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BVLA | A CONVO WITH FOUNDER/CEO NICK MARTIN & PIERCER BRIAN KEITH THOMPSON

May 19, 2021

Read the full interview on Flaunt.com!

“If the laws of gravity work for it, we can make it work,” states BVLA founder and CEO Nick Martin. BVLA stands for Body Vision Los Angeles, the body jewelry company spearheading the way for body piercing and jewelry culture in 2021. Each piece is designed and handmade in Los Angeles, as seen on A-list celebrities from Beyoncé and Ariana Grande to Chrissy Teigen and Jessica Alba.

Exploding onto the scene in the mid-90’s, BVLA takes pride in the quality of their gems, giving both the piercer and customer the ultimate experience with only the best of the best jewelry. Since its inception, Martin has grown the company from a one-man operation into now 5 factories and 93 employees.

I arrived at Body Electric on Melrose Ave. on a Tuesday evening, greeted by both Martin and celebrity piercer Brian Keith Thompson, who took over the shop in 2006. Ever wonder who did Cardi B’s 3 dermal piercings on her chest and one on her bottom lip? Yup, Brian Keith Thompson.

Once you walk into the shop, you’re immediately drawn to the clear, see-through glass boxes containing BVLA jewelry, radiating light no matter which angle you’re looking. With over 250 gemstones to choose from, pieces vary from $80 to well over $10K—each guaranteed to be the finest quality in the world. Thompson is best known for his constellation piercings, decorating the ear with BVLA bedazzles while creating unique patterns and shapes that resemble constellation stars in the sky.

Moments before my own personal conch piercing by Thompson himself, Flaunt caught up with Martin and Thompson to discuss what sets BVLA apart from the rest, their working relationship, and their take on body piercing culture over the years.

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What led you to start BVLA?

Nick: I didn’t have a green card. I was in Massachusetts cooking, a friend of mine asked me to come work at the jewelry store.  I didn’t really like the selling, I was shy when I was younger. I’d hide in the back and I taught myself to make jewelry. Provincetown (on Cape Cod) was a “Gay destination spot” and back in the 90’s, everybody was coming asking for nipple jewelry and these big chunky things. I thought “there must be a way you can make this nicer.” I started to make a nice little line of jewelry. It was difficult, but I really believed the jewelry didn’t have to look so utilitarian. I kept working at it, and kept working at it.

Finally I secured one account then 2 accounts, then 3 accounts, then I moved to California. During all of this time I still did not have a green card, but I just made it happen. Then I had a really bad motorcycle accident, I couldn’t cook anymore so I was forced to sit in my living room and make jewelry. I’d make just enough to go to one shop and try to sell it. They’d buy it, then I’d go to another. I started from nothing, now we have a hundred and something employees. I have my green card now in case you’re wondering! [laughs]

Tell me about BVLA and the products you create? The jewelry is so beautiful, I was so overwhelmed on the website because it all looks so good!

Nick: The jewelry we make, it’s all tested. It’s all 14-carat and 18-carat gold, it all uses genuine gemstones. It’s all handmade 100% in Los Angeles by artisans and creative people. It’s personally the best jewelry of its type in the world. If you look at how the little gemstones are set, they’re all set by hand and perfectly leveled. We really pride ourselves on the quality. It’s the absolute best quality from selecting the gemstones to polishing the piece, to setting the piece, to soldering the piece. Everybody that works on the jewelry really cares.

A person will make a whole order for a shop. They won’t make the same piece over and over again. As you know from our website, we make so many types of pieces. So many different types of gemstones, you’re pretty much overwhelmed. It’s hard for people to choose almost. That’s what we do, we make what we think is the best quality body jewelry in the world. Personally, it stands up to be the best jewelry in the world.

Why is it important to use quality jewelry when piercing?

Nick: Because it’s going in your body. You know from getting pierced at Claire’s that these things don’t heal very well. These things are made, you don’t know what’s exactly in them. With all of our jewelry, we x-ray test every batch of gold to make sure it’s exactly what it says it is. People could put lesser quality materials inside the gold to mix it to save money or to cut corners, you’ll end up getting infections. The other thing is you have to polish it and make sure the surface is perfectly smooth. If it has little cuts and grazes in it, bacteria can build up in those and make infections. Everything has to be polished perfectly.

When you make body jewelry, you realize it’s not a jeweler making you an earring and now it’s body jewelry. When you make proper body jewelry, you make sure the back is nice, clean and polished. It’s got to work with the anatomy. There are certain pieces you make for certain piercings, that’s where the knowledge is needed. Sometimes regular jewelers will go “oh I’m going to make these earrings for body jewelry,” but it doesn’t work because it might have to be curved a little bit. The difference between body jewelry and regular jewelry is you have to make the jewelry based on the anatomy of where it’s going – that’s really important.

How has body jewelry and body piercing culture changed in LA evolved over the past 20 years?

Nick: Oh my goodness! When I first came here, I came with this little line of jewelry. I came on my motorcycle, I’d go to these biker tattoo shops. I’d go “hi look, here’s my little jewelry.” They’d go, “Get the fuck out, we don’t like gold. It’s for old ladies.” Back then, there was no gold. It was all silver, stainless steel, or titanium. People associated gold with old lady jewelry. My friends were some of the first people to wear these things, and embraced it. At the time, 23-year-old ladies started to wear the beautiful pieces we made on their bodies. Of course, that got traction. People would say “Oh my gosh, that looks great!” I think of Melody, she was young and so beautiful. She wore this huge lebret piece here on her chin, all the gold and diamonds that we made.

All of a sudden, people think “wow, okay that’s cool.” You know how this works, people follow other people, right? It slowly became cool. Now, LA’s funny because it’s such a fractioned city. It’s hard to know what’s going on over here isn’t what’s going on over there. It took a lot of time for this jewelry to not just be in tattoo shops. Brian’s shop isn’t just a tattoo shop, it’s a jewelry shop that does piercings and offers tattoos. When people were first getting piercings, it was anti-establishment: “I’m going to wear this big purple thing in my nose.” How it’s changed is people wear things for beauty. A little bit less is a little bit more. It helps because we offer so many different choices.

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Where is the BVLA product sold?

Nick: BVLA products are sold everywhere in the world. It’s sold in Europe, we have hundreds of accounts in Europe. We only sell in piercing stores and not regular jewelry stores, because we believe you need an expert piercer like Brian to put it in. You could have a hack put it in and it doesn’t look good. It’s in the wrong place, it doesn’t sit properly, or it’s the wrong type of jewelry. We’ve chosen to only sell to piercing stores, as opposed to jewelry stores. We sell in beautiful piercing shops in Europe, Asia, and Australia, every continent except Antarctica at this point.

We sell to fine piercing shops everywhere in the world. We have a couple of stores in London called Sacred Gold that we partner with. We have stores that sell us exclusively for gold, like Brian, like many stores all over the country. Thousands of accounts in the United States. We’re also careful, we only sell to the best stores.

How many stores in LA?

Nick: Probably 15 in the heart of LA, then we have about 10 in San Diego.

What is it about Brian that makes you a good team?

Nick: Brian appreciates beauty in life, Brian appreciates quality. Brian’s a very clever man when it comes to style and styling people. Because he’s the best, he wants to work with the best. And he is the best!

How did you get your start in the tattoo and piercing world?

Brian: Initially as a client, a tattoo customer here for 5 years, and then I became the owner. The tattoo artist tattooing me, he and I became friends. He asked me to be a silent partner ’cause I was working for corporate America. I used to be a network integration engineer for Nortel. We met at this gay bar in West Hollywood to talk, he was gay and would only go to a gay bar. I loved going back in the day, no fights and everybody was fun. We talked about it, worked it out. 2 weeks later he calls me and chickens out. The owner was this woman from Italy Bernadette, who called me and asked me if I wanted to buy it. 2 weeks after that, I owned it.

The night I signed the deal, we wrote it up in a hotel lobby. I’m laying in bed and my mind’s going, and I sit straight up and think, “What the hell did I just do?” I gave a check and signed my life away for something I don’t know anything about. The check was $125,000, and this is 2006. That’s all the money I had in the world, that’s it. She took it all and I slept on the floor, lived out of the trunk of my car. I had nothing else. But something told my gut, “You have to buy this place.”

How did you know that you wanted to go this route in your career?

Brian: I didn’t. I loved the name, I loved this place. It made me feel happy every time I got tattooed in here. I just felt happy. I fought depression a lot of my early life, and there are certain things I find joy in and this was one of them. When it came to, “Do you want to own it?” I thought “Of course.”

Still to this day, I’m happier in this building up here doing this than doing anything else. Even though I get tired of it sometimes, some days are better than others. But even on the worst days, it’s still better than my best day anywhere else. I love being here.

Why do you choose BVLA products for your piercings?

Brian: They’re the best, their quality. If you notice looking around, there’s no dust. The ceiling, the vents, the walls, everything, I take pride in this. I want to be the best or I don’t want to do it. When I started piercing, I was not calling myself the best, but I wanted to be the best. Because who can say who’s the best? There’s a different best of everything. You may be good at this but I may not be good at that. It’s like grading art. How do you put a price on that piece of art? It’s subjective. You like it, you may not like it. I like it. Would you spend this money?

Meeting BVLA and looking at their quality, the way they did their business, it was a match made in heaven. I love it. All cars are not made the same. All hair products, all face creams are not made the same. You have the good, the bad, the ugly. BVLA is the greatest. When you can do business with your friends and it still stays professional, the bounds never end. I don’t ask for special treatment, but they help me out when I need it. Like during the pandemic, I owed them money, but they still let me buy jewelry even after I still carried a balance, which was helpful to me. They helped save my business. My income was stopped. I was shut down for 3 months. I went from rocking and rolling to crickets. I mean the crickets didn’t even show up.

How many piercings were you doing a day? 

Brian: Back in the day: 30, 40, 50. But it’s the relationships. It’s a give and take in any relationship: business, romantic, personal, friendship. The base of that is trust, then on top of that you can build anything. If you don’t have the trust, you have no relationship. It’s done, no matter what it is. Trust is everything, and then you can build on that. We’ve always had that trust. He invested in me because he knew that I needed to get back to work to be able to pay. Everything led back that way.

Nick: It doesn’t just have to be business, it can be really human.

Brian: It was human. It touched me, it matters. That was a beautiful thing that didn’t have to happen, and I wouldn’t have faulted him if it didn’t happen that way.

What do people look for when selecting jewelry for their piercing?

Brian: Right now, believe it or not, they look for me. I had a woman last week fly in from Houston for 5 hours. Has her appointment, shows up. She says, “I have this much money, do whatever.” I do constellation piercings, a multitude of piercings sporadically placed on the ear. I coined that term, and I own the trademark on it now.

I built a name for myself on designing ears and being an ear designer. Some people say artists, I don’t agree with that. That’s the artist. [points to Martin] He takes a lump of gold and turns it into what we’re putting in your ear, that’s art. When you take ink in a bottle, pour it out and turn it into a tattoo, that’s art. When you take a diamond that’s made and you put it on the ear, that’s not art, that’s decorating.

Nick: You can’t have one without the other. People come in here and say, “Brian do whatever you want.” That’s a level of trust.

Brian: You don’t focus on the money. You focus on the human in the relationship and the trust. If you do what looks good on them and don’t do more than they can handle, they’ll keep coming back. It’s not about the money today, it’s about the relationship.

How did Cardi B find you?

Brian: Probably her assistant, I’d imagine. I don’t think she knew who I was. She does now. A lot of these celebrities, it’s their stylist that hits me up.

From your perspective, how has tattoo and piercing culture in LA evolved over the past 20 years?

Brian:  20 years ago, you walk in this place and if they don’t like you, they tell you to “Fuck off.” Or “Get the fuck out of here.” That doesn’t happen anymore. There was no internet, no checks and balances. Now, you give somebody bad service or do a bad job on them, there’s repercussions. There’s a trail. Back then, there was none. Police killings, there was no video on this stuff and people didn’t believe it. Now you see videos, this is happening. You can’t deny it anymore, so you have to do something about it. Piercers and tattoo artists had to change and be more customer-oriented.

Now it’s evolved and it’s definitely a customer experience. Even though I direct a lot of it now and I get to pick what you do, it’s still all about you. You still maintain all the control. You’re paying me to do my job to decorate on you. I’m controlling where it goes and you’re paying me to do that, so it’s your control.

What body piercing do you see returning in 2021?

Brian: Constellation piercings will continue. That’s definitely a trend from 2020 that will be carried on, even into 2022 too. Navels are coming back again. I’ve been doing a lot of navel piercings.

Nick: Navels are great because there’s so many designs you can do because the navel is big.

Brian: Something very triumphant. The daith is also in. [points to ear]

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