The collar-style, beaded necklace encircling Michelle Leonardo’s neck shimmers with the light of more than 720 Swarovski crystals and more than 4,700 individual beads.
Another 500 Swarovskis in the matching bracelet twinkle as she flips her wrist, folding back the glimmering cuff to show an elaborate underlayment of silver-beaded pattern work. Leonardo explains that each bead was picked up by a needle and stitched, one-by-one, into place—giving structure and texture to the crystals up top.
“This is a new category of jewelry most people aren’t yet familiar with,”explains Leonardo, who unveiled her Michelle Leonardo Design Jewelry Collection late last month in Wilmette. “I sometimes describe it as bead engineering, because of the elaborate structures and incredible details that are built together with tiny beads in multiple layers. It’s not your simple strand of beads on string.”
The collection includes an assortment of more than 140 exquisitely beaded pieces, many in matched sets (cuffs and necklaces; earrings and bracelets) with names like Scottsdale, Paragon, and Hanalei. All are graphic and sophisticated, but breezy. They can be mixed and matched, or worn layered with silver pieces by other designers, says Leonardo.
“Customers tell me my jewelry looks elegant, but with a beachy feel,”says Leonardo.“Some say the pieces remind them of Kiawah Island (South Carolina). Others say they think of Hawaii.”
These are all apt descriptions for what Leonardo has conceived with her inaugural collection. Born out of what she calls her “graphic-design-framed brain,” the pieces reflect Leonardo’s background in graphic design and advertising art, as well as her inspiration from nature.
“My favorite color is turquoise. It’s my branding color and you see it a lot in my work,” she says.
“Turquoise echoes the peace and serenity I feel when traveling across oceans all over the world. In fact, water is a big influence in my work. The design for my Lake Reflections bracelet, for example—shifting patterns in turquoise and metallic green—came to me after looking at the lake one day, and trying to emulate the look of the water shimmering on Lake Michigan.”
The graphic nature of Leonardo’s jewelry designs goes back to her childhood. Always talented in art, Leonardo says she used to love MC Escher tessellations: “You know? The fish into the bird and so forth?” she laughs. “I love changing, shifting patterns. When I’m doing my designs, it’s a lot like working out little puzzles and mini mosaics with little glass pieces. I get inspired thinking how one shape will fit with another.”
Leonardo’s first experience with jewelry making came under the tutelage of her French grandfather, an artist who studied at L’Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris, and then taught classes in enamel arts.
“He made jewelry, little trays, and plaques,” Leonardo recalls. “He always wanted me to be an artist. Although I loved art, I didn’t want to starve, so I chose to go into graphic design, which I knew could open the door to a world of possibilities.”
Leonardo’s artistic talents won her a full, four-year scholarship in graphic design to Miami University of Ohio, followed by 10 years working as an art director for three different ad agencies in Chicago. When Leonardo’s daughter was born in 2013, she and her husband designed and built their house in Wilmette, and Leonardo left the advertising business.
“But I really missed the creative work. So when my daughter slept, I’d make things. First paintings, but there is only so much wall space,” she laughs.
“So then I turned jewelry.”
Initially, Leonardo studied the beading patterns other designers had conceived, but quickly moved on to making her own. Sending three of her pieces to two national jewelry publications led to seeing all three featured on the cover of the magazines.
“That was confirmation that I was on to something,” she says, smiling. The magazine cover appearances drove traffic to Leonardo’s website, where she advertised for skilled bead artisans in order to build the production team needed to launch her business.
Leonardo’s pieces are priced to be accessible—$65 for the simplest beaded stud earrings on up to more elaborate earrings in the $115 to $150 range. Bracelets start at $295 and go up to $500 while necklaces range from $500 to $1,200.
“The pricing is determined by the intricacy of the pattern and the amount of time it takes to make the piece,” Leonardo explains. “Each bead has to be picked up and sewn individually. It can take up to 10 hours for a skilled craftsperson to make just one of the more intricate necklaces.”
Currently, all sales are direct to consumer, either through the company website shop, at trunk shows, or at high-end art
shows. For example, Michelle Leonardo Design will be part of the popular One of a Kind Show being held at Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago from December 5 through 8.
As the year progresses, expect to see more designs emerge.
“It’s funny, when you say ‘bead’ people automatically think ‘round’,” Leonardo muses. “But beads come in a whole slew of shapes and sizes. The options are unlimited. It’s almost magical what you can create with them.”
Michelle Leonardo Design’s next trunk show takes place at the Beauty and Balance Salon in Kenilworth from 1:30 to 6:30 p.m. on July 25. For more information, visit michelleleonardodesign.com