Jewelry maker finds new inspiration in old building

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By Anne Christnovich

In a sunny corner room where breakfast was once prepared for the Lipsitz family, a local jewelry maker is now cooking up her latest creations.

Juli Mills who sells her handmade jewelry wholesale, and more than a dozen other artists, recently moved into the newly remodeled second floor of 203 West Street, formerly the Lipsitz Department store.

Local jewelry maker Juli Mills
Local jewelry maker Juli Mills

Mills, who has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts degree in metal-smithing and jewelry design from Georgia State University, has been expanding her jewelry business since she moved to the area in 1997. She started turning her passion into her career by selling individual necklaces, earrings and bracelets at “jewelry parties” in the homes of friends and family.

Ten years ago, she made a business agreement with Nan Sutton, the owner of the Lulu Burgess shop on Bay Street, to sell seasonal collections.

The agreement with Sutton was her first success in marketing wholesale jewelry. She now has similar agreements with Tango on Fripp Island and Mango, a store in Atlanta. Her jewelry is sold in 75 shops in 21 U.S. states, as well as in Puerto Rico and Canada.

Mills’ studio in the Lipsitz building is modestly furnished — two worktables sit on the battered dark wood floors and the walls are whitewashed and mostly unadorned. A few clear plastic storage bins show neatly packaged pink, gold, turquoise and white gems and stones.

The space may appear unassuming but after working from home to fill wholesale orders since 2003, the Lipsitz room will be a place for her to create one-of-a-kind pieces.

“Now I feel like I can get some more creativity in,” she said.

A handful of Mills’ unique pieces are already featured in a glass case in a common area of the building. Paintings and products from other artists are also for sale.

Mills said she finds design inspiration for her collections from the shape and size of different gems and stones she finds at conventions, which she goes to twice a year. She also has connections with turquoise sellers in New Mexico. Mills also works with forged metals because of how the surfaces transform.

With her next line set to come out in July and the work of getting settled in the Lipsitz building, Mills is hesitant to extol any other major plans for the future. However, she did say she hopes to introduce collections for weddings and other special occasions.

Her most popular design is a necklace strung with hundreds of tiny “seed beads” with a single oval or circular gem pendant. It comes in a host of colors and Sutton used a brown and tan version to show why her customers like Mills’ work so much.

“She’s my best selling jewelry line,” Sutton said. “I think people like her work because of its simplicity.”

Lulu Burgess hold’s a J. Mills collection show twice a year, where her recent line is displayed and customers can shop while sipping refreshments. The next show at Lulu’s is set for 4 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 25 at the store on 917 Bay Street.

Sutton said she’s seen customers buy Mills’ work as a present for an 8-year-old, as the finishing touch to an outfit for an 80-year-old and every age in between.

It’s exactly the reaction Mills is going for with her work.

“I like simplicity with a twist,” she said. She said she hopes her jewelry can be worn through trends and kept for years.

Other than the joy of inventing new collections, Mills finds amusement in learning about where her work will travel to and what wearers might accomplish.

“I was talking to (a customer) and she was saying how she always has to wear boring clothes at work,” Mills said. “I asked what she does and she just said, ‘Oh I’m an attorney at the Pentagon.’”

The woman ended up buying a necklace and was one of Mills’ first customers at the Lipsitz gallery.

Mills also sent a pair of forged metal earrings to singer Alison Krauss after she and some friends met her backstage at a concert. Krauss complemented a friend on a similar pair.

“Now if only she would send me a picture of her wearing them,” Mills said, laughing. “I could call them ‘The Alisons.’ ”

To see Mills’ jewelry, go to jmillsstudio.com or AtelierOnBay.com.