T Ngu

Upper Metal Class

Age: 39

What does she make? Subtle statement pieces that speak volumes.

For T Ngu, Upper Metal Class is both an homage and a destination.

The jewelry company's founder says the name comes from her childhood in a first-generation Vietnamese family. Ngu, who came of age in Los Angeles, was born in a U.S. refugee camp soon after her parents emigrated here.

"We didn't really come from a lot," Ngu says. "We lived for a while in the projects, which is a lot when you are young. But our community always looked out for each other. That's where the name comes from—we always strove to reach that upper middle class."

Ten years ago, Ngu left the toxic L.A. fashion world to "soul search." That led her to a community college class on jewelry making, where she discovered a penchant for minimalist designs—discreet and sleek staples like gold skull studs with diamond eyes, necklaces shaped like breasts and slender chain-link rings. Her work caught the eye of friends, family and even servers at restaurants, who started asking her for custom pieces.

(courtesy of Upper Metal Class)
(courtesy of Upper Metal Class)

The small hobby quickly grew into her own company. She started Upper Metal Class in California, but it took off soon after she moved to Portland in 2010, following her partner who took a job at design studio Laika. Her pieces are now in stores across the country, including Portland's Cosube and Tender Loving Empire. (Ngu also founded Project Object, a Kerns storefront where she sold her jewelry alongside other locally made crafts, but it closed in January.)

Most of Ngu's collections donate a portion of revenue to nonprofits. Upper Metal Class' most recent United by Rice pieces—molds of rice formed out of silver and gold—give 100 percent of profits to RAICES, an organization that provides aid to immigrant and refugee children and families.

(courtesy of Upper Metal Class)
(courtesy of Upper Metal Class)

"There are just so many shitty things that are constantly happening in the world, it's hard sometimes," Ngu says. "I just feel like whatever I'm doing, I'm trying to just put as many positive vibes out as possible. And this is maybe one way that I'm doing it."