Images of hippie-era love beads and Native American-inspired headbands can condemn beading in jewelry and accessories to appearing quaint at best. But the artisan level of contemporary beaders crafting today's fashion jewelry and accessories puts that image to rest.
Their work has a decidedly modern, vibrant twist that makes it uniquely their own. For starters, the beads themselves are often a global affair. A bracelet might sport rare German vintage glass beads from the 1920s and '30s, antique African trading or vintage Japanese metal beads. Colors are brighter, louder than before. Geometric shapes and intricate loom-woven patterns abound. Some artists tell stories in their work, while others use meditative free-form patterns. They all pop with modern panache.
FOR THE RECORD:
Beaded jewelry: In an article about beaded jewelry in the July 22 Image section, artisan Julie Rofman's last name was misspelled as "Rothman" in a couple of references. —
Here are a handful of top fashion beaders from across the country:
Chan Luu arrived in the United States from Vietnam in 1972 during the Vietnam War. She studied fashion and was working as a buyer when she had a serendipitous meeting with an Indian holy man. He was wearing a "worn but cool, colored-thread bracelet from a local temple," Luu says, and her life was transformed. Inspired, she created her own wrap bracelet using leather cord and handmade sterling silver nugget beads. It was her namesake jewelry and fashion line's first offering and, "amazingly, it's still our best seller," says Luu, who lives in Los Angeles.
Today she has 12 design assistants who help produce her prolific patterns in colors galore. All the beaded jewelry is handcrafted by female artisans in Vietnam, and Luu says her great joy is in helping poor villagers "by creating a sustainable commerce, so they can feed their families and put their kids through school." Prices for the global brand range from $170 to $295. http://www.chanluu.com
Suzie Gallehugh, a native Texan, struck out on her own in 2008 with the first offering in her beaded jewelry line, a necklace she called Kathmandu. Soon thereafter, on a trip to India she met with artisans and had samples made. When she returned to her home base of New York City, she created a few more pieces, and within a few months her line was picked up by Bergdorf Goodman and Calypso St. Barth.
Bold and large, though lightweight, Dai's beaded jewelry is not for women who want to just blend in. She beads new designs in full swatches, which are then sent to her producers in India. "So often women tell me they'd love to wear my jewelry but they're too shy, and I tell them, just try it, you'll like it," Dai says. Her line is sold internationally and ranges in price from $80 to $450, with custom orders available. http://www.suzannadai.com
Massachusetts sisters Lisa Sisco and Carolyn Berluti never started out to produce a beaded jewelry bracelet line and are "accidental entrepreneurs," according to Sisco (who still works as a university professor). It all began when Berluti brought home a pricey beaded bracelet from Barney's, and Sisco exclaimed, "I could make that!" The pair did, and started with sets of seven bracelets they gave as gifts to family and friends. But it was when women started buying the jewelry off their wrists that they knew they had something real for the market. Colorful, playful and fun, the multi-stacked baubles began being seen on celebrities, which, of course, spurred on sales.
With about 25 basic styles, the sisters continue to make each piece by hand themselves. When large orders arrive, "that's when we get all our sisters together, invite friends over, get some wine and have a beading bee," Sisco says. The two often still wear the bracelets themselves. "People still come up and want them off our wrists," she says. Sisco Berluti is sold in the U.S., and the price for a single bracelet is typically about $88. http://www.siscoberluti.com
Lizzie Fortunato Jewels
While studying at Duke University, twin sisters Elizabeth and Kathryn Fortunato were already budding bead-accessory businesswomen. When other students bee-lined to their dorm room to borrow their handmade jewelry, Kathryn Fortunato (who now runs the company's noncreative side) thought, "This could be a business." They began filling orders even as they attended classes. Elizabeth Fortunato, the creative side of the company, designs and makes every sample of the intricate and modernly bold beaded panels, which are produced by hand on looms at a fair-trade production center in India.
"I think our typical customer is defined more by a mind set than an age or location," says Elizabeth Fortunato, a former fashion publicist. "She's definitely confident and interested in standing out — after all, our pieces can make quite the statement." She says many women seem "as interested in displaying our work as they are in wearing it." Based in New York City, they sell internationally, and prices range from $100 to $900. http://www.lizziefortunatojewels.com
I. Ronnie Kappos
Southern Californian Ronnie Kappos decided after she watched the Twin Towers collapse on9/11that "life is short, I want to give this a try," referring to her budding beading work that started while she studied at UC Santa Cruz, where she would scour the local hippie-bead stores. "I wanted something clean, modern and architectural in structure, and I didn't see it anywhere," she says.