The Business of Bling: A visit with four local jewelry designers

Silver, silver and gold, silver and gold — everyone wishes for silver and gold. How do you measure its worth? Just by the pleasure it gives here on earth …” sung by Burl Ives. Everyone loves silver and gold, and during this season of lights, tinsel and glitter, it’s fun to glam it up a bit when it comes to holiday wardrobes and accessories. Sure, we enjoy wearing fashionable jewelry year-round, but with holiday parties and the hope of a little box full of “sparkle” in our stockings on Christmas morn, all eyes are on pretty jewelry this time of year.

Luckily, we don’t have to look far to find it.

Forget the North Pole: Santa’s elves don’t make jewelry. Instead, some of the best original jewelry designs on the market today begin right here in San Antonio. Top designers and artisans with gorgeous pieces in gold, silver, turquoise, fine gemstones and more call the Alamo City home, so we asked a few of them how they got their start in the business of bling and what to expect in silver and gold this season. Each of the four designers we spoke with creates and sells jewelry wholesale to stores across the nation and is proud to call San Antonio home.

Susan Shaw

If you were in San Antonio in the 1980s, chances are you either saw or were wearing a little bright red papier-maché chile pepper necklace that Susan Shaw designed. That hot costume jewelry item was just the beginning of a long and successful business. “I started out as an interior designer, and I did that for a few years after college, but then one day I saw some little peppers at a store and ended up creating the chile pepper necklace. I found little papier-maché peppers and added silver chains and cording so I’d have something fun to wear for Fiesta. It was fun, so I made some more and sold them to my friends. I had a little trunk show (the only one I’ve ever had, before or since) for a few neighbors and friends. A lady from a local store came to the show and wanted to buy a bunch of the necklaces, and it just took off from there,” recalls Shaw. “The next thing I knew, someone in Dallas at an apparel mart asked me to put together a line of jewelry for her showroom. So I made pieces that were fun and looked like Fiesta. I knew this was what I wanted to do. “I kept adding completely new pieces all the time, and soon people were talking about my jewelry. A sales team with shops throughout the Southwest then picked up my line. The rest is history,” she says.

Since those days, her tastes and her jewelry have changed. “For a while my designs leaned toward a Western look, but today, my jewelry is more classic and simple — traditional, in sterling silver and gold. I’ve always created a lot of crosses, though, which represents a good crossover in design styles,” says Shaw.

“A few years ago I became interested in gold and started creating 24 karat hand-cast gold- and sterling silver-plated metals. I also work with pearls and semiprecious stones, combining them to create beautiful jewelry collections. Our jewelry is all U.S. made, designed and assembled in San Antonio, and the stores we’re in are higher-end, even though our jewelry isn’t too expensive. Our jewelry is in a lot of museum gift shops, like the Smithsonian in D.C., the Getty in Los Angeles, the Houston Museum of Art and the Kimball in Fort Worth. Primarily, we’re well known in the Northeast and the Deep South and the East Coast,” says Shaw. Today she has more than 2,000 active retail accounts in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Central and South America. “Every year we’re doing more business than the last,” she says. Shaw and her family — including her two grown sons and their wives — live in Terrell Hills, and theirs is a family business: “My youngest son, Ryan, went to work with me after he graduated from college, and he’s done a wonderful job, and my eldest son, Davin, has his own career. My husband, whom I met at U.T. Austin, has worked with me for more than 25 years, handling the business end of things. We have a team of great employees. “I always find inspiration in unexpected places. We go to Europe every year, and I see every kind of jewelry, but I keep an eye out for art and other things too. It’s amazing where you’ll see things that inspire you,” says Shaw.

The secret to her success? “If you work hard at something and really concentrate, it can be done,” says Shaw. “One retailer recently said to me, ‘We may have to work harder than we used to just to get the same result these days, but we can still do well.’ That’s true. You just have to be inspired and creative and work hard. Never be afraid to try new things.”

Claudia Lobão

It seems it was fate — for Claudia Lobão was destined to love San Antonio. Before she ever got here, she loved the idea of it, and she loved the name. Why? Perhaps it’s because she grew up in a neighborhood in Brazil called San Antonio, and years later when she was working a booth at the Saint Anthony market in SoHo selling jewelry, she met a woman from San Antonio who said people here would love her designs. So when Lobão and her husband left New York City to follow their bliss, they followed it here and made San Antonio, Texas, their home. She explains, “I used to be in banking back in New York, but as a hobby I would make jewelry for myself and my friends. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 left us badly shaken, my husband and I sat down and took stock of things and decided we should do what we love because we never know how long we will live. So that’s when I decided to do jewelry for a living. Still, I kept my job in banking for another two years while my husband took classes at the French Culinary Institute in New York because that’s what he loved to do. By 2003 we moved to San Antonio for the better quality of life. We felt it would be a good base for us, and I really liked its name. I grew up in a place named San Antonio in Brazil, and it was one of the happiest times in my life. “We moved here in September 2003. We didn’t know anybody, and we didn’t know the city, but we met with the Realtor and bought our house over the weekend. Two months later, we were living here,” recalls Lobão. “We got a kiosk at North Star Mall to sell my jewelry. Then, 10 months later, we opened a store in Alamo Heights. A year after that, our wholesale business began picking up, and we started selling to museum stores, and we were recommended to a rep in Dallas, and we began selling wholesale on a broader level.

“While we were still in New York, I had started hiring artisans in Brazil to make the jewelry I designed, and I took classes in molding and beading. After we moved here, we set up our manufacturing studio in Brazil. Today our factory in Brazil employs 20 artisans, and with their excellent quality of work our business just keeps growing. That’s why we have such a big collection, featuring jewelry from bold styles to dainty ones, for women from 15 years old to 95-plus,” says Lobão. “In 2005, we started selling to Julian Gold in San Antonio. Now we have reps in different parts of the country. We are in about 700 stores worldwide.
“Our lines are contemporary fashion jewelry, and our unique style is reflected in our signature hand-crocheted metal pieces. We like to bring a little glamour to our designs with bold statement pieces,” says Lobão. “I began creating hand-crocheted pieces with wire, metal, fabric and Brazilian gemstones back in New York. My grandmother taught me to crochet when I was a little kid, and I only did it to make her happy. Little did I know it would become such an important part of my future,” she comments. “After I graduated, I came to the United States from Brazil and planned to stay only three months. Then I was going to live in Paris, but I met my husband, who was born in Brazil and raised in New York. We fell in love, and today he is my business partner. We’ve been married 16 years, and we have a daughter, Valentina, who is 11,” says Lobão.

“It is important that from our lives we take what we live and not what we have. We have to do what we love, and success will come after that. Sept. 11 taught us that we have to tell people that we love them every day and live every moment. Don’t fight and don’t get nervous. Try to be as happy as you can,” says Lobão, who seems pretty happy herself. “Our house is like a reality show all the time — the cameras are always on while we Skype all day with the factory in Brazil. We have a new dog, and we have a 15-year-old exchange student from Brazil staying with us, and my mom is visiting too, so it’s always fun at our house. People come over and joke, ‘Are the cameras always on?’ We just laugh. We’re doing what we love and being together. Right now we’re getting ready for a trunk show on December 8 and 9 at Julian Gold. We’re busy, and we’re blessed,” she concludes.

Carroll Dorsey Walker

If you ever watch Good Morning, America and notice a particularly pretty necklace worn by anchor Robin Roberts, it just might be a piece of jewelry from San Antonio designer Carroll Dorsey Walker. Roberts is just one of several celebrities who don Walker’s designs, including Nancy Grace and actress Linda Lavin. Walker’s company, Bejewel, has stores on both the East and West Coasts, and her jewelry has also been worn by celebrities on the red carpet at the Oscars, Emmys and Tony Awards. “When you see something like that and know 100 million people are watching — it’s like ‘Oh, wow!’ It’s surreal. I felt I’d really made it in this business when I saw Robin Roberts wearing a necklace I’d designed and created,” recalls Walker. “She’d found my jewelry at market and just loved it.”
For a business that first began as a hobby, Bejewel has certainly hit the big time. Says Walker, “I’ve been designing and creating jewelry for about 14 years now. It was one of those things that came as a gift from God — I enjoyed it so much and worked hard at it. It’s truly what I wanted to do. When I started, I was expecting my son and wanted to do something from home for extra income as a young mom. So I began by taking lessons from Tracy at Nomadic Notions. She was fun and bohemian and encouraged my flamboyant style in jewelry design. After that, I was mostly self-taught. I would get up at 5 a.m. and write down ideas and draw designs, testing them out to see if they would work for a piece of jewelry.” And it worked, all right. Walker says her jewelry has changed over the years as she’s grown, and her tastes have changed, too. “I started out in this industry when things were small and dainty, but I was a tall person, and I was attracted to things that were big, colorful and bold. I bucked the trends and went after large gemstones and bigger pieces that were more defined by structure,” says Walker. “Color is my main thing. I love the natural colors of gemstones. They come from the earth — I like working with things from nature.”

What started as a home-based business soon changed when her jewelry was picked up locally and sold at Julian Gold. From there she began taking her jewelry to market in Dallas, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York, and Walker continued to bring out new lines. Today her jewelry is in all the major markets, and she has a studio in San Antonio and one in New York. “At its zenith, Bejewel could be found in 400 stores nationwide, but by 2007, I started downsizing a bit so I could spend more time with my son, who is now 14, and today I just have two studios,” says Walker.

So what’s the secret to Walker’s success? “Everyday I get to do something that I absolutely love,” she says.

Elizabeth Herff
Hazel Smyth

A San Antonio girl with a passion for details, Hazel Smyth’s designer, Elizabeth Herff, was always a creative person. Even as a young girl, she was constantly designing things — like hand-painted objects and clay jewelry. In college, as a hobby, she’d make and sell jewelry to family and friends. “I was always working with beads and different ‘craftsy’ kinds of things,” recalls Herff. While majoring in business marketing at U.T. Austin, with a minor in fashion merchandising, Herff also took several design courses. She was smitten with design but now had the skills to turn her passion into a business. “After college, I worked for Neiman Marcus in their management training program in their couture buying offices,” recalls Herff, “but then after I married my husband. Peter, I left that career and came to S.A. and worked in real estate and retail for a while. When the kids were old enough, I wanted to do something creative once more. I felt there was a need for good-looking, high-quality jewelry — not costume, not fine, but something in between — and I wanted to fill that need. Today my jewelry features 14 karat gold, heavy vermeil plating and sterling silver and semiprecious stones. “In those early days, I was self-taught, especially in skills like wire-wrapping and beading, but I needed to distinguish my designs and make them my own. So I took courses at the Southwest School of Art & Craft, where I learned about soldering, wax mold-making and wax carving. That’s what I’m going toward now, one-of-a-kind handcrafted pieces incorporating semiprecious stones,” says Herff, who began her company, Hazel Smyth, in 2004. “I wanted to make sure that the line would work — I didn’t want friends and family to buy my jewelry because they felt obligated to — so I didn’t use my own name. I named the company using my paternal grandmother’s first name, Hazel, and my maternal grandmother’s maiden name, Smyth. If the company were a success, then I could tell people the designs were mine,” says Herff. Today her jewelry is found in stores throughout Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Washington.

But Herff says her toughest job isn’t just keeping up with all the demand for her jewelry: “I have a son, Peter, who is 16 and a daughter, Catherine, who is 11 — so my biggest challenge is balancing and keeping the business going forward while taking time to enjoy just being a mother.” Herff and her husband celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary this October; he is involved in another family business with his father at Herff Travel, a San Antonio company in business for 45 years. “Traveling, we get so many ideas from different cultures and different designs we’ve found all over the world. We like places of natural beauty like Hawaii and Thailand. In Bangkok all the gold and Asian influences there are such an inspiration, and part of a new collection not released yet was inspired by all the lovely water lilies we saw while on safari in South Africa, too,” says Herff.

When asked what her own go-to pieces of jewelry are for her wardrobe, Herff says she likes to keep it simple. “I often wear a gold pendant from my Deco or my Ironwerk collection and gold Deco hoops. I can just throw it on and go,” she says. “Good jewelry is intended to help the wearer complete her look: Each handmade piece should be considered the final, precise brush stroke in a woman’s artistic presentation of herself to her environment. We all just need a little glitter and glam, but a woman’s beauty is not about what she puts on — it’s about the person she is. Everything else should just enhance that and fit to create the finished perfect look.”

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