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They’re a girl’s new best friends

Times Staff Writer

To the world at large, Los Angeles jewelers are a few famous men who deluge the city’s red carpets with big, important bling. Beyond the spotlights, however, a more quietly influential group is taking hold.

They are L.A.'s indie jewelers, mostly young women who tend to describe themselves with a long strand of hyphenates: production assistant-stylist-jewelry designer, or photographer-artists’ rep-jewelry designer. They got their start selling tiny turquoise pendants at in-home trunk shows, or hand-hammered earrings at farmers market booths. By chance or determination, they graduated to arty boutiques, where their offbeat designs have been discovered by celebrities, costume designers and stylists.

Whether the designers are weaving sterling twigs through wide suede wrist cuffs or fashioning beads into flower petal earrings, they have an artful but offhand way with semiprecious gems and unexpected materials. Two-tone pave wedding bands, crocheted gold wire earrings, resin disc necklaces, reworked vintage gold chains -- their work naturally complements the T-shirt-and-jeans culture.

Suzanne Felsen is one of the city’s most accomplished start-from-scratch jewelers. She was working for her father, Sidney B. Felsen, at his print publishing business, Gemini G.E.L., when she decided to buy him a pair of cufflinks. Finding nothing suitable, she enrolled in a silversmithing class at Barnsdall Art Park and made them herself.

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“It completely opened up my world,” says Felsen, who was then in her late 20s. Soon she set up a tiny workshop in her father’s studios and enrolled in community college to learn other techniques. Finally she moved to New York to study jewelry production at the Parsons School of Design. An apprenticeship with an L.A. goldsmith followed and Felsen was ready to go retail, with pieces such as those pave wedding bands.

But where? Felsen headed to Bergamot Station, the Santa Monica arts complex where her mother operates an art gallery. Felsen hired Koning Eizenberg Architecture to build a gallery-like space. It was a hit.

Barneys New York took notice and began selling her cufflinks in all their locations. And last year, Felsen rehired the architects to convert a 1920s Spanish house across from Gemini G.E.L. on Melrose Avenue into her second namesake boutique.

There, beneath a ceiling of 65,000 fluttering white ribbons, loyal clients such as actress Mena Suvari can see Felsen’s $500 to $50,000 pieces, including modern pendants with gray moonstones as big as half-dollars, an almond-shaped mandarin garnet accented with rubies or her popular channel-set “half and half” diamond bands.

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Like Felsen, jewelry designer Sonya Ooten needed a place to show the breadth of her work. She searched five years for the right retail space for her namesake line of semiprecious gem jewelry. The Silver Lake resident and former assistant costume designer (“The Big Lebowski”) finally opened her own store on Larchmont Boulevard in Hancock Park late in 2005.

“I’d been selling to Barneys for eight or nine years,” says Ooten, who specializes in $145 to $2,000 pieces crocheted of fine wire with beads. “I love it, but they buy a very narrow selection of what I do.”

Ooten designed her space to emphasize semiprecious stones, which are housed in glass-topped tables like at a natural history museum. Now costume designers for film and TV contact her with special orders that Ooten later expands upon for her own line. Her pieces, including her delicate, signature crocheted gold wire earrings, have been on “Nip/Tuck,” “The Wedding Planner,” “Bewitched” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

Before Kimberly Faith became known for braided and slightly askew vintage gold chains, she was a corporate-suit type at intimate apparel giant Warnaco Group Inc. She left that New York job to become a vintage Camaro driving, mullet wearing stylist and costume designer in films, commercials and music videos in L.A.

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Though she earned a degree in buying and merchandising at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, these days the San Fernando Valley native looks out from her studio onto Rowena Avenue in Silver Lake, crafting her latest designs and planning the space’s conversion to a store.

Sure, her work has been in Kitson, the Robertson Boulevard boutique for shopaholic celebrities. And pre-Brangelina, she sold Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt her nameplate belt buckles. Vince Vaughn too. But she can’t rely even on her most loyal stores to keep her $40-to-$300 collection in stock.

“They don’t want to have the same thing over and over again, even if it sells,” she says. So starting her own store means she can keep making bestsellers such as articulated enamel koi fish pendants, pearl disc chandelier earrings and, at least until the vintage stock runs out, braided gold chain necklaces.

A mile away on Sunset Boulevard, Sumi Siegel opened Sumi’s, a year-old boutique where jeweler Carla de la Cruz sells her featherweight cascades of resin-filled disks that mimic heavier, pricier gems. The industrial snap clasps, spare geometry and innovative materials betray De la Cruz’s training as an architect.

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“I worked for five years in architecture and then did what I really wanted to do,” says De la Cruz, who makes every piece in her Silver Lake apartment.

Siegel says De la Cruz is a favorite because she frequently tweaks her $75 to $450 designs to please a particular customer. More established designers wouldn’t bother, says Siegel.

At Cake, a boutique tucked away in a West Hollywood courtyard near cafes, decorators and antique stores, owner Meike Williams offers the work of 21 independent jewelry designers, including Cake, her own line of unusual stones suspended from hand-forged precious metals. The store, which shares space with a handbag boutique, is the first real home for many emerging designers.

The cases aren’t filled with your usual safe stuff: There are resin-encased razor blade pendants and disks embedded with stylized fetal sonograms, delicate gems on fabric cords and gemstones trapped with gold wire. Eleven of the 21 designers at Cake hold outside jobs, with primary careers veering from banker to competitive gymnast to pornography executive.

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Yet these trendsetting jewelers, like the others, aren’t likely to be counted among those who have helped build L.A. County’s jewelry business to a $4-billion annual enterprise, says Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. Indie artists may contribute as much as $1.3 billion more, Kyser says.

“There is much more out there than people have any idea of,” says Kyser. “You constantly discover new little nuances.”

They flourish because L.A. offers a sturdy infrastructure to build a jewelry business. Designers can find pre-made components and cut gems at the city’s sprawling downtown jewelry district. Some enroll in the half-dozen professional programs that teach jewelry fabrication. And a few launch careers with the help of celebrities who give instant exposure on red carpets and in photo layouts.

Many discover that they don’t need much to get started.

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Williams started Cake in a “glorified garage workshop” after 20 years as a fashion and fine art photographer. Even today, she fabricates her entire collection at a 6-foot-long table in her boutique’s back room.

After selling her collection at farmers markets and a handful of stores, Williams discovered a tiny rental in a courtyard across from Urth Caffe. Within two weeks, she’d signed a lease and a loan.

“I immediately realized that I didn’t have enough jewelry to fill the store myself, so I called on all the designer friends I had made,” she says. The high-ceilinged cottage with expansive windows and flower-shaped display cases illuminates the wide range of styles. Not long ago, poet Lynne Harbaugh wandered in. After a fruitless search across Manhattan to find a special necklace, she came home to L.A. and happened upon Cake. She and Williams talked for an hour, then decided upon a direction: silver, green and long -- the better to accent Harbaugh’s auburn hair and porcelain skin.

Harbaugh wound the $400, 95-inch chain dotted with 56 translucent teardrop fluorite gems around her neck and smiled broadly.

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“I’m so happy,” she said, “I could hug you.”


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