Laurel Burch, 61; artist, jewelry maker whose work appeared in many forms

Times Staff Writer

Laurel Burch, an artist who put her brightly colored images of cats, butterflies, flowers and mythic figures on jewelry, coffee mugs and many gift items, has died. She was 61.

Burch died Sept. 13 at her home in the Bay Area city of Novato, said her daughter, Aarin Burch. The cause was osteopetrosis, a bone disease the artist had had from birth.

She began making jewelry as a teenager in the 1960s, while she worked as a cook, house cleaner and baby sitter in San Francisco. So many people complimented her on her exotic creations of bone, coins, beads and hammered metal that she began to sell them at street fairs and flea markets.

“I found metal in a junkyard and hammered it out on the back of an old frying pan,” she said, speaking of her early jewelry, during an interview with the Marin Independent Journal in 2005.


She launched her business in the late ‘60s. About that time she began to make paintings using exotic nature, myths and world culture for images. Soon she was commissioned by restaurants, businesses and private collectors. She also made posters of her art.

Burch was often hospitalized with broken bones caused by her disease, but she continued working through her recovery, starting in her hospital room.

“I refuse to have anything in my life that I can’t turn around to something magical and beautiful,” she said on her website.

After a trip to China in the early 1970s, Burch adopted the cloisonne technique of enamel work. Soon afterward her vivid enamel jewelry became her most popular item. Her business grew to the point that some 500 boutiques and department stores worldwide sold her jewelry, mugs, T-shirts and other items.


In 1994 Burch restructured her business and concentrated on licensing her products. She continued creating the designs, “the most precious and important things I can do,” she said in a 1994 interview with the San Jose Mercury News.

Despite health problems Burch traveled to Bali, Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere to soak up the colors and cultures that inspired her art.

She was born Laurel Anne Harte on Dec. 31, 1945, in Southern California. She dropped out of high school and married Robert Burch, a jazz musician. The couple had two children during a tumultuous marriage that ended in divorce in the early 1970s.

Burch once recalled how a doctor warned her that her pelvis might shatter during the birth of her first child, Aarin, because of her fragile bones.


“I was scared to death, 18, on welfare. Her father wasn’t there,” Burch said in a 2000 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “I remember that as . . . my first experience of partnership with my daughter,” she said, referring to it as a “profound connection.”

Along with her daughter, a filmmaker, Burch is survived by her son, Jay, president of Laurel Burch Artworks; two grandchildren; two sisters; and her third husband, Rick Sara, a photographer and archivist.