"As the story goes, my uncle Paterson had been searching for the ideal skull ring his whole life," says Imogen Lehtonen, as we enter The Great Frog's Los Angeles shop on Melrose, a stylish boutique offering individually handcrafted jewelry. The shop feels alive with old-world charm, gothic furnishings over wooden floors and evocative metal pieces displayed in glass cases. Most notably, there are skulls everywhere — the family-owned, 45-plus-years-old Great Frog is credited as being the originator of the infamous skull ring.
As I follow Lehtonen into the back of the shop, I can't help but gawk at Ross Halfin's photography spread across a long wall in the shop — Cliff Burton, Jimmy Page, Lemmy Kilmister — a wall of legends. "It's all fucking rock & roll," says Lehtonen, a testimony to not only The Great Frog's iconic clientele, but also the overall spirit of her family's business. A second-gen silversmith, she spends a good chunk of her time at the shop torching, grinding and resizing newly purchased rings, as well as finishing and processing raw castings — practices she learned from her father in New Zealand, and later honed with her uncle Paterson Riley, The Great Frog's co-founder. (Lehtonen also cites her uncle Gavan Riley, cousin Reino Lehtonen-Riley, and brother Ansel Lehtonen as mentors.)
As a young boy, Paterson Riley loved comics — especially The Phantom, a superhero who wore a signature skull ring. A knockout punch from The Phantom would leave any adversary with an impression of the skull ring on his forehead. "My uncle had ordered a ring from the back of a comic and, when it came, it was nothing more than a cheap round thing with two eye-holes and scratches for teeth," tells Lehtonen. "That began his quest for the perfect skull ring."
Founded in 1972, when Riley and his partner Carol opened shop on Carnaby Street in London, The Great Frog has achieved that goal and become the hallmark of rock & roll bling worldwide, offering an edgier alternative to mainstream jewelry, catering to metalheads, rockers, punks, goths and bikers and their requisite subcultures. As such, the Frog has created sought-after pieces for members of Metallica and Motörhead, and collaborative rings with groups including Slayer and Iron Maiden. For Lehtonen, keeping The Great Frog torch aflame isn't a job, it's her calling — and not just because of her blood ties to the business, but also because she herself embodies the iconoclastic attitude of The Great Frog, riding motorcycles, blasting Motörhead and Black Sabbath on the regular and generally living by her own rules. "I feel so lucky that I can carry on my family's legacy with The Great Frog," she says. "My parents actually met working together in the shop." After three years of beading and peddling necklaces on the beaches of South America, Lehtonen's mother, Felicity, left to join her older brothers in London — where they were working at The Great Frog.
Around the same time, Lehtonen's father, Brian, was in Florida, just finishing his university studies and looking to do something different. So he went to visit his big sister Carol at The Great Frog, where he would meet his future wife. "I don't think my mom liked him very much to begin with. He would eventually ask her to marry him seven times," laughs Lehtonen. (The two remained happily married until Brian's death a few years ago.) "Everyone worked together and lived in a historic, gothic manor in Harrow on the Hill. It was a home for everyone with The Great Frog's storefront beneath it. I was born there, in 1988, on the floor of that house — my dad actually delivered me."
Lehtonen's parents, as foreigners and the youngest of the group, worked in the shop and would often take the family children to explore the neighborhoods and parks in the area. Her father learned how to cast silver and set up a casting system in the basement of the shop. But once Brian and his wife had three children, they decided to move their family elsewhere.
So by way of Florida, they relocated to New Zealand, where Lehtonen grew up. "We lived in this little beach cottage that my dad built up over 20 years. He loved working with his hands," shares Lehtonen. "When I was about 10, my parents got back into the jewelry business. After school, I would go to the shop and learn a lot of what I know about using tools from watching and working with my dad." From around age 13, Lehtonen began working in their jewelry shop, learning many aspects of the trade that she would find invaluable in later years.
At age 19, Lehtonen left her hometown in New Zealand to travel to the U.S. and backpack around Europe, landing in London, where her uncle Paterson mentored her in the ways of the Frog. "The London shop was my home while I was there," she recalls. "It's a creaky old building along a cobblestone street that's rooftop overlooks Carnaby Street. I lived in what they called 'the rat's nest' — a peaked-roof attic, four floors up from the shop level with no windows.
It had an open drainpipe with water running through when it rained, and I suppose some rats were running around. It was really fucking cool — some nights, I would invite friends up there and we would climb out a small hatch to the roof and drink Magners Irish Cider and eat Chinese take-out. My uncle was also living there at the time — he's a real raconteur. After work, we would drink red wine in the shop while listening to music and his epic stories." Between the darkness of London's winters, and Lehtonen's work schedule in the flagship store, she seldom saw the light of day. "During my stay there, going back and forth between the attic and the basement, I rarely saw the sun. I got really pale and strange during that time, but it was a huge inspiration to me."
Over her winter stay, Lehtonen worked with her uncle, who, according to Lehtonen, is very much the same as he was in the Seventies. "The rest of the world has changed, and my uncle has not. He shuns technology, never owned or used a computer, and never had a cell phone — we tried to get one for him once but he wouldn't charge it or answer it."
Riley still lives amongst piles of books and works as a keen jeweler in his seventies. "He's a musician, too, a guitar player, and would often be jamming with other musicians in his social circle and partying with guys like Lemmy [Kilmister] back in the day. And he's still a character — long hair, big boomy voice, and snakeskin boots," Lehtonen says, affectionately. "He's covered in jewelry and usually wearing a shirt that says, 'Great Fucking Frog' or simply 'Fuck Off.' He's definitely a stylish man.
Back in the day, he often had a gaggle of Japanese girls following him around the shop and town. He's been there for nearly half a century, and he's become an iconic figure of the community associated with Soho London." Lehtonen's time in the U.K. left a big impression on her heart and, after ultimately moving to Los Angeles, she ached to get involved with The Great Frog again.
"My cousin Reino, Paterson's son, had since taken over the business. Reino modernized all aspects of The Great Frog, taking us into an era of technology. He put us online, curated some of our greatest designs and refined some of our classic pieces — he's a true artist," says Lehtonen. "All of the current designs that come out of our shop, as well as the collaborations we do with Slayer, Motörhead and Iron Maiden, which are all Reino's carvings — well, Reino is the visionary behind it all."
In 2011, Lehtonen began again with The Great Frog, opening shop in TRIco — the amalgamation of three motorcycle-lifestyle companies including The Great Frog and DicE Magazine — on Hollywood Boulevard. "This first venture was sort of a testing ground that organically led to the opening a shop in Los Angeles," explains Lehtonen. So, in 2014, two years after The Great Frog opened its New York City store, she and her cousin opened The Great Frog on Melrose, having worked together tirelessly to create a space that's heart would beat at the same tempo as the shop Paterson opened in 1972. Once it was nearly complete, Reino left to return to London, leaving the future of The Great Frog's satellite location in the hands of Lehtonen.
In short time, the shop proved a success. "It's come together, but it's been a journey," says Lehtonen. "I've done my best to carry on our legacy in the United States, where we are really forging new ground. And it's nice to see people learn about our family history and that all we do is hand-designed and handmade, and it's fucking rock & roll. It's so cool to see people connect the dots, when they realize that they've actually been seeing The Great Frog over the years, like on the Cliff Burton poster and photos of Lemmy."
Today, the authenticity of The Great Frog remains intact, even as their jewelry has infiltrated Hollywood's tenue du jour — sported by Lady Gaga, Johnny Depp and The Walking Dead star Norman Reedus. In fact, after once meeting Lehtonen during a motorcycle trip across the U.S., Reedus invited her to co-star in the inaugural episode of his other TV series, RIDE with Norman Reedus, which premiered in June 2016.
"Imogen has a very unique way about her," says Reedus. "I admire her and how she gets out and does all these things on her own ... She's a really good rider, makes rad jewelry, and she's such a free spirit, but still balls to the wall — all the way."
During their episode of RIDE, Reedus meets up with Lehtonen at The Great Frog on Melrose and, before they venture out for a ride up Pacific Coast Highway, she fits him with his first skull ring — a piece that pays homage to the catacombs beneath the London shop. In 1676, the building was erected over an old plague pit, which, as one of Riley's more ambitious stories goes, gave rise to a friendly resident ghost in the building — the spirit of a woman who once washed her babies' clothes at the local water pump and thus became the accidental source of one of London's typhoid plagues.
Lehtonen's RIDE appearance boosted business at the Frog, and her modeling and moto side careers were taking off; life seemed on the up and up, but her heart was heavy. Her father's death, just six months into the opening of the Los Angeles store, was still fresh and weighed on her. Brian had been diagnosed with a rapidly aggressive cancer and given only 18 months to live, but hung on for seven more years before he passed away — years for which Lehtonen feels very fortunate. It was her father who not only introduced her to jewelry-making — working with her hands is a daily reminder of her father's passion — but also to riding motorcycles, an activity Lehtonen continues to share with him. "I still have conversations with my dad — I talk to him in my helmet while I ride," she says. As a memorial, Reino made her a special necklace pendant — a silver bullet, inside of which she put some of her father's ashes. "I don't go a day without wearing it. I can't imagine riding without it," she says.
As we close our conversation, Lehtonen leaves me with one final thought. "I don't ever want my life to become stagnant," she says, pulling her boots on and donning a black ghostly helmet bearing a skull resembling the one worn by The Punisher. "Something I learned from my dad — to let go of expectation and follow my intuition, my gut and my heart. For him, even more so after he was diagnosed with cancer, it was the utmost importance to do what makes you happy. Ever since I followed his mantra, things have happened for me that I wouldn't have dreamed of when I was living in New Zealand." Lehtonen wishes me well and exits the back door of The Great Frog. Firing up her 2001 Harley-Davidson Sporty, she rides off. I don't think she'll ever have to worry about a stagnant life.