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Displayed in a downtown Chicago jewelry store window was a stunning smoky topaz stone that first romanced Suzanne Le Mignot. She loved the jewel but hated the setting. Le Mignot decided to buy the ring anyway, sketch a design to her satisfaction, and have the gem reset. The newscaster for Chicago’s WBBM Channel 2 received several compliments that led her to think: ‘This is a sign. Maybe this is a gift I didn’t know about.” By the next year, Le Mignot, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native who had never taken an art class, had fully immersed herself in the hobby of designing jewelry and developed a growing clientele.
“It’s a hobby that’s turned into a creative outlet,” says Le Mignot, who today transforms stones such as peridot, yellow sapphire, and brilliant green tsavorite into 18-karat gold and sterling silver creations for individual clients and upscale Chicago boutiques Geneva Seal and Steve Quick Jeweler.
Le Mignot seeks out gems that embody certain qualities or traits and provoke emotion, assigning names such as “Contessa” and “Queen” to her creations. Amethyst is associated with power, Swiss blue topaz is said to promote calm and well-being, garnet symbolizes strength. “I started researching and found meaning in everything,” she says. “Honestly, sometimes people are looking for something — tranquility or confidence. It’s an added benefit for the wearer.”
Le Mignot’s treasure hunting takes her mostly to New York, Las Vegas trade shows, and Chicago’s Jeweler’s Row. Designs sell for between $650 and $13,000 (more for custom jobs). Fifty percent of the proceeds from her “Giving” collection benefit Chicago’s Rainbow House for battered women and their children.
Le Mignot offers several tips for aspiring designers:
Protect yourself — and your work. Because a designer purchases stones and settings up front, Le Mignot strongly suggests having clients sign off on a final sketch before jewelry construction begins. Once, she presented a one-carat diamond wedding band to a client and he refused it, arguing that he had selected a different design.
Deliver first-class service. Happy customers are walking advertisements, says Le Mignot. If a client wants a piece resized or cleaned, she’s happy to oblige, regardless of when she made the sale.
Do your homework. Choose suppliers, such as jewelry wax carvers, based on references from respected jewelry boutiques and merchants. Jewelry wax carvers make sure final designs can support the chosen stones. “Your name is on it, so you have to make sure it’s done right,” Le Mignot says.
Join an organization. The Independent Jewelers Organization (www.ijo.com) helps independent retailers compete with major chains. The Jewelers Vigilance Committee (www.jvclegal.org) is a trade organization that reports on ethical standards for the industry. The Jewelry Information Center (www.jic.org) provides a broad range of information about fine jewelry, such as its history, trends, and shopping tips.