Leslie Allen recycles old jewelry the way some people collect aluminum cans and newspapers, turning trash into treasure. She'll pull apart unwanted necklaces, brooches, bracelets, handbags, buckles and buttons and rearrange the pieces into glitzy, rhinestone-studded earrings that she calls "Earlooms."
"I can take two of anything and turn them into a pair of earrings," she says.
Because she uses antique findings, her earrings are a curious combination of old-fashioned trinkets set in contemporary, geometric designs.
"They're like heirlooms. Each pair has a history. These came off of a 1920s movie costume," says Allen, pointing to a pair of triangle-shaped earrings with a row of red rice-shaped beads.
To adorn her earrings, she has retrieved black beads from a necklace worn by her grandmother in the 1800s, cut beaded applique flowers from a 19th-Century wedding gown and dismantled a set of her late husband's cuff links.
"I don't throw anything out," she says.
A resident of Los Alamitos, the 60-year-old Allen commutes three times a week to the Rag Street Consignment Apparel shop in Laguna Beach, where she has set up a small workstation loaded with plastic trays of beads, pearls, sequins and findings.
"Sometimes I can do 20 pairs at a time," she says.
Her tools are simple: cement glue and a gall-bladder remover. The latter, which looks like a pair of oversize tweezers, came from a friend who underwent a gall-bladder operation. Allen will recycle anything.
She makes most of her earrings by gluing her treasures on black triangles or geometric-shaped mirrors that reflect the sparkling gems. For instance, she will take the flowers from a pair of 1940s clip-ons, glue them on small round mirrors and add clusters of crystals and seed pearls.
"These earrings will be much bigger when I'm finished."
She calls her larger, more lavish earrings "entrance makers."
"When you walk in a room with those on, people notice."
Most of her gem-encrusted earrings cascade two or three inches from the earlobe. Some pairs have a single tassel that sweeps the shoulder.
"I like glitz," she says.
A scavenger, Allen combs the bead shops of Laguna Beach, antique stores and costume shops for anything that sparkles. She's made earrings from a pair of old buttons painted with roses, dangles pulled off of chain belts worn by flappers in the '20s, brown-bead appliques from a '30s evening dress and the embroidered trim from a blouse collar. She pulls out a pair of triangle-shaped mirrors adorned with blue glass balls.
"They're from my marble period," she says laughing.
She'll also make earrings out of earrings, creating what she calls a "redo" by pulling the pieces apart and adding more sparkles.
"If I only have one of something, I make it into a pin. I've done watches and belts, but earrings are my first love."
She refuses to part with her favorite earrings, including those made from rhinestone buttons taken from a dress she wore to a high-school dance in the '40s. "That's like selling my children," she protests.
A belt she made from watches once worn by her family will never make it to market. "This was my dad's," she says, pointing to a watch with a square yellow face. "And this is one I won in a beauty contest long ago."
Many of her mementos come from costumes she wore while working as an actress. Allen has played assorted roles on television shows and soap operas, including "Another World," "As the World Turns," "Streets of San Francisco," "Days of Our Lives" and "Divorce Court." She's also acted in theater and films, including the role of Mabel in "The Candidate" starring Robert Redford.
Until she started making Earlooms, she had no experience in design. "I never worked with my hands," she says.
She made her first pair of earrings out of a tiny cameo that belonged to her mother, two pearls she found pearl-diving on her honeymoon and five stick pins that belonged to her grandfather.
"I didn't know what to do with the stick pins. Who wears stick pins in this day and age? So I decided to make them into earrings."
She showed the earrings to Jeannie Quaintance, a friend and owner of Rag Street, and Quaintance suggested she make more. Allen then raided a pair of two-foot-high cones that had been trimmed 40 years ago with old jewelry to look like Christmas trees. Friends brought her unwanted baubles from their jewelry boxes.
She also began picking off the sparkles from her old costumes and others she bought at the Screen Actors Guild Cinema Glamour Shop in Los Angeles. She made 10 pairs of earrings from a beaded dress worn by Elizabeth Taylor.
"I've now made about a thousand pairs, and no two are alike."
Allen sells Earlooms in six boutiques in Orange County and Los Angeles, including Rag Street, Santa Fe by the Sea in Seal Beach and Notorious on Melrose Avenue. Earlooms cost $30 to $85.
"It's turned into a semi-paying proposition," she says.
Allen custom designs earrings to match her customers' wardrobes and tastes. She recently made personalized earrings for members of a widows' support group.
"One lady liked cats, so I went to a miniatures shop and found tiny bags of cat food and bowls. Another liked sweets, so I found some miniature candy," she says. "The group leader later told me, 'You should have seen all the joy it brought to those ladies.' "
For her, the real reward comes in giving old, beautiful things a new life.
"A woman brought a bunch of her old broken jewelry for me to make into earrings so she could leave them for her daughter," she says. Now her Earlooms have become family heirlooms.