Beauty Inspired by Horror: Creating Jewelry for Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth

In the publishing industry, we see all kinds of swag created for books, from enamel pins to tote bags, art, custom teas, and more. But Cassandra Khaw, author of Nothing but Blackened Teeth (October 19, Nightfire) wanted to do something different to celebrate their book. This necklace was designed by Sofia Ajram, founder of Sofia Zakia jewelry in collaboration with Khaw. We chatted with both of them to find out more about the process!

What were the initial conversations about this piece like? Who approached who? How long did the collaboration take?

Cassandra Khaw: I approached Sofia. I’ve admired her work for the longest time. There’s a delicacy to her pieces, a fantastical quality like something thieved from fairy tales. Even the ones without any overt spec elements just seem… like something otherworldly princes should wear. (Don’t get me started on things like the Medusa ring. Like offerings from a different, better world.)

Sofia Ajram: Cass approached me. She wanted to commission a pendant based on her work to surprise everyone during the release, and I was so thrilled with the idea. Cass knew right away she wanted the Ohaguro-bettari—the featureless face, grinning with black teeth. Right away she shared the stunning cover art for Nothing But Blackened Teeth. That blew me away and made the perfect starting place. I think we started discussing it in July of last year, and it took several months of iterations before we had the finalized piece.

CK: This is a very kind summation of what happened. My memory of this definitely involves me being desperately puzzled and you being brilliant. JUST SAYING.

At what point during the writing/publication process did you decide this was something you wanted to do? Is there a particular moment or part of the book that made you think, ‘I should make this into a necklace’? Was there anything special you wanted this piece to symbolize?

CK: It was pretty early in the process, honestly. I know authors say this a lot, but Nothing But Blackened Teeth was really personal to me. I wrote this while I was dealing with the aftermath of my dad’s suicide. I hadn’t actually known he’d killed himself. When I was first told the news, I was informed he had a heart attack, and that his ashes were being spread so I shouldn’t bother going home. Then a year later, it was told to me that he had, in fact, killed himself—so that was a Lot of Processing to do.

And Nothing but Blackened Teeth was written partially as a distraction, a way to explore how it’d all filtered through my life. It was a lifeline in some ways. And I knew I had to do something to commemorate the book.

I had no idea, of course, how to do any of that. When I spoke to Sofia, it was essentially me running up to her, going ‘oh god, if you like the book at all and have ideas, I’d love if we could do something together.’

And Sofia, well, she made my random flailing wonderful.

Sofia, were you nervous at all about taking on this project? What elements of Cassandra’s work did you pull from to create this piece? How did it all come together? What materials were used? 

SA: Yes! But an excited nervousness that permeates any project of this magnitude, of working together with a luminary. I started off reading the ebook version and—at the risk of sounding like I am blowing smoke up her ass—I fell in LOVE with Cass’ prose. I knew the piece I wanted to make was going to be something that exuded not only a dark femininity, but had seen things itself. It’s always a curious thing coming across an old antique and finding a stain, or a mark, or a burnt away edge and wondering what happened to it? What made it so?

I shared some Japanese artwork inspired by wall art descriptions from Nothing But Blackened Teeth. I think I had the first sketch to her by the third week of July—close to what it looks like now, the edges burnt away, a “thing found in the fire”—the art style replicating kanbun / early era scroll art with simple engravings like brushstrokes, with the back having a poem excerpt in silver. We verified the Japanese kanji (thank you, Valerie!). Then I carved the master from silver, did the raw engravings, oxidized it and added some texture. I think we had the piece finalized by the end of January. Jewelry making is a lot like writing in that it goes through editing and iterating until it feels right.

Final sketch (Image: Sofia Ajram)

Casting test and first engraving (Photos: Sofia Ajram)

Cassandra, this is such a unique accomplishment for a writer. How does the final piece make you feel?

CK: Awed. I mean it. I’m so stunned by Sofia’s skill in creating jewelry. I remember when she came back with the first designs, and showed me what she’s done, and how she wanted to evoke the sense that the necklaces were salvaged from the fire at the end of the book. The level of thought and detail that went into it just *blew* me away.

What do you both hope readers feel about this piece?

CK: That Sofia should be everyone’s first stop for jewelry. I’m not even kidding. I hope people will look on this piece and want to make a beeline for the rest of her shop.

SA: I hope they feel as though it’s a little piece of Cass’ incredible story made real, and I hope it inspires other artists to do the same, whether it be by expanding their narrative universe, creating visual art, or bringing props to life—writing and reading occupy the palace of the mind—sometimes it’s nice to bring something tangible back from that place, something real.

Final product (Photo: Sofia Ajram)

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