Rapaport Magazine

Hollywood Likes Us

Gail Kowalski creates red-carpet designs from her JBG Jewelry by Gail gallery located on the wild Outer Banks of North Carolina.

By Joyce Kauf

Sugar and Champagne ring with white and brown diamonds in a platinum setting.

Hollywood actresses love something striking,” explains Gail Kowalski, owner of retail store JBG Jewelry by Gail Inc., describing her award-winning designs favored by celebrities walking the red carpet. In fact, she credits the “star power” that comes with being photographed at red-carpet events with pulling her business through the recession.
   “It elevates us in customers’ minds,” says Kowalski, who has participated in these events for the past 15 years. Whatever the event, it has been a huge asset to her marketing and merchandising efforts. Photographs of celebrities wearing her handmade jewelry hang from a wire-mesh ribbon suspended nine feet high in her studio in Nags Head, North Carolina.

   It all started with a letter from Platinum Guild International (PGI) requesting designs featuring platinum and diamonds for their Hollywood suites for celebrities. “It would never have occurred to me to submit my designs, but I was very intrigued by it.” Her unique, eye-catching creations caught the attention of Michael O’Conner, a celebrity stylist. “We are his wild card,” says Kowalski, honored to be one of only 12 designers asked to submit their jewelry.
   Hollywood actresses are very attracted to her avant-garde style that Kowalski describes as “balanced asymmetry” — strong, but with curves, turns and curls. “My work is anything but conventional,” she adds.

   Kowalski always sends out a press release whenever a star is photographed in one of her designs. Pictures of the stars are also placed on the counters and customers can also flip through the pages of the “Hollywood lookbook” that Kowalski assembled with photographs and accompanying stories. Visitors to her store immediately know that “Hollywood likes us,” she says.
   “It has made such a difference in our business,” Kowalski notes. “It really differentiates us. People can go to any store but they see the pictures and come here — and they spend money.” While not every customer wants the red-carpet piece that can be seen at a distance, Kowalski customizes the look with variations in stone, size and design, but still always creating a unique piece. “We help them find their dream,” she says about designing jewelry, her own dream that began in ninth grade.

   A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Kowalski studied at Siena Heights College in Adrian, Michigan, a liberal arts school with a jewelry program that gave her a great deal of freedom to develop her unique style. After meeting with some classmates who gave up their dreams after graduation, Kowalski became even more determined to design jewelry. She decided to do it in Nags Head, where her family had vacationed for years.
   “Trying to figure out how I was going to make my career happen in the Outer Banks was one of the half-dozen moments of sheer terror and fear that I’ve ever experienced in my life. Even though I had no concept of what supporting myself meant, I knew I had to figure out a way to do it,” Kowalski says.
   Borrowing $1,500 from her grandmother, she rented space in a ramshackle cottage in Nags Head, where she began designing with sterling silver because at that time gold was beyond her budget. As she developed a following from people who vacationed at the beach, Kowalski was able to make enough money to create designs in gold. In 1982, she opened her own studio. She moved into an expanded showroom and studio in 1987, just 800 feet from the ocean that is her lifeblood — its energy influences her designs.

   While her style has evolved over 36 years, Kowalski’s process has always been intuitive — she does not even sketch her designs in advance. “I never execute on paper. My designs start at my fingertips. For me, when I sit there at the torch with the materials around me — whatever they are — I listen to what I’m being told by them and translate that into the design.” To her, it is not just the stone or the setting. “It is a pleasing conversation between the stone and the setting. My designs reflect a strong presence of both.”
   Industry recognition came early in her career. In 1979 and again in 1980, Kowalski received the Johnson Matthey Platinum Award for excellence in platinum design. In 1985, she received the De Beers Diamonds Today award for excellence and originality in diamond jewelry design. In 1987, the World Gold Council selected several designs for an international fashion show in Basel, Switzerland, and in 1990, Kowalski received special honor as a finalist in the 1990 Diamonds International competition.
   Even with all her accolades, Kowalski is thrilled to be featured on the red carpet. “It is the icing on the cake,” she concludes. 

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2013. To subscribe click here.

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