Island jeweler mixes it up with metal
Photo by Danielle Zerbonne
When you live on an island that's considered a slice of paradise, it's easy to find inspiration as an artist and designer, explains Stefanie Wolf, whose tile jewelry has taken Martha's Vineyard by storm.
She cites the colors of the ocean and the sky, the myriad of natural materials: sea glass, shell, sand, clay, and stone, the local characters, and stream of visitors from all over the globe as jumping off points for her Trilogy collection.
"The Vineyard is my home and my inspiration and part of the story of my design," she said. "People wait and work hard for their vacation time on M.V. I always want my jewelry to symbolize the magic of their visit, a tangible reminder of the Island."
But sometimes when you want a fresh perspective you have to get "off the rock." Ms. Wolf considered taking her jewelry to a big city trade show for several years but was daunted by the idea of designing a booth that could be packed into a car and the trek: "I've always wanted to expand my wholesale channel, as a business woman I'm excited by growth and new challenges and always looking for a way to sustain my business and my employees during the off-season. But I kept thinking, it's impossible to ship a whole booth off Island, and to do a giant trade show by myself."
A cousin, also in the design business, pushed her to register for a winter trade show at the Javits Center in New York City, and suddenly another layer of Martha's Vineyard magic unfolded for the jeweler. "Friends began volunteering to help make this happen, from designing the booth, to volunteering trucks and materials, packing the car, to coming with me to New York to work the show," Ms. Wolf said. "I didn't even ask, because all my friends have small children, jobs, partners, very busy lives. I couldn't offer anything but vague compensation, but they insisted."
Feeling bolstered and empowered, she and a car packed to bursting with jewelry and Sono cardboard constructions tubes (used by builders to pour concrete), brought both for storage and jewelry display, and four Vineyard friends left the Island on a raw, bleak January morning. "We came by car, bus, boat, and train," she recalled. "We shared hotel beds, worked our tails off from early in the morning until the close of each day, then ate ethnic food late at night. I wasn't sure we'd need all these bodies in my tiny 8- by 10-foot booth, but it was jamming every day of the show. I wrote their families thank you notes, and cried with gratitude. I'd never experienced this kind of friendship."
Ms. Wolf expanded her wholesale channel exponentially, adding clients like the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Art & Design in New York as well as clothing stores and gift boutiques across the country. "It was incredible to be in New York," Ms. Wolf said. "I fell in love with the city again. The energy is shocking and surprising. And here we were in the hubbub of Javits representing the Vineyard. We even wore heels and makeup."
On returning home, Ms. Wolf had some big orders to fill and little time to breathe and settle. New York was a success and wholesale continued to grow for her business. As summer approached she found herself wanting to reconnect with her retail customers. "I really love talking about my pieces to individual customers, helping them try stuff on, getting their feedback, seeing how the pieces look and feel on real women," she said.
"I remembered my early days in San Francisco, when I didn't have my own studio space and I did a lot of trunk shows. Trunk shows are fun. It's personalized, hands-on shopping with cocktails involved."
Her friends, chef Kevin and Suzanna Crowell, owners of Détente Restaurant in Edgartown, had recently bought The Sweet Life Café in Oak Bluffs, and were in the process of redesigning the menu and space with the help of chef Carlos Montoya.
"I've always been in love with Kevin and Carlos's way of cooking and working with food," Ms. Wolf said. "It's very intuitive, creative, hand-crafted, and locally sourced. I felt like there is a synchronicity with the way I design my jewelry. I approached them about hosting a trunk show and they said yes."
The Sweet Life Café, given a new look and new life by the Crowell family, also seemed the perfect venue to share her new collection, called Patina. "This collection is about taking the old, and making it new," she said. "Resurrecting something that seemed to have been forgotten and turning it into something precious."
Her off-Island adventures had taken her to several old jewelry warehouses, where she found herself digging through musty, moldy boxes of antique chains, findings, and lockets and other "amazing random things.
"I'd been the queen of bead and tile and suddenly metal was really speaking to me. My hands were black from the process of unpacking these bins. I bought boxes of weird stuff like this disco-belt, and these tiny lockets. Everything was sitting around my studio for months while I was thinking about it, dreaming about it, incubating some sort of idea."
One day she started drilling holes in the metal and wearing the pieces out. People wanted the jewelry and the Patina collection was born.
"We live in a fast-paced world," said the artist. "There is something shiny and new every second. This collection is about treasuring the old, salvaging it, giving new life and meaning to something that might have been dusty and forgotten in the corner, and seeing the beauty and deep meaning in that gesture."
One of her favorite new pieces is being called The Phoenix, because she literally pulled the beautiful scalloped brass discs out of a pile of trash. Appreciating and fighting for the old, seeing the meaning in tradition, and not being afraid of the new seems to be the mantra of Ms. Wolf, as well as the secret to her success.
Stefanie Wolf Trunk Show, 1–3 pm, Friday, August 23, Detente Restaurant, Edgartown. Stefanie Wolf Designs is located at 90 Dukes County Ave. in Oak Bluffs. For more information, call 508-524-5252 or visit stefaniewolf.com.