This article was originally published in Park Bench on February 13, 2020
Jewelry designer Ellie Thompson has been appraising and crafting jewelry for over 25 years. She's created a number of collections over the years, won awards across the country and even has a piece in the permanent collection at the Field Museum. Still, her accessibility and ease are free from any pretension. She moved into Roscoe Village because of the feel of the community and is looking forward to actively promoting that feeling with her own business.
I grew up in Connecticut. I went to school in California to be a gemologist. I was looking for a wholesale jewelry industry job and asked the head of alumni at my school "If you could go anywhere you want to go where would you go and who would you talk to when you got there?" He said, "I'd go to Chicago and I'd talk to Richard Drucker." And I said "Great. Give me his number."
So I moved to Chicago and within a month I had a job as Richard Drucker's personal assistant and I learned to be an appraiser through him - one of the top appraisers in the country. Then at his recommendation, I opened The Chicago Gem Lab in 1991. It's a company that is still around. It's an appraisal company of fine jewelry. In the early days, I did diamond grading reports. Gemstone identification - a customer comes in and asks "What's this red stone?" Well, it could be a ruby, red glass, a garnet. You do a series of tests on the stone and give them the results. Then the second step is giving a value of the piece.
I do a lot of appraisals still for insurance, estate tax settlement, a few divorce and equitable distribution reports as well.
I was 24 years old when I opened my company. It was the appraisal company, but the design work started coming in pretty much right away. Then, as the design work became busier, I was able to sell off the appraisal side of the company.
I did a lot of engagement rings at the start. One of my first clients was the Vice President of the Boston Consulting Group. Every young intern that came threw that was getting married asked her for a recommendation and she sent them all to me and that started my business. And then it became birthday gifts, anniversary gifts, all kinds of things. All custom made.
I always designed things. I designed clothes when I was in high school. I danced, I was in theatre. Because I was around jewelry, I started designing. I had a customer come in that had lost one earring and asked if I could make another. Sure. In the early years, I put together a crew of craftsmen, some of which are still with me 20 years later. I have a manufacturing facility down in the loop in a building that has piped gas and piped compressed air right in the building. Those are important for the laser torches. We have Computer-Aided Design since 2006, so we have a 3D printer for making a lot of our prototypes. I started producing collections around 1999.
I opened this shop in October. It's my first storefront in Chicago on the ground floor. It was always operated by appointment up on the 22nd floor overlooking Millennium Park. I was there for 10 years. In Montana and Idaho, I had a couple of galleries that were on the ground floor that had Western Art as well as my Jewelry. I decided I really liked the year-round market of Chicago. I wanted to live here, be closer to my family, and I missed the vibe of the city.
Some of the awards I've won for my work are certainly a design accomplishment I'm very very proud of. In more recent years, including this space, which is going to change a lot over the next couple of months. Having an interior to work with and create something - an experience for people - to be able to have a retail space is a huge accomplishment. It's something I hadn't considered before and find that I'm quite well suited for.
I like being here, I like seeing the families come in. There are lots of these little kids that come in; I have a gem box that I share with them. They can pick out their own stone and we talk about what kind of stone it is and they get to collect gemstones. I like my young collectors here in RV. We hosted Hot Chocolate Bar at Winter Fest. The neighborhood association as well as the Chamber of Commerce have been incredibly supportive.
So aside from the engagement rings, wedding bands, diamond settings and all the things people have, a lot of my custom work is people bringing in jewelry that they inherited that they don't like, don't want to wear, don't know what to do with it, but they know it's valuable. We'll assess it and if it's a really important like Art Deco piece we'll recommend they not take it apart. But if it is lots of nice diamonds but not great style, the gold would probably be melted into something else - stacking rings - I may take diamonds and turn them into eternity bands or earrings. Things that people can wear every day with casual clothing or more dressed up occasions. Re-purposing is a big part of what I do. Sometimes it's a small change like taking a chain off and putting a pin on. Sometimes it's take all the stones out, melt all the gold, and make something completely new.
Usually, I need to design that first piece, get that first piece out. Once that's out - and it could be a ring, earrings, a pendant; I'll be inspired by something like a pair of stones or something I want to do - if it's a pendant there will be earrings that go with it. I will try to do something different so the earrings aren't just a smaller version of the pendant. They can have 3 sizes, sometimes they'll be oversized or petite. Some of the expansions of the collection will go on for many, many years. Someone says "I like that one, but I want to use these stones," now we have another piece in the same collection, written in the same language.
The differences between one collection and the next are like speaking multiple languages - like French, German, Spanish - I develop a new language every time I have a new collection. Right now I'm working on a floral collection. It's just deciding exactly what shape and proportion that petal is and how it's going to go around that center of the flower, and then what gemstone that is going to be. And then what kind of shape in another direction. Will it be flat or curved, what decoration or finish will be on that petal? Once I develop that language, that will be the alphabet of the collection, I then can start to change it around in various ways. The theme and variation are what create the whole look for the group. I would say each collection is its own separate thing, but the influences coming in can utilize both. Some will have an organic harder curve, and then some geometric elements as well.
I tend to not be a huge trend-watcher. I think we're always influenced by what's around us all the time. If you're looking at fashion, the one designer I tend to follow is Ralph Lauren. He tends to span that Urban aesthetic as well as that Western American aesthetic that I so enjoy. You know, seeing some trends in Western Wear and cowboy boots and handbags; seeing what is happening in other types of design sometimes gives me an idea of how what I am doing may play well. It might help me make a decision about the scale of something. Am I going to go oversized with it or am I going to keep the whole collection very small and petite? What are people wearing, what are the necklines, what is the lifestyle? I take my cues from fashion and different types of design.
It has ebbed and flowed over the years. When I started my career, gold was $300/oz (for reference, gold today is over $1500/oz) so my first collection I was able to produce big, chunky, solid, heavy gold pieces and I did just that. As gold started getting more and more expensive, the airier designs became a much smarter approach to design. I started to use the airier City Rhythms design collection language which has a lot of open space. You're able to have a large-looking piece, but it weighs only half or a third as much as some of the earlier pieces. I didn't have any Sterling Silver in my collections until about 2008 with the economic downturn. I started innovating with silver, silver and gold, blackened silver with diamonds, blackened silver with gold. Mixing things up to use less gold and bring the cost down. The colored stones, at the time, were also very expensive so I started using them less and less. Now, over time, I'm able to get back into the gemstone market and produce pieces with gemstones. The new collection will have all gemstone collections.
Probably the Tassels and Fringe. That collection was created out of some work I did for the Field Museum. It's a tassel necklace I was asked to produce when they renovated the Grainger Hall of Gems in 2006. I was given a Golden Beryl, this bright yellow stone, and asked to create a piece using only Golden Beryl and I was allowed to use diamonds as well. It's in the permanent collection in the Field Museum. Then from the One-Of-A-Kind piece, I decided to work with the tassel and use a much more architectural style and produced a small collection called Tassels and Fringe. I was very pleased with how these pieces looked and how they felt when you wear them. The timelessness of them and the nod to the Chicago neoclassical architecture that I worked into the designs.
I always liked belt buckles. I developed a collection back in 2008 called American Metaphor and it just seemed like it really needed a belt buckle. Then from there, I started the limited edition buckles, mostly with Western motifs, although I've done others. I've won awards for my work in Great Falls, Montana, and in Jackson, Wyoming. I'm one of the few female buckle designers in the country so I'm really proud of the work I've done with that.
My buckles were in four consecutive shows at the Charlie Russel Museum in Great Falls, Montana. To have something in Urban Chicago and then out West. I also won three Spectrum Awards for Innovation for the use of colored gemstones - that was what launched my career back in those years.
I really enjoy bookkeeping. It's a problem-solving process. You have a bunch of papers you have to organize and enter, then the bank reconciliation at the end of the month, making sure everything balances. Going and looking for that quarter when it's off. It's very satisfying to do anything that is problem-solving for me. That might be the design of "how do you create something special for a client," too. I think that's why I like all the different aspects of being a small business owner. Even planning, how to delight people.
We must do a New Collection Launch this Spring. We'll be changing the windows, changing the snowflakes into flowers. We'll have a special event, lots of flowers in the shop, and lots of people to celebrate with. I have several other collaborations planned. In May we'll work with Aron Packer Gallery and we'll have an art showing here. There's another photographer I'm working with. She did mother-daughter photographs and she'll be showing for a month as well.
The bags are a Chicago artist that I met in Wyoming. You can see they have a decidedly western design. They're made out of hair-on sheepskin, hair-on cowhide, regular cowhide. The company is called Rebellion Bags, the owner is Stephanie Wheat. They're made in Pilsen. She is an incredible, young female entrepreneur manufacturing right here in Chicago.
The furniture is all made for me from Polaris Metalwork in Wyoming. We have more furniture and fixtures on the way. More pedestal tables and showcases.
I was chasing dirt. If I'm not here on a weekend, I'm probably at a mountain bike race. I always rode bikes, but I really became interested in bikes again when I started commuting again in 2012. I had never competed before, but I was meeting more people that were riding. Someone said "You should race cycle cross," which is a little like where road biking and mountain biking meet. After cross, I discovered mountain biking and that really became my passion. All dirt, curves, jumps, rocks, roots. All of it. So I started racing in 2013 and have really enjoyed it ever since. Now I do long-distance mountain bike races. So I do one or more 100-mile mountain bike races a year. You're racing in Kettle Marines so you have areas that are high and low where glaciers have receded. It gives you a terrain that is rolling. So the Lumberjack 100 in Manistee, Michigan every year is 9,000 feet of climbing over 100 miles. But it's also 9000 feet of descent as well!
Roscoe Village is the best of both worlds. It has the vibrancy of the city and it has a small-town feeling like a lot of the towns out west.
The small-town feel of Roscoe Village, the people here. There is a lot of neighborhood pride that I really like. A lot of opportunities to participate in the activities of the neighborhood. Things going on for Halloween, we have Shop For Schools, WinterFest; just great opportunities to engage with the community and be a part of something bigger than myself.
I enjoy taking friends, family, and clients to Bordeaux right next door. I enjoy their flatbreads and big glasses of wine. I also love Volo. Their outdoor patio, even in the late fall, was absolutely wonderful. Wonderful flights of wine. Great staff, great food.
I enjoy Kenneth Ludwig, I bought lots of decorations from Kenneth. I went to Roscoe Books for Christmas shopping. I also enjoy A Pie with their wonderful boots and shoes.