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Beth McElhaney lights up a room with her sparkling personality and colorful jewelry designs known collectively as Personal Adornments Jewelry (or Beth McElhaney Jewelry). This Austin, Texas designer sells her jewelry through PersonalAdornmentsJewelry.com, her Facebook page, and seasonal jewelry shows, bazaars, and art festivals.
I first met Beth when preparing for fashion photo competition for Fashion X Austin Mash Up Team in 2012. The above photo is courtesy of the talented Cory Ryan Photography, featuring the pieces Beth chose for our beautiful model Hannah Santibanez. There were a handful of pieces in that shot.
We’ve stayed in touch ever since, and Beth is a regular “go-to” for my holiday and birthday shopping. What wows me every time is how intriguing her pieces layer in exotic and intricate ways because of her wise use of color, materials, and dimension.
Of course, this all begs the question: “How do you do it?” Beth took some time to answer these questions and provide photo examples of her different designs. Her answers are as detailed and layered as her art.
SS: You designed pieces for Christine Albert, Chairperson of the Grammy® Awards, in 2015. How did that happen?
BMJ: I was at Kerrville Folk Festival in May of 2014 and Christine Albert was on the main stage. She was telling a story about a nonprofit organization she has started called Swan Song. She went on to explain that Swan Song matches musicians with terminally ill people. They request a certain musician or type of music and the Swan Song Organization does their best to fulfill their dying wish by having a personal concert at their bedside. I was so touched by this I contacted Christine by Facebook and told her if she ever needed jewelry for a special occasion please let me know. She got back with me and said that she would need some special pieces for Grammy Week. I was so honored to be able to create a line of jewelry for Christine Albert when she was the Madam Chairperson of the Grammys 2014-15. She wore several looks to different events that she attended the week during the Grammys in 2015. She wore my designs to the Clive Davis Gala the big pre-party event the Saturday before the Grammy Awards as well as Musicares’ Tribute to Bob Dylan for “Person of the Year” the Friday before the Grammys. The month of the Grammys, March 2015 Austin Woman Magazine featured Christine in the cover and did a wonderful interview. In many of the photos, she is wearing my designs.
SS: What skills/knowledge from your BFA Interior Design education helped you most when you ventured into jewelry design?
BMJ: From a young age I was always interested in art. My Mom was an artist and always had some kind of project going in our home. I have always loved color. As a child my favorite time of the year was August, when it was time to get school supplies and a new box of crayons. I really hit it big when I could get a 64-color box. It was going to be a good year.
I took art classes in school every semester in junior high and high school. I left home in 1978 to attend college at Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo. There those people who were majoring in any type of BFA degree took all art classes for the first two semesters and only started their core curriculum in the third semester. As a result, I was able to take an incredible variety of art classes as well as my design classes for my BFA in Interior Design. I always felt that my color sense was one of my strongest points. I think that all of my classes together brought their own strength in helping me to create my work. I had painting, which was a must for learning the color wheel and mixing of colors. I had photography, the old-school use of TriX Pan black and white film. We did our own developing of negatives and prints in the dark room, but it has helped me be able to photograph my work in the digital age. I had “Perspectives and Drawing” and 1, 2 and 3-dimension art classes that helped with working with positive and negative spaces and balance. I took print making and silk screening and even a jewelry fabricating class among others. All of these studies have brought me to the point I am at now.
SS: You sell four distinct lines— the latest being Elements. I am completely intrigued by it. Please explain what PMC is and how it’s different than working with straight up metals.
BMJ: I have a line made in PMC (precious metal clay). It is a clay that is made from powdered fine silver and an organic binder of paper and water. This clay can be sculpted, molded just anything you do with clay. You can also add stones to your designs but only ones that can withstand the firing. Once you feel your design is perfected and dried you fire it in a kiln. The organic binder will burn out causing the design to shrink by 12 to 14% leaving you with a fine silver piece of jewelry. It is easier than working with sterling because since it is basically pure silver with no alloys you do not get fire scale that you have to clean off. Making it much easier to clean and polish.
I have several distinct lines of jewelry. I started out buying beads directly from African Traders. That was back when the old trade beads were not only more readily available, they were affordable too. The cool thing about those beads was the history. So many were Venetian, Czech and Dutch. They were made specifically for trade and many were over 100 years old. Back in the 70’s Africa started pulling a lot of the beads out of their vaults and selling them. That is when the hippies wore the love beads and donned the millefiori (thousand flower) beads. These beads were made in Venice by a family starting in the 1600’s and the process was so secret that by law, if you worked for them and told others about the process you would be killed. Many of the beads I got were made in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. When I first started out, I helped found the Austin Bead Society and we all bought beads from the traders as I still do to this day. So my bead “roots” are based more in my ethnic line which I call Bethnic. These pieces are often statement pieces (but not always) and often include turquoise.
My Victorian line is usually more delicate and consist of sterling, gold filled and gold platted sterling finding and beads as well as gemstones and pearls. I also use some vintage and contemporary glass and crystals. My HauteWire line is part of this group. It is architectural but organic by design. I create a base out of heavy square wire in sterling or gold-filled and sew the beads on the base with a matching smaller gage wire. The earrings are done in mirror images of one another. These pieces are my favorite to make because they are like creating small wearable sculptures.
I also have a line called Northern Lights which is made mostly with vintage Swarovski rhinestones embedded in epoxy clay on a metal base. My newest line Boho Beth, is more edgy, created in assorted stones, freshwater pearls on leather. I use a lot of geode slices as focal points and crystal points in my designs. These I create to layer…
SS: What is the most important skill you’ve learned in the past 20+ years and why?
BMJ: I think the most important skill I have learned in the past 20 years is creating in many different mediums. I have a tendency not to ask questions and teach myself by trial and error, which is how I learned to bead. I did take classes to learn how to make jewelry from PMC and that was the best birthday presents I ever gave myself. I have also taken some classes in jewelry fabrication, and I look forward to honing that skill by getting more instructions in the future.
SS: What does a typical workday look like?
BMJ: There is no typical work day. Since I am pretty much a one-person show, I do everything that you need to do daily to keep a business going. That means creating the pieces, pricing, photographing, cleaning, buying and researching for supplies, organizing, bookkeeping, computer, (which I hate to admit yet is quite obvious, that I am not that great at) etc. Then I travel to do art shows. I do hire people to go with me to some of my shows and have a friend who is a great jewelry designer in her own right, help me to get stock ready for many of my shows. I could not do it without the help at these times.
SS: Are you inspired by fashion designers? If so, who and why?
BMJ: I am inspired by many fashion and jewelry designers. I love to go on line to check out what is trending but I am one of those jewelry designers who is caught between fashion and art. What I mean by that is I make most of my money by selling at juried art shows. The buyers there often differ from the typical fashion buyer. Not to say these buyers are not fashion forward, they very much are, but they are looking with a different eye. Where many stores are put off by one of a kind pieces, that is what the buyers at art shows are often looking for. Many of my pieces are one of a kind. Often stores want to buy what is trending and what they can buy over and over until the trend changes. Something that they know will sell, something that is safe. I understand completely where they are coming from but, I feel a bit restricted when I try to design in that manner and feel I don’t do my best work. I would rather put the colors, shapes and sizes I love together and have the beads and materials tell me what to do. This is so much more creative for me and not so suffocating design wise. That is why I started my Boho Beth line because it is fun for me to create and the price point is good for wholesale accounts.
SS: Which jewelry/fashion trends do you see coming down the road that excite you?
BMJ: I have seen that a-symetrical earrings are trending in a big way. I think the big statement necklaces are still an important fashion accessory. I hope the Boho look stays popular a bit longer. Rough natural stones and botanical imagery I think will be big. I love taking my color palettes from nature. It is the best.
SS: If women want to gift jewelry, what advice would you share for choosing the right piece?
BMJ: Buying any gift is a personal thing whether it is jewelry or anything else. I guess my best advice for jewelry giving is to be aware of what your recipient already wears, colors, size of jewelry and general taste. Then buy appropriately for her taste not– what you would wear or what you think she should wear.
About The Author
Thea Wood is the co-publisher of SheSpark.com and a certified image consultant from Austin, TX. She wrote the upcoming e-book The Intentional Makeover and co-authored the book Socially Smart & Savvy. Thea shares styling advice at TheaWood.com, helping women create a signature style that says who they are and where they’re going.