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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Islands inspire pair of jewelry designers

By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer

Necklace by Julie Wong
When Portland, Ore., jewelry designer Julie Wong has a trunk show at Neiman Marcus, one of her 13 uncles or aunts from Wahiawa turns up with a big plate lunch.

San Francisco jewelry designer Alana Leigh, real name Erin Leigh Howard, finds her inspiration on the beaches where her parents, Jo and the late David Howard, used to hang out: Outrigger Canoe Club and Lanikai.

Both successful Mainland designers, whose work is sold at Neiman Marcus Ala Moana Center, have roots in Hawai'i.

Julie Wong

Although Wong was born and reared in Portland, her parents, Herbert and Marty Wong of Wahiawa, made sure she spent her summers in O'ahu's red dirt country. Her collection, on display today at Neiman Marcus at Ala Moana Center, was inspired by the flora of Kaua'i, the rolling red hills of Wahaiwa, the blues of the ocean on the North Shore and the greens of island tropical gardens.

She also finds inspiration in the architecture of Eero Saarinen and the furniture and metalwork of Charles and Ray Eames.

Taking her cues from high fashion, Wong sees blues coming on strong this season: lapis lazuli, sapphires, turquoise, aquamarine and iolite. She's mixing them with tiger's eye, carnelian, toffee-colored sapphires and "Venus Hair" quartz (clear stones with little gold threads in them).

Wong mixes polished and faceted stones as well as semiprecious and precious gems. She makes every piece by hand.

Wong discovered her passion for jewelry as a fine-arts student at the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts and the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where she achieved a Master of Fine Arts in metalsmithing. "I'm a gem nerd," she chuckled. "I feel lucky that I'm doing something creative I love and making a living at it." She enjoys jewelry as an art form because of the memories and associations that come with wearing it.

During a family visit to O'ahu, she stopped in at Neiman Marcus, and the jewelry buyer took to her work immediately. The Ala Moana store is the only Neiman Marcus that carries Julie Wong Designs. Seventeen boutiques and galleries across the country also sell her work.

Alana Leigh

 •  Trunk shows

Julie Wong

10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today, noon to 8 p.m. tomorrow

Neiman Marcus jewelry department, Level 1

Price range: Earrings: $60-$260; necklaces: $220-$5,000

Wong will raffle a $450 jade and pearl necklace tomorrow. No purchase is necessary.

Alana Leigh

10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Dec. 13 and 14

Neiman Marcus jewelry department, Level 1

Leigh's jewelry also is regularly available.

Price range: Necklaces: $200- $1,000; earrings: $85-$300

In Hawaiian, alana means awakening, rising. It's an auspicious name for Leigh, a San Francisco jewelry designer who was born in Hawai'i.

At the age of 25, Erin Leigh (then her professional name) was a successful model doing runway shows for Oscar de la Renta and TV commercials for Chrysler and Ford.

The sudden death of her father left her bereft, believing "I needed to find my soul and discover my creative side." She traveled the world and began collecting antique jewelry and beads from India, Nepal and Africa. Leigh began dreaming of beads and how to put them together. "This art form found me," she said.

Leigh says she believes in the healing nature of gems. "Stones have meanings. They used to be broken into tiny pieces and used as elixirs to heal parts of the body," she said. Leigh attributes aquamarines with promoting calm and clarity, while she says garnets offer strength and alignment. Pearls encourage faith, truth and charity, while silver increases inner wisdom and intuition, she says.

At first Leigh made necklaces for herself and her friends. A Neiman Marcus jewelry buyer spotted her wearing one and asked to see her collection. Within six months, Alana Leigh Atelier had pieces in Neiman Marcus, Henri Bendel and Macy's New York.

While her earliest collections were inspired by ethnic and tribal looks, she created a signature look by mixing them with Edwardian and Elizabethan styles from London and Paris. She's not afraid of unconventional pairings.

Leigh's fall collection is dominated by greens, blues and browns such as smoky topaz with aventurine. For the holidays the look is big, bold, Eastern and tribal, featuring gold citrine with garnets and blue-coin pearls.

Leigh visits the Islands at every opportunity. Two years ago, she honeymooned on the Big Island. She loves her local customers, saying, "Hawai'i women are sophisticated and fashion-forward. They love layering pieces of jewelry and are willing to take a risk."

Pick the right necklace

Wong and Leigh offer tips for finding the right necklace for you:

  • Don't over-accessorize. If your necklace makes a statement, don't wear earrings. Or, if you must, make sure they're small and simple.
  • Brunettes with tan skin look best with high-contrast stones such as white pearls with moonstone.
  • For olive skin, tone it down with deep reds, blues or greens.
  • Blondes with pale eyes can wear deep greens and blues. "Wear less makeup, because your eyes will pop already," Leigh said.
  • If your neck is thick, try a longer drape, with a drop pendant to draw the eye down. Avoid tiny stones and go for chunky pieces that will not be lost on your frame, Wong said. Leigh encourages every woman to try chunky stones.