Beads come of age
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. https://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. https://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. https://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. https://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.
Kappos now almost exclusively uses rare, antique German glass beads from the 1920s and ‘30s that were made by pouring liquid directly in molds. She lucked in to a huge stash of the very hard-to-find baubles and knew that’s exactly what she wanted for her work. She uses the opaque, geometric, flat beads for her colorful necklaces and bracelets.
The Los Angeles-based artisan makes all her jewelry herself — hundreds of pieces each week. She says the southern German technique for making the beautiful glass beads is disappearing. “I’m happy my work can help salvage that.” Prices range from $40 to $1,400. https://www.irkjewelry.com
Julie Rofman Jewelry
Julie Rofman uses uniform-sized delicate Japanese matte, translucent, opaque and shiny glass seed beads to create her modern twist on native design. Drawing from her background as a painter, Rofman started out beading on small looms while in graduate school. Through a friend’s fair-trade store, Rothman connected with the Guatemalan women who now loom her beads.
Her jewelry incorporates 40 different colors and intricate styles, and she says the design process is meditative. There’s no drawing; it’s a freehand, fluid process in which each line builds on the next. “It’s interpretive, based on what happens below,” says Rothman, who creates in her Northern California studio. “I get lost in it.” She gets inspiration from Bauhaus and Kandinsky, as well as mid-50s architects, and loves the “incredible attention to detail that makes such things almost artwork.” Her bracelets and necklaces sell worldwide, and prices range from $75 to $265. https://www.julierofmanjewelry.com
Growing up with hippie parents who often lived and traveled in a VW bus, Stormie Trujillo as a child picked up shells on beaches and strung them together to create beautiful things. By the 1980s and 1990s, when she tried to sell her intricately beaded bracelets adorned with spiritual stories from her Native American ancestry, “people would say to me, ‘I don’t get it,’” she says. So the Pasadena resident sold her work herself at flea markets until a Hollywood stylist came in for a beaded cuff, which led to customers such as Madonna, Britney Spears and a slew of other celebrities drawn to the emotion of her work.
She makes each bracelet herself with the help of her son and says "[the work] is so meticulous, so planned out; it’s a long process.” She says she weaves stories from her life — or other people’s lives — into her jewelry and that “somehow they are all prayers and have meaning to them, they’re not just pretty bracelets.” Prices range from $85 to $1,085, and custom work is available. https://www.stormieinc.com
Roarke New York
Working as a buyer for Bergdorf Goodman in New York City, Laetitia Stanfield learned how to successfully sell to those key store buyers: Have top-quality merchandise and great branding and know well your target market. She hooked up with another Bergdorf buyer to create Roarke New York in 2009, offering what’s become their signature chiffon beaded necklaces after they saw an opening in the fashion market for something beaded that could take a woman from jeans to black tie.
Raised in New York City, Paris and Virginia, Stanfield says the beautiful necklaces that drip sparkle, color and pattern are made by Indian bead workers — all men — who make each piece in about 10 days. Now solo, Stanfield, who is based in New York, does the designing, sales, inventory, press, accounting and website. “I’m a one-woman show,” she says. “It helps that the reaction to the necklaces has been amazing.” She also sells bracelets and even a bridal line of neckties and bow ties for men and garters for brides. The bold pieces are sold internationally, and prices range from $60 to $725. https://www.roarkenyc.com
Born on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, Teri Greeves, who is of Kiowa heritage, grew up with a mother who ran a trading post where Greeves learned the lay of the Native American land in terms of beadwork. When she was studying at UC Santa Cruz in the 1980s, her mom suggested she sell her beading to help pay for books. Greeves said she soon realized she could tell her native ancestral stories while beading and making money.
She is now based in Santa Fe, N.M., and known for museum-quality, fine-art bead work. She has also gained fame for her signature brightly colored, beaded Converse tennis shoes, which have sold for $10,500 for a pair of high-tops, $5,500 for low. The shoes are on display and offered for sale at several galleries, including the Home and Away gallery in Kennebunkport, Maine (www.homeandaway.biz) A custom pair can be ordered through the Jane Sauer Gallery in Santa Fe (www.jsauergallery.com). She also sells a line of hand-loomed beaded bracelets and purses priced at $250 to $900. https://www.fourwindsgallery.com.
Chilie Rose Beadz
As a psychotherapist in the 1980s, Adonnah Langer first beaded at her West Los Angeles dining room table to unwind. In 1989, after making “healing” bracelets for clients, she started making her trademark bold bracelets and went public, so to speak. Langer, now based in Santa Fe, N.M., designs 30 varieties of her sterling silver clasps with turquoise, gemstones, onyx, sponge coral and carnelian, working with seed, brass, pearl, fire-polished and pony beads to create bright texture and differentiate her pieces from Native American beadwork.
While she still does “the major beading” herself, she now has three beaders, two silversmiths and two leather workers who help her produce more than 2,000 bracelets a year. “The oldest manmade artifact found is a bead,” says Langer, whose work is in many catalogs, including Sundance Catalog. "[They] were an attempt to express a spiritual representation of the great mystery of life. It’s an old, deep pull and we love the color. Beads are playful and primal.” Her designs are sold throughout the U.S. and range from $250 to $1,400. https://www.peyotebird.com.
From her first collection in 2009, New York-based designer Amanda Assad Mounser’s big, bold beaded jewelry became a darling of fashion editorial. One of her first pieces, Moonage Daydream Collar from her 2010 collection, is her bestselling design to date and is still frequently seen in fashion publications around the world. It was while working in fashion public relations and sales in New York that Mounser started making the jewelry for herself. When she wore the pieces, stores and editors took notice.
Mounser designs all the collections herself, and pieces are handmade at her New York studio by a team of artisans and craftspeople. She says her target market is “a free spirit with an edge. I like the idea of sewing beads onto chain. It allows the pieces to take on a shape of their own. Pieces can go from being jewelry to art.” Her work is sold internationally, and prices range from $125 to $995. https://www.assadmounser.com