Those low, bustling streets where Cobble Hill gives way to Boerum Hill have changed drastically in the last decade, for the usual reasons. But the 30,000-square-foot Invisible Dog warehouse has remained remarkably untouched, in part because its French founder, Lucien Zayan, is so passionate about creating a thriving artist community, and in part, Ruff says, because the building's owner, Frank DeFalco, doesn't want to be the guy who ruined the neighborhood.
"Every other warehouse in 20-block radius of this space has been either torn down or turned into very, very fancy apartments," says Ruff. But even as Blue Bottle Coffee, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, and Warby Parker now dot the neighborhood, Ruff's studio remains a step back into the past — just the way he likes it.
Ruff has always loved the weathered, the vintage, the discarded — especially if there's a seafaring element involved. And the current incarnation of his jewelry studio is rife with one-of-a-kind finds.
A massive buffalo head — almost named Ferdinand, which then seemed too on-the-nose — looms large over the massive workbench, Ruff's most prized possession. The weathered 16-foot table that now sits center stage in the studio was original to the building, which dates back to the 19th century. When the owners remade the sprawling third floor into individual studios, Ruff saw his chance. "I made sure to push that table into my corner," he laughs. They built the studio right around it. "It really is the anchor of the whole space."
"Every other warehouse in 20-block radius of this space has been either torn down or turned into very, very fancy apartments," says Ruff.
At the entrance there's the door that has traveled with Ruff each time the studio has moved, most recently from a 200-square foot spot in an elevator shaft of the Invisible Dog, where he started almost seven years ago, to the current light-filled spot he now inhabits — nearly three times the size. "That's always been the door to the studio," says Ruff. "I drag it with me everywhere I go since I pulled it out of the trash."
Just inside the door, an ancient footlocker reads "Ernest J. Tyndall. Captain U.S.A.F." It's from a time when Ruff would go estate-sale-ing around New York regularly. Once Ruff got the footlocker back to his space, he discovered someone had painted over the Tyndall's original illustrations — amazing drawings of World War II bombers. "There was an archeological aspect to it — we uncovered something that had been covered up for decades," he explains. That's what's special about these finds. It's the kind of layered past that serves as inspiration, and a common thread, for Digby and Iona the brand.
"Right now, it's just piles and piles of diamonds and we're sorting through," says Ruff.
On a humid fall Friday, the diamonds have come in. Ruff is looking over them, alongside his interns. This is the latest incarnation of the Digby and Iona brand — custom engagement rings, with smoky salt-and-pepper diamonds and truly unique sapphires from a rare domestic mine in Montana.
"Right now, it's just piles and piles of diamonds and we're sorting through," he explains. "That will take us the whole day. And then from those pieces, some will get earmarked for existing designs. The more interesting stuff we'll set aside for future thought or for new designs and try to find them homes."
That's his favorite part of that job.
Elsewhere, in cabinets and on display, are the whimsical signet rings for which Digby and Iona first became famous: the tattoo-inspired lines, with literary or historical backstories, a new, tightly curated collection each season, in tune with the fashion calendar. Ruff is always trying to get back to that type of deeply creative work, but the hum of owning his own business beckons.
Another new element that beckons? Family. Back at Ruff's Brooklyn Heights apartment, which he describes as mostly nondescript — aside from the deeply personal collection of art and artifacts — is his 9-month-old son, Ayu.
"It's hard to maintain this sort of aesthetic and love for old rusty things and also have a child becoming mobile," he says. "He gravitates to the most lead-painted, chippy, rusty things in the apartment."
As they look for a new spot in the neighborhood, what will come with them is the art and collectibles that are so central to Ruff's point of view. "It's whatever you call that style of Americana, estate sale, vintage that's been so popular in recent years," he says. "That's always been my style and my passion and it happens to be the things that I've collected for decades." Another way to put it, he says, is "curated hoarding."
Below the gallery wall sits a massive table that Ruff built — a giant log, cut through with a chainsaw, then leveled out over a weekend. It reflects his original roots in furniture design — which is what drew him to Brooklyn, from Maine. ("I enjoy it much more now that it's a hobby," he says.) The jewelry that now defines his life was, it seems, almost an accident. He took a jewelry design class while at Parsons, and when the furniture he made wasn't selling, but the jewelry was, he took it as a sign.
To Ruff, it takes a special place like the Invisible Dog — where the owners are dedicated to building a true creative space, more than a profit — for those kinds of accidents to blossom, over time, into entire careers.
"I don't think that my work would be where it is today without having been in the space," he says. "With a lot of the artists in the building, luck had a lot to do with it."