was completely different. I was placed in front of a computer and told to create “tech packs,” which were detailed instructions to send to our factories overseas describing how to create each garment.

Creating these tech packs was tedious work, since we had to explain everything without using English. More often than not, the design I was being instructed to create a tech pack for was an exact copy of another designer’s work. I didn’t feel good about that, and had a bit of a quarter-life crisis.

An opportunity came about to launch a ten-piece clothing collection at StyleWeek Northeast (basically Providence, Rhode Island’s, version of New York Fashion Week). I left my full-time job and put everything I had into this collection, which was inspired by Pokemon Snap.

At a certain point, I decided that I wanted each of my models to wear jewelry with their garments, so I started watching YouTube videos and taught myself (on a very basic level) how to make costume jewelry. I ended up loving the process of designing and creating the jewelry so much that after the runway show, I knew I would do whatever I could to break into the jewelry industry.

I don’t know what it is about jewelry that excites me more than clothing. Maybe it’s the fact that the techniques are ancient (lost wax casting, in particular, is a very old technique), or just the fact that jewelry is sparkly and magical. For whatever reason, it seemed more special, and from my personal experience, the jewelry industry is more kind and inclusive, as opposed to the cutthroat and competitive nature of the fashion industry.

A model walks the runway in a piece from the Pokemon Snap-inspired collection by Kelly at StyleWeek Northeast.

You have a lot of impressive experience in your field. You worked as a jeweler in New York City and studied fine jewelry design, diamond grading, and other skills at the Gemological Institute of America. What’s the most important thing you learned from these experiences?

I learned something incredibly valuable with each experience, and this was part of my plan. I knew there were a lot of skills that I needed to acquire if I was ever going to start a successful business, so I sought out specific opportunities with these goals in mind.

As a bench jeweler, I worked on custom necklaces for clients. I learned how to work collaboratively with customers and make sure they’re thrilled with the end result. All of the diamond and gemstone knowledge I gained studying at the G.I.A. was invaluable, and after that I actually worked in customer service and sales at a fine jewelry company as well.

Not only did I learn how to handle every customer service situation that fine jewelry companies can face, I also learned how to properly manage an e-commerce website and how to ship orders around the world.

Soulbound began in 2014 as an Etsy shop and relaunched in 2017 as the sophisticated small business it is today. What was the original Etsy Soulbound like? 

The original Etsy shop was really just a fun hobby. I sold brass and silver necklaces at almost no markup in my spare time — almost as a practice run for the real Soulbound! I wanted to make sure I actually enjoyed running my own business, before investing all of my life’s savings to launch my first fine jewelry collection.

Tell me about those two incarnations of Soulbound and the transition between them. Was there a lot of artistic and personal growth for you during that time?

I just ran the Etsy shop for three years and then once I felt like I was ready to turn Soulbound into a fine jewelry company (what I really wanted all along), I made the transition. I sold as much of my Etsy inventory as I could. I actually had a few pieces left over, which I ended up donating to a lovely group called Geek Girl Brunch.

I don’t think that my personal and artistic growth really started until I relaunched Soulbound and made it my full-time job. I started with the Pixel Collection, which actually was all I was capable of creating at that point in time. I didn’t have the CAD 3D modeling skills to design anything more complex than squares.

In the two and a half years since then, I feel like I’ve really found my artistic voice and, more importantly, I’ve become skilled enough to execute any design I can imagine. It took a long time and a lot of hard work to get to this point though. Any artist knows how frustrating it can be to not have the skills to create what they can imagine in their mind, and I’m so glad that that’s all behind me now.

RPGs — especially World of Warcraft — have had a big influence on you in your life and as a designer. When and how did you begin playing WoW and what do you love about it?

The first proper MMORPG that I played was Final Fantasy XI. At the time, it was the most beautiful video game I had ever seen. I played a female Elvaan white mage. If you played Final Fantasy XI back in the day, you’ll know that it was an incredibly difficult and unforgiving game. I struggled to kill bunnies on my own and needed to form a full party just to kill a sheep. Healing as a white mage was extra stressful because if you died in FFXI, you would lose XP and could even lose a level.

Around this time, I started becoming close friends with my fiance (we had known each other since we were about 7 or 8, but didn’t really become friends until we were 14). He introduced me to World of Warcraft, and although the graphics were not as good as Final Fantasy XI, there was something about it that hooked me. Maybe it was that it was easier and more straightforward, or maybe it was the fact that I was playing with someone I loved.

I saw on Instagram that you’re currently revisiting World of Warcraft Classic. What’s that been like for you?

Since World of Warcraft was so important to Ken (my fiance) and I when we started dating, going back and playing WoW Classic with him feels like reliving the beginning of our relationship. It’s been the loveliest nostalgia trip and we’re still enjoying every minute of it!

What other video games are you into right now?

At the moment, I’ve been playing the new Link’s Awakening on my Switch. I’m also playing through Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the Necrodancer, which is another excellent game that I’m loving right now.

I play a bit of Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp every day, even though I don’t quite consider it a “real game.” Besides that, I’m just playing World of Warcraft and looking forward to Luigi’s Mansion 3 and Pokemon Sword and Shield!

Oh, and as a personal tradition, I replay Majora’s Mask and the original Luigi’s Mansion every October.

What are some of your favorite fandoms, aside from video games and manga?

I am a Lord of the Rings freak. It’s almost at a religious level for me at this point! When I was younger, I actually tried to teach myself Sindarin, the form of elvish most used in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Other than that, I love Star Wars and all of the Studio Ghibli movies. I’ve never been a big comic book or superhero person.

Many of your pieces are engagement or wedding rings. I get the impression you’re a romantic. Is that true?

Absolutely! I’ve been totally in love with my fiance for over 13 years, and our relationship is without a doubt the most important thing in my life. I think finding someone who is your perfect match and life partner is really special, so bridal jewelry is my favorite type of jewelry to design.

What’s it like being part of such a significant event in people’s lives through your jewelry designs?

It is an honor to be able to design jewelry that will mark the most important moments in a couple’s life. I don’t take this responsibility lightly, and I’m honestly moved every time someone chooses me to design their bridal jewelry.

I tend to get a bit too attached to my customers. If a guy buys an engagement ring from me, I think about him. I wonder if he’s nervous, how he plans to propose, and if she’ll like the ring.

Sometimes my customers are so thoughtful that they actually keep me updated on how everything is going, and that’s my favorite thing. I love hearing their stories — how they met, how he proposed, what their vision is for the wedding day. It’s so much fun and I’m really blessed to be able to experience the joy of so many geeky couples around the world!

Can you give us a hint as to any upcoming jewelry collections you’re working on?

Yes! I’m a crazy person, so I’ve pretty much got the next year of my life planned out already. I am going to release some more Zelda-inspired pieces later this month and in early November.

At the end of November (starting on Black Friday), I’m going to host an online sample sale where I’ll sell old samples, discontinued styles, and some one-of-a-kind test samples at heavy discounts. That sale will run until Christmas, then I’ll take a little holiday break to spend time with my loved ones.

After my break, I’m going to start working on an Animal Crossing-inspired collection to launch with Animal Crossing: New Horizons on March 20.

Then I’ll need to slow down a bit to focus on my wedding, but I’m hoping that next summer I’ll have more World of Warcraft-inspired designs ready to go. Next fall, I’m going to take a big break to go on my honeymoon, so I’ve got no plans for new designs then.

On your website, you said you’d like to become the “go-to fine jewelry designer for gamers around the world.” What other dreams do you have for Soulbound?

I’d love to keep growing the business, mostly so that I can raise the funds to keep creating new designs. Designing has always been my favorite thing and I’ll definitely always be a designer first, and a business owner second. This year, I got a bit carried away and designed way more pieces than I could afford, so going forward I’m going to try to be a bit more careful about Soulbound’s finances.

Other than that though, I don’t have huge ambitions for growing the business. I’m really loving the place it’s at right now. Sure, it’s a lot of work to run, but I can still manage it by myself. I really like the fact that it’s so personal. I’m still the person who packs every order, puts the box in a tote bag and walks 15 minutes to FedEx to ship it. I think my customers appreciate how special that is.

You and your fiance have a wedding coming up. Is it going to be video game themed?

Yep! We’re getting married in June!

The wedding will definitely have a video game theme, but we’re trying to keep it subtle and tasteful — just like I do with my jewelry designs. It’s been tough balancing running a business and planning a wedding, but so far I’m managing.