Monthly Archives: January 2013

meet colleen: chicago gemstone goddess

We don’t love to admit to being distracted by shiny objects, but wow—that happened in a big way this summer when we met Colleen Clark at a street fair in Chicago. We couldn’t pass up a peek at the one-of-a-kind necklaces and other incredibly striking pieces sparkling in her booth. (And now we’ve got you thinking about summer and sunshine and walking around in sandals. You’re welcome!)

Colleen has four collections, but she calls her personal style “contemporary organic.” Every single one of her gorgeous pieces is original and handmade by her—check out our second-to-last question to learn about her unique creative process.

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Colleen canoodling her chocolate lab, Bella

People with Panache: Hi Colleen! Your work is stunning. How did you get into making jewelry professionally?

Colleen Clark: It started in high school. The girls on my swim team and I had a thing with making necklaces and bracelets. We would add colored beads and wear them until the chlorine ate through the string. And it stuck with me.

PWP: So fun! When you really started doing this as more than just a hobby, how’d you know how to do it?

CC: I did tons of research online looking up other people’s jewelry, looking at things that I liked, and going to department stores.

Seriously, my first works were like the Flintstones—they were pretty rough-looking. So I’m pretty much self-taught with jewelry. But I’ve been doing it for 11 years, and just recently I’ve started doing it full time.

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Gold Necklace with Labradorite, Garnet and Amethyst

PWP: What inspires you in this field, in your particular pieces?

CC: I’m really meticulous, and I try hard to make things that are strong and don’t look cheap, with good clasps that don’t fall apart. I was originally pulled more into the gemstones, and then I taught myself about different cuts and different grades of stones.

The stones actually come from different parts of the world, and so they have different properties and meanings. Labradorite is my favorite stone. It has that blue flash within a gray stone, and it’s from Laborador, Canada. Labradorite is protecting and brings good fortune. It just has a really good energy.

PWP: So gemstones are your main ingredient, so to speak?

CC: Yes, my price point is a little bit higher because of the stones that I use, so I came up with a different collection called Pink Label by Colleen. And within that collection I do use the Czech glass and different cuts of less-expensive stones.

I don’t buy anywhere outside of the United States. That’s just the way I’ve always done things.

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Mixed-Metal Bracelet with Starfish Pendant

PWP: Nice, we like local! How long have you been a full-time jeweler?

CC: Eight months full-time. And it is really tough. You wouldn’t think of it as hard, but it’s like 15-hour days, and it’s such a rollercoaster of emotions, too. That, I think, is the kicker. When you hear a “no” from a store, your look is not going to fit, it’s like a dagger in the heart. It’s the same when you don’t get into a show too.

PWP: I can imagine. What has been your biggest challenge along the way to where you are now?

CC: Getting my name out and having people take a chance on me—because I am new and my prices are a little bit higher. But they’re not ultra-trendy pieces that fall apart and you never touch again. I make things that people can keep forever.

And I take every single piece really, really personally. I don’t just mass-produce. I am personally involved with every single piece—emotionally, too. So I think the biggest thing is making a name and a brand for myself.

“I fall asleep a lot making designs up in my head… I remember the design every time. I’m so weird.”

PWP: What’s it like to sell something you’re so attached to?

CC: It’s really cool when you see someone pick up your jewelry, and it looks a certain way, but when they put it on, it looks different! It just sort of pops. Like when a woman looks in a mirror and is like, ”Oh my gosh, that’s it.”

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Gold Necklace with Large Agate Slice

PWP: What’s your favorite part about this business?

CC: The making of the jewelry. I always put together a piece in my head, and then I’ll just make it. I don’t draw it out or finagle with different pieces to see if this piece works or if that piece works. I just come up with it in my head, completely like a 3-D image. And then I make it.  And I fall asleep a lot making designs up in my head. Then I wake up the next day and go buy the beads. I remember the design every time. I’m so weird.

PWP: No, that’s the definition of passion! What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far?

CC: Don’t sell yourself short.

Check out Colleen’s Jewelry Collection here.

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meet jon-girl: chicago fencing queen

Kate and I are best friends. But so many pieces of our personalities land on opposite ends of the spectrum. I’m currently breaking in some kick-butt new hiking boots that have soles like tire treads; she lives in the most adorably girly apartment I’ve ever seen in real life. She’s a little quiet before you get to know her, and I talk to strangers like I never learned the not-talking-to-strangers rule in preschool.

But when it matters, we’re a perfect match. We have the same values, a similarly nerdy sense of humor, respect for each other’s opinions and an excessive amount of fun together at all times. And we both enjoy a fair amount of the outdoors AND sparkles.

Last spring, Kate and I took a Dabble class in fencing. It was coached by Jon-Girl, owner and all-around matriarch of everything RedStar Fencing in Chicago. To get where she is today, Jon-Girl went through a huge transition from climbing the corporate ladder to owning and running Redstar.


Fencing brings together athleticism and grace, passion and precision. Our lesson was a challenging workout, a test of our coordination and—as always—tons of fun. Read on about why Jon-Girl has made it her life. And please let us know what you think about our first awesome interview in the comments!

People with Panache: Let’s start at the beginning. Why fencing?

Jon-Girl: I went into the job market just like you did, out of need of sustenance, because I had to. But it didn’t feel right. It felt like I was wearing a different size shoe or something. And you begin to learn about yourself.

I took an early retirement from a company I was working for—that doesn’t mean I’m a millionaire—I was young and stupid. At the time, I wasn’t cut out for the corporate environment at all. I can’t do memos, I can’t do any more meetings; it’s just not for me. I had a list of things I wanted to do in my life, and I wanted to try fencing.

“I wanted to go to this hoity-toity sport and contaminate it with our personality!”

Back then, I had one girlfriend who was into archery and another into equestrian dressage, and it was pretty interesting because they have tattoos just like I do. You don’t expect to see equestrian riders with tattoos. We are very independent women. I wanted to go to this hoity-toity sport and contaminate it with our personality!

Jon-Girl looking almost as bad-ass as she is in real life

Jon-Girl doesn’t normally look quite this serious—but she does look this badass!

PWP: Okay, so you quit your job. What was the next step?

JG: I was new to fencing, and I wanted to get very high-level instruction. I was doing research in the Chicagoland area and wanted to get serious about fencing. This was going to be my thing. I looked up this fencing club called Chicago Athletic Association (CAS). I talked to the president, and he said they needed someone to help run the club. I said, “Hey, I have a lot of free time!” I got the chance to run tournaments, attend tournaments and start competing. I got an inside look on how to run a fencing club.

PWP: Where does RedStar come in?

JG: Peter [Ed note: Jon-Girl’s former coach, now husband] actually became my coach during CAS years. He and I decided that they wanted to do things with more of an old-school mentality, but we wanted young blood. Fencing clubs are usually old guys typically from a different generation and not very tech-savvy.

We wanted to market it as a cool sport, not a rich-person sport, with forward thinking and new innovations. We wanted to change how people perceive fencing and show them how fun it can be. Our space was designed to match our brand. We’re not just focusing on fencing in general, but the brand. Forward thinking. It’s so much fun to think about! The other club owners don’t see that as important. Plus, Peter and I actually just got married last January. That’s a very nice partnership.

PWP: So, what’s it like to finally have your own club?

JG: Not only is it the athletic perspective, from the coaching standpoint, but you have to run the business, too. I don’t have a typical day. When I’m allowed to sleep, I sleep. It’s sort of a one-woman operation in the fencing club. When people sign up, they know Jon-Girl is the person everything has to be approved by. When we go to tournaments and stuff, I’m the behind-the-scenes lady, and the coaching staff is out there to show.

“…if we could do this forever it would be awesome to establish something like a legacy.”

PWP: How did you find the courage to pursue this path when you weren’t sure if it would work out?

JG: I don’t want to say this is what I was meant to do. I just think this was what was needed at the time. This is what we needed. This is something that we started, and it was like this project, and if we could do this forever it would be awesome to establish something like a legacy. It has something to do with pride, too. So it’s kind of like a dream, not the dream.

Jon-Girl competing.

Jon-Girl spends most of her time coaching. But she also competes on a local and national level six times a year—like in this pic!

I do think now that I’ll probably do this forever. I never feel that I was destined to do this. I never feel that way about anything in my life. I refuse to admit that my deck of cards was already laid out when I was born. Anything could change; anything can change. But this is the longest commitment to anything I’ve made in my life; I haven’t even owned my car for that long!

I think when you’re young and independent and think you’re wise, you take more risks. At the time, I didn’t feel like I had any luggage to sacrifice—a house, pets, a boyfriend—something that would keep me from doing what I wanted to do. I never thought that fencing was not going to be a direction in my life, but because the way the cards fell—and I liked the way they fell—I decided to pick up that stack of cards and run with it. It just worked out. I do feel blessed—very, very blessed.

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it’s happening. it’s happening…

It happened. This is People with Panache, a blog by Alysse Gear and Kate Baratta about women who inspire us. And we think they’ll inspire you too.

Kate: So Alysse, what should we write our first post about?
Alysse: Probably whatever our readers would want to know about us.
Kate: Good idea. Well, you like cats.

Confession: If you steal a look at our phones, we’d look like cat ladies. This is Rodger…

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…and sweet, sweet Lucy.

Alysse: I do love Rodger and Lucy! I like other things too…
Kate: True. You like protecting the environment and saving animals and wearing the alpaca sweater
you got in Peru.
Alysse: And you like analyzing people and practicing good grammar and singing to your food.
Kate: We both love traveling and reading and trying new things!
Alysse: Speaking of trying new things, here’s a picture of us after learning to fence, or attempting to…

Fencing at RedStar

We had a blast! But the next day… ow.

Kate: THAT was an experience! Our instructor, Jon-Girl, is actually our first interview so don’t forget to check out her story after this!
Alysse: We hope you enjoy reading about these women as much as we’ve loved talking to them. After Jon-Girl, we’re really excited to share our interviews with entrepreneurs, a magazine editor and many more. And we’ll share more about ourselves, too.
Kate: “Dif-tor heh smusma.” Live long and prosper.

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Halloween in a galaxy far, far away…. Oh wait.

Remember, this blog is for you. We want it to be as fun and inspiring as possible, so please let us know what you think. Email us any time at peoplewithpanache@gmail.com.

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