While the bare nails dominating spring runways call for apolish detox, in downtown Manhattan, manicure whiz Sarah Nguyen is taking the world of nail art to new maximalist heights. Nguyen’s world, as chronicled on her Instagram feed, @chrmdbysarah, is a glinting parade of bedazzled bricolage, outré rhinestone designs, and towering, bejeweled creations.
Far from cutesy illustrations, Nguyen uses “build-outs” to describe the intricate process behind her next-level manicures, layering jewels and shiny objects to create 3-D, cuticle-friendly bling. At their most basic (which she calls, Level One), the ornate looks can be done on shorter, natural nails adorned with one or two rhinestones. And her work straddles the range all the way up to Level Five, which includes nail extensions stacked with ornamental structures. Most of her clients, she admits, can be found at the middle ground of Level Three. Think: jewel-dotted, raised illustrations on natural nails. After all, venturing into Level Five territory requires a sit-down time rivaling that of most colorist appointments—with a cost to match (manicures can run up to $300). “I use a lot of Swarovski and those aren’t cheap,” says Nguyen. “For a lot of the pieces, you are building such large ornaments. It takes time to do it, and the pieces are expensive.”
Despite Nguyen’s proclivity for the exquisite, her first foray into the world of finger art had more modest, DIY beginnings. After passing a Japanese nail salon in California, that was working with rhinestone and Swarovski jewels, Nguyen started improvising her own manicures. “I would get the acrylics done, and I would break apart jewelry that I wouldn’t wear anymore, and I would throw them on my nails. At first, it looked like I just stuck my hand in a box of jewelry and pulled [it] out. [The nails] didn’t really coincide with one another, but over time, it started to tell a story.” It only took a few years before Nguyen enrolled in nail-tech school and hopped on a plane to New York, where she is now in high demand at luxe nail atelier Vanity Projects and on set for editorial shoots.
For those hoping to join Nguyen’s cult client base, she recommends dipping your fingers into nail art slowly to prevent breakage. “You kind of have to crawl before you walk. People don’t realize how often they use their hands and how heavy-handed one [manicure] can be.” But no matter how complicated or weighty the final product, her philosophy behind well-done nails remains simple. “I’ve always thought nails [were] one of those luxuries—an accessory that everyone needs,” she says. “If you’re wearing sweats and no makeup and your nails are done, you’re good.” From there, the only place to go, as Nguyen knows, is up.