Ri Mortimore certainly never thought she’d be making custom gold grills for rappers as a job. During the day, she works for the video-driven shopping platform NTWRK as the Global Design Lead, but during off hours she moonlights as Ri Serax, a private custom jeweler who makes “insane gold teeth” as well as plenty of other designs for celebrity clients like Lil Nas X, Princess Nokia, and Vic Mensa. Neither of these career paths seemed likely for Mortimore until 2017, when a UX role at then-developing digital fashion giant Rent The Runway brought her to New York.
Already familiar with 3D design, she began to take classes in goldsmithing, and a side hobby designing jewelry for friends quickly developed into a waitlist that was 70 customers deep. “I was always hustling something, for the last decade,” she remembered when we spoke over the phone recently for an interview. “Nothing quite worked out like the jewelry! It was an unexpected surprise. I hadn’t mentioned it anywhere or officially launched the business, but it got to the point where I had 70 or 80 people on a waitlist and I was like ‘Oh, this could actually be a business!’ Basically, it’s me going to clients privately and making them anything they could possibly dream of.”
Of course, making grills for rappers wasn’t something she had in mind as a dream job growing up, even if it’s become that in many ways now. Instead, during her early years, Mortimer was studying to be a concert pianist, to the point that she dropped out of other high school subjects to concentrate her focus fully on piano. Growing up in a small coastal town in Australia — literally named Townsville — she slowly migrated to increasingly larger cities, studying at the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane and working in the music industry for several years as a producer, DJ, and booking agent.
Eventually growing tired of the misogyny that women in music face, a trip to New York changed her world forever. Falling in love with the city sparked a drastic alteration to Mortimore’s career path. “You don’t get treated particularly well or paid particularly well as a woman in music,” she said. “I burnt out. And I also went to New York and completely fell in love — I wanted to do anything to live there. I knew music wasn’t going to get me there, so I went back to Australia and it took me six years to completely change careers from scratch.”
During those six years back in Australia, Mortimore began to teach herself UX and design, shopping her resume around at agencies with junior level openings, advocating for the chance to learn on the job. “It’s not a normal career path because I didn’t learn design back in college,” she said. “I taught myself in my mid-twenties, started from scratch and it was just a lot of determination to push my way in. I started learning things and went to agencies and begged them to give me a junior job where I could learn design. Then I finally got one and learned on the job, and worked my way up.”
After landing a role at Rent The Runway, she was finally able to fulfill her dream of moving to New York. But, lonelier than she expected in a foreign country so far away from her family, the goldsmithing hobby she developed helped fill a void and connect her to a whole new community in America. “A few friends started asking for pieces, I made some pieces for a record label that got some attention, and it just went from there,” Ri explained. As a digital designer, though, Mortimore is also seeking to reimagine the way grills are made. Historically, they’ve always been crafted after physical impressions of the subject’s teeth, but she is experimenting to see if 3D modeling is a viable way to create custom grills in the future.
“There’s a lot of dentistry that goes into it,” she said. “More recently, in the last six months I’ve been in LA working with dentists because I’ve been trying to bring the whole process into the digital world. Traditionally when you make gold teeth you make them by hand, you take an impression of people’s mouths and you work on it by hand. I want to see if it’s possible to make them entirely digitally, so that’s been crazy. I have a whole bunch of dentists involved in the process, but I think it’s finally working and it’s really cool.”
And, in some ways, Ri also owes her day job to her work as a jeweler. Though her experience with Rent The Runway led to a massive step forward as Global UX Lead at Ralph Lauren, the company wasn’t a culture fit for her. “NTWRK is my favorite, it aligns with things that I love,” she laughed. “I love the stupid hypebeast streetwear world. I like that, and it’s the first job I’ve ever had where the founder thought my jewelry was really cool, he saw that company first. I’ve never had a boss be so supportive of my own business, which is taken out of other time, even though I’m a full-time employee.”
As both an employee for a corporation she believes in and an entrepreneur excited to move things forward in another industry, Mortimore wants to help change the perception that running your own company is something a corporate workplace should see as a negative. “Working at NTWRK made me realize it doesn’t have to be that way,” she said. “You don’t have to feel that your entrepreneurialism is a secret you have to keep away from your corporate job. There’s no reason why that shouldn’t be celebrated. Entrepreneurialism is a skill that really comes in handy in a person, they’re likely to be an employee that shows a lot of initiative and creativity, and I think that’s only a good thing.”
In her role at NTWRK, which is still relatively new, Mortimore is one of the first full-time product designers the company hired. As the company works to sell exclusive products with celebrity cameos in the video streaming space, this year’s lifestyle shift due to quarantine measures has only made their model more sustainable. “It’s interactive and it’s a more exciting way to shop,”Ri said. “Since NTWRK has existed, so many other companies have started doing this as well. It’s really popular in China but it’s just starting to get noticed in America. We believe in it, and it’s a really exciting, fun way to interact and to be part of a social community. Particularly now that we’re all living at home.”
Aside from social distancing, other movements geared toward social justice have cropped up during the pandemic. On that note, Ri said she also sees the tech world as a place that has lots of room for improvement when it comes to underrepresented groups — not just including more women — but people from all backgrounds. In her mind, the tech world is an industry that’s much more open than music when it comes to changing the culture. “There are so many underrepresented groups in tech, it’s not just women,” she said. “I felt it a little, but coming from music, it was a vast improvement. Maybe I was held back a little or maybe I spent longer in junior or mid-level jobs compared to male colleagues, but apart from that, honestly it’s a fairly good industry in that if you feel like there’s an injustice, you can call that out and people will be responsive.”
This profile first appeared in shortened form via LA streetwear company The Hundreds’ blog for our Hint of Cinnamon monthly collaboration.