Livin' On the Edge
First impressions: 20 years ago when
I met a jewelry designer named Gail Kowalski in Nags Head, she appeared to be a
shy person, tender hearted, gentle. Over time, I saw that these impressions
were true, but incomplete.
She is multi-faceted. There are many Gails. She has moments of derring-do - dressed as a leather-clad biker, or a pink bunny - as she never knows from one year to the next what sort of costume she will be required to wear to the awards ceremony at the annual Ocracoke Island Surf Fishing Tournament. Her team, Fish Lips, is serious about fun and fishing.
"One of the Fish Lips' commandments states that whatever is put before you, you shall wear," Gail says. Refusal is grounds for excommunication from the team. Members never know in advance what sort of costume will be required, not until the moment teammate Rae calls them to dress for the party.
There is also a Gail who packs a gun. She's a bona fide member of the Outer Banks Gun Club and is licensed to carry her beloved Kimber .45-caliber pistol. There is a Gail that plays with puppies who has donated precious hours to her pet cause, the S.P.C.A. The spiritual Gail serves as a lector at Mass, and a Gail that loves to shake a leg helped the Fred Astaire of the Outer Banks, Walter Gray, organize Big Band dances.
But in the late '70s, as a young designer fresh out of Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan, working with humble "but still gorgeous" materials, there was a Gail that became a business ingénue, setting up shop in Nags Head at R&R Jewelers. "I borrowed $1,500 dollars from my grandmother to move to the Outer Banks and start a business!" Gail says. There were few thoughts of risk. Gail followed her instincts and she fit right in with the bohemian mecca of artisans at R&R, peddling beads and leatherwork. The future was anything but uncertain to the Gail that Could, a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who had vacationed on the Outer Banks throughout her childhood.
Mermaid's Choice Pendant
This pendant has an
18-karat yellow gold torch-edge and fusion technique with "seagrass" setting
featuring nine round, natural color grey cultured pearls; one .53-karat,
shield-cut, natural fancy-colored cognac, I1 clarity diamond; and one 21 mm x
18 mm, baroque shaped, natural color golden/grey/white South Sea
As she gained experience, her unique art spirit began to emerge. Her designs were unbridled and comfortable to wear. People loved jewelry by Gail and she prospered. Eventually, her instincts told her to buy a location of her own. Gail's mother encouraged her to look at a house owned by Victoria Smith on Driftwood Street. But it wasn't on the more-traveled Beach Road or Bypass, so Gail dismissed it. A year later, when her mom pointed the same location out again, "It was as if a veil lifted," Gail recalls. "I could see it; it became clear."
In 1982, undaunted by 17 percent interest rates, she bought the cottage on Driftwood Street in the neighborhood that is today flocked to by art lovers and known as Gallery Row. She and her husband, David Stewart, a graduate gemologist and jewelry appraiser, divided the space between work and play, shop and home. By 1988 the shop won the entire space and they took up residence elsewhere.
Although today the gallery of Jewelry By Gail has an air of refinement and grace, it is still a place to play. To Gail, work is play, and the staff with which she has surrounded herself loves to play. Marketing director, Leslie Livingston, came to Jewelry By Gail from a rental management company, and bench assistant, Randy Snider, ended his charter fishing days for good to work with Gail. Unlikely as their backgrounds might appear, Gail saw in each of them the talent and personality she wanted.
Gail's commitment to innovation, quality and service has earned her more than a loyal following: it's earned her a number of professional accolades as well, such as the Johnson Matthey Platinum Award and the prestigious DeBeers Diamonds Today award. Three pieces were chosen by Platinum Guild International in New York to be presented to celebrity clients at the 2004 Emmy Awards, and Gail's Tempest earrings and Beauties and the Beasts ring were chosen by PGI for presentation to stylists and celebrities selecting jewelry for the 2005 Academy Awards.
"I like the platinum setting to have as much to say as the stones; I am not interested in designing just a framework to hold and feature gemstones," says Gail, describing her technique with the metal. "There must be a mutual conversation between the platinum and the gems, each with something to say."
Cat Tail Ring
Platinum/10% Iridium ring with 4.22-karat fancy pure champagne
marquise diamond, VVS 1-2 clarity and four .20-karat total weight diamonds, E-F
color, VS clarity. This Jewelry By Gail original ring was chosen by Platinum
Guild International USA for inclusion in their Editors' Day on May 10, 2005.
Only 25 platinum designers were selected to have their work shown at exclusive
one-on-one appointments with fashion and accessories editors from top
publications such as Vogue, InStyle, Glamour, Lucky, Bridal Guide, Modern
Bride, Oprah, Essence, and WWD/W.
The Cat Tail ring
will be featured in an article on platinum and diamonds slated for the Rapaport
Diamond Report, a respected industry trade magazine.
In contrast, Snider enjoys working and learning behind the scenes. The native of Friendly, West Virginia loves to fish and hunt, and has always had an intense interest in stones and geology. His boyhood friends were the sons of chemical engineers and metal workers, so Snider gained an understanding of the industrial, or technical, end of metalworking. He also had artistic inclinations and had taken classes at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Although it was natural that he would frequent Jewelry By Gail to buy gifts for his wife, he never envisioned himself working with jewelry. Gail did.
"He is the right hand," Gail laughs, "and I am the left." Snider, however, is more modest. "I work on stone seats and crowns," he says. "I do all the polishing." He does admit to some collaboration and even though they don't always see eye to eye, "there's no competition between the two of us" he says. "That's not what it's about."
Although recognition by the national scene is energizing for Gail, she sees it as chance to work with the upper echelon of gems.
"I need a juicy sapphire," she says. "How about a ruby?" is the response she receives. This sort of telephone banter occurs almost daily between Gail Kowalski and her jewel of a friend Hector Goldman. Their relationship began many years ago, unceremoniously, when he called her, laughing. He had read a huffy letter that Gail had written to every diamond dealer in New York that hadn't responded to her queries for colored stones. Today colored diamonds are all the rage, but not at that time. Gail's and Goldman's mutual appreciation of honey- and champagne-hued diamonds provided the common thread that tied them together.
one-of-a-kind earrings with 1.93-karat total weight oval teal apatites.
"When Hector was going to retire, I said no," Gail says. The friends ended up collaborating on their top-of-the line designer jewelry of unusual, rare and one-of-a kind gemstones. Designed around the bulk of Goldman's inventory, their Luxe line found its way into Saks Fifth Avenue and is now available on line at www.jewelrybygail.com. Today, the semi-retired Goldman still attends trade shows. A recent trip to Basel, Switzerland resulted in the procurement of a 4.22-karat pure champagne marquise diamond that is now set in the one-of-a-kind Cat Tail ring.
"I love the marquise shape," Gail says. She always places it on a diagonal in a setting as to not be visually static. "It's fresh, it keeps moving."
And Gail herself keeps moving. Like the wind, Gail exhilarates us when we don her art. The refreshing breeze that is Gail has carried her art across the Outer Banks and beyond to the "real world," where she is renowned for her splendid, joyful way with metal and stones. She is much admired as a successful businesswoman, but first and always, she is a creative force, a Gail Force. Although she enjoys the recognition and the bolstering affirmation it provides, that mindful, younger Gail still exists; it's in that smile she gives anonymously to the lady wearing one of her pendants as she stands beside her in a Chicago elevator.
"It's jewelry," she says. "It should be a delight."