I found my first pair of Wendy Gell earrings in a dusty antiques mall in rural South Carolina. They stood out among a lot of run-of-the-mill vintage jewelry, with details like hand cut leather flowers and high quality Swarovski stones. They were signed on the back and I bought them at the time for my One Kings Lane shop where they were listed for just a few hours before they sold. I was intrigued by the handmade, sculptural style combined with the exquisite quality. I started researching her pieces on Etsy and Ebay and finding interesting tidbits about her designs and career online- she was one of Oprah’s favorite designers and had even been interviewed on her show, she created pieces for runway shows and held licenses to many Disney characters and designed lines around Disney movie releases like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Her opulent, over-the-top pieces were collected by celebrities including Princess Diana and splashed all over the pages of VOGUE in the seventies and eighties.
Last year, as part of the CJCI Conference in Rhode Island – I had the opportunity to take one of Wendy’s workshops, learning how to make some of her trademark, over-the-top wrist cuffs or “wristys” as she calls them using her everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach.
As the conference was in New England, I thought using a giant lobster as a centerpiece was appropriate – it looked fabulous but the process was definitely labor intensive and involved a lot of glue!
As you can imagine, spending time with her was a lot of fun and we decided to do an interview with her for the Candy Shop Vintage blog about her prolific career.
How did you get started in jewelry design?
I was a songwriter working in New York City, part of a singing group called Gell & Gellman and we had nine records but no hits. When my business partner got married and moved away and I had to find a new way to make a living. I started driving a cab and one day went down to Canal Street which, at the time, was filled with hardware stores and where a lot of old junk went and I found these brass bracelet bases outside in a box. I bought them and just started making jewelry with them. A guy at one of the hardware stores showed me how to use a glue gun, which I had never heard of, and I was so excited because you could glue things and make them stick as fast as your imagination can go. Of course you have to use other kinds of glue to really make it stick but the glue gun is just for placement. So I got started like this at my kitchen table.
How did you market you designs and get them out there for people to see?
I was living in the Village and I took my “wristys” around in a wine box to different stores and got my first account. Shortly after that, I had a bold moment and called Vogue and asked for the accessories editor at the time, named Madeline Parish. I told her who I was and that I was interested in showing her my jewelry. She’d already seen my jewelry around town and liked it very much so she took a meeting with me and we got along fabulously well. Madeline and I then worked together for years – she would tell me what the trends would be before the issues came out and I would do special projects for them. All through the 80’s I got great press – VOGUE in several countries, serious publications like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Eventually I moved out of my apartment up to an office 37th Street where the industry was. At one point we had around forty employees.
How did some of your editorial press jump to Television coverage?
It was July, 1986 and I had just returned from a tour of California for Nordstrom and the Disney Stores. I was exhausted and the last thing I wanted to do was get on another plane. But Oprah’s producers called me and said that she had a show out there that was about to go national and she collected my jewelry and said I really ought to come out and do an interview. I didn’t know at the time that she was about to become the biggest thing ever!
Who were some of your other well-known clients?
Princess Diana was given a Jessica Rabbit pin by The Disney Company when the Movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit opened. She loved it and started buying my jewelry. Bill Clinton also purchased a cherub pin from someone at one of his rallies and gave it to Hillary Clinton. Cher also collected my jewelry as well as Lauren Nyro, one of my favorite songwriters at the time.
Tell me about your partnership with Disney
I was doing the Pret-a-Porter trade show in New York City and a women approached me and asked me if I would be interested in acquiring the Disney license and be able to work with the characters in my designs. I flipped out and levitated to the ceiling and when I caught my breath and told her I would love to! It turned in to a major project and we spent a fortune on models and molds. I got to do Roger Rabbit, Dick Tracy, Wizard of Oz, Phantom of the Opera and all of the other characters… I was called The Queen of Disney Licensing. We produced these pieces – jewelry and accessories – for five years and they completely sold out.
We closed the company in 1991 and after living in my house in Connecticut for a number of years I moved to the West Coast, to Oregon about thirteen years ago. I now work out of my house – I have a studio in my house that is my workshop – filled with beads and components and stones and pearls just spilling out the back door. I take orders and do a lot of commissions – I do a lot of cherub pieces for people’s weddings and have an active Etsy shop and e-commerce site. I make a lot of one off pieces for collectors and bring my jewelry classes around to different conferences and institutions around the country. I’d love to do something in the LA area next. I am also doing a series of paintings and have an art show coming up in Ashland in May.
Wendy Gell’s designs can be purchased on her website and in her Etsy Shop and various vintage pieces of hers can often be found from other people scrolling through Ebay and Etsy. I purchased one of my favorite pieces of hers last year after her class, an enormous cockatoo wristy.