Susan Shieldkret is marching fearlessly into the shaky economy.
She opened a jewelry store on Balboa Island in Newport Beach about a year and a half ago, and another one opened in Laguna Beach this summer.
The Laguna shop, at South Coast Highway and Cress Street, where Mandarin Fine Arts used to be, had a "soft opening" in August, but held its grand opening Oct. 20.
Shieldkret said she believes there will always be a market for the kind of jewelry she sells, which is everything from a $20 faux-gold necklace to an Indian diamond cuff worth thousands. She also stocks purses and elegant Italian-made umbrellas.
"It's all handmade," Shieldkret said of her lines. "With the recession, women want something that looks expensive but isn't. We have an eclectic collection, both high-end and everyday. We run the gamut. I believe that jewelry should be fun to wear and look at."
Shieldkret pays special attention to her male customers, who, she says, often haven't a clue what to buy a lady friend.
"Men are often afraid of making a mistake in jewelry," she said. "They're not sure if they're sending the right message. Women, on the other hand, look for the 'look' of the piece.
"Men like to know all about the piece, where it's from, how it was made."
Hmm, sort of like buying a car.
Shieldkret stepped into the jewelry business in 2005 by selling to private clients and at fundraising events, and she launched her website in mid-2007. She has a degree in pearls and a certificate in jewelry essentials from the Gemological Institute of America, in addition to a master's degree in media ecology/communication theory from New York University and a bachelor's in liberal arts. She moved from New York to Southern California 30 years ago.
"I focus on finding good designers that make well-made, but affordable, pieces," she said. "We have a good niche. It's not too expensive and not what you'd find at the mall."
One designer, Wynn Wynn Ong of the Philippines, makes exquisite work that resembles leaves, bugs and other natural forms. A necklace and bracelet pair is fashioned from rose gold vermeil, with citrine and Cornelian accents. Another piece, a collar, is made from recycled vines, wood, brass and agate and sells for $1,295.
Other striking pieces include a 10-carat lemon quartz ring for $865, and a stunning rose quartz ring with diamonds, commanding a cool $4,950.
The Indian diamond cuff — made with some 20 "rough cut" diamonds that total 12.13 carats — will set you back $8,000.
But with quality items such as rings and necklaces for as little as $20 to $30, there is a lot from which to choose.
Wandering around the store, one can't help but admire the furnishings, some of which appear to have been dredged up from old treasure ships.
One magnificent old mirror must be 15 feet tall and is so heavy it has a marble cube at the base to keep it upright.
Shieldkret found a Belgium altar to use as a countertop, and two of the glass display cases were apparently from Saks or I. Magnin's in Los Angeles back in the '30s.
The display cases are hand-painted in an art deco style, and Shieldkret says she bought them online after they were used in the movie "J. Edgar," which will be released Friday.
Two unusual mannequins Shieldkret picked up at a trade show have generated a lot of comments, and several offers to buy, but they are adamantly not for sale and sport signs stating as such.
The Newport Beach shop features a "jewelry bar" and is very different in feel from the laid-back atmosphere of the Laguna location, Shieldkret says.
As for business, it's been "pretty good," she said. "We're thrilled with the reaction to the store. People think it's a cool place."
The Passionate Collector
1294-C S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach
Call: (949) 715-7077
215 1/2 Marine Ave., Balboa Island