Custom steel has again become a "thing" in the bike world, and with good reason. Steel tubing has become thinner, lighter and stronger. When paired with a carbon cockpit, a light group set and the right wheels, a tailored steel bike can be as lively as (and smoother than) many race-focused carbon machines and Philadelphia native Jen Green’s head badge designs add a touch of bling to many a steel frame.
Bryan Yates / Images: Jen Green
Buying a technologically advanced steel race machine, however, is not anyone’s raison d’être. Rather, marquee brands like Speedvagen, Stinner and Breadwinner have created a near cult-like lust for steel with their craftsmanship and attention to detail. A search of Instagram during the North American Handmade Bike Show (NAHBS) revealed that plenty of up-and-coming frame builders—including Philosophy, Avery Co. and Lundbeck—are filling a growing demand for handmade bikes.
Getting a steel bike has nearly risen to the level of making a political statement about one’s individuality. The "steel is real" hashtag is as ubiquitous to hipsterdom’s social media lexicon as "authentic"…"outside is free"…"pour over"…and "bacon." Cool as they are, it’s not simply the steel that sets the bike apart. Nor is it even the choice of tubing, dropouts or weld quality that inherently catches our attention. What awakens our cyclist spirit is the handmade-ness of a steel bike. It’s understanding that someone toiled over making it and sweated over every minute detail, right down to the frame’s head badge.
The badge is often the final visual touch on a bike and makes the first, most impactful impression. Like a piece of jewelry, a well-designed badge says something about both the maker and the owner. It ties the entire bike together, imbuing it with a little sexuality and soul.
Designing a great head badge, which has to represent so much in a small patch of real estate, is a rarefied craft requiring special talent. Philadelphia native Jen Green has that talent. Her designs have added a touch of bling to frames by Rock Lobster, Philosophy, Oddity, Moots and many others. At any given NAHBS, a Jen Green head badge might be on six different frames. Besides making small-run badges for frame builders, she’s also well known for her one-off designs.
Green has worked as a jeweler for 22 years. She is quick to say, with more than a hint of civic pride, that her main shop is located in Philadelphia’s historic Jewelers’ Row—the oldest diamond district in the country. She started making badges 15 years ago, when a friend wanted one for a custom Moots he was ordering from Speedgoat Cycles.
"He wanted me to make a badge with an OM in place of the customary Moots badge," Green says. "So I made a singlespeed King cog with the OM in the center, painted blue to match the King components in sterling silver."
Her Moots badge quickly captured attention and her new business was born. For the first few years, she marketed her work through a $2 classified in an online cycling website. Since that first head badge, Green estimates that she has made well over 1,000 custom badges for cycling enthusiasts around the world.
Each Jen Green head badge has its own story inspired by the clients who commission them. That’s what makes it hard for her to pick a personal favorite. Regardless, she loves the process of making each one. She says, "Jewelry to me is miniature sculpture, and the badges are that, plus a bit of engraving and painting and drawing all together." Pressed to pick a favorite or most interesting badge, she recalls being hired to make a Chanel logo badge for a black retro bike in a Tokyo window display.
Every badge starts with a concept. In the early stages of design, Green often has extended conversations with clients about the bike for which it’s being made. She then researches potential source materials and starts drawing. This back-and-forth process is meant to get the design just right. Once approved, she moves into fitting, cutting, arranging and potentially soldering the piece. The last step is sanding and oxidizing to bring out the details.
Green used to make her badges exclusively in sterling silver. As the price of precious metals rose, she turned to nickel. This allowed her to do more handwork on each piece. She will add in other metals—bronze, copper, sterling silver—to create contrasts in texture and color. Because they are easier to clean, she prefers matte-finish badges to high-polish ones, which are difficult to keep up. Creative outlet and personal business aside, making badges has the added bonus of keeping her rooted to cycling culture.
With eight bikes of her own, Green is a bit more than a mere cycling enthusiast. Mountain biking on her single-speed Black Sheep 29er is her primary go-to ride, but she’s also got a geared Black Sheep with CX tires that she uses to explore the mixed surfaces of the countryside around the town of Chester, Pennsylvania.