“To me, the jewelry always came first,” designer Brent Neale tells me. “I’d be like, ‘Oh I’m going to wear this jewelry tonight. And then I’d pick whatever clothing I wanted to wear.”
Although jewelry was Neale’s childhood passion — she’d attend gem shows with her mother and string beads together for friends — the designer, initially not seeing a clear path to a career in the business, spent 2004 applying to law schools and studying for the LSATs. “If you don’t know a job exists, how can you imagine yourself in that job?” she says.
With encouragement from the late jewelry historian and then-editor at InStyle Penny Proddow, however, she attended FIT, learning everything she could about crafting fine jewelry. She then spent eight years at Kara Ross New York, where she oversaw the fine, contemporary, and costume jewelry teams before leaving in 2016 to launch her eponymous brand, which now counts Blake Lively and Gwyneth Paltrow as fans.
Crafting everything from mushrooms to clam shells with colorful stones and 18K gold, Neale’s work is known for bringing a youthful, whimsical quality to fine jewelry. Her “Down the Rabbit Hole” line, for instance, features Alice in Wonderland-inspired mushrooms, hearts, and oversize flowers; “Splash,” an ocean-inspired collection, is chock full of clam shells and oyster-found pearls.
Neale produces everything in New York City, selling at Moda Operandi as well as four wholesale, brick-and-mortar accounts. But it’s her direct-to-consumer and bespoke business that you so often see on Instagram — especially the mushroom pendant, one of Neale’s most recognizable pieces, which is crafted of a hard stone interior and set in 18K gold with a variety of round-cut gems.
“I love having clients come in here and we work on a piece together or they bring stones that hold meaning for them,” says Neale. “That’s so rewarding because I feel like I’m using what I consider to be something I am good at and I’m helping them get something special and unique.”
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Though her line is thriving, the coronavirus pandemic impacted Neale’s business: Artisans experienced delays and fell ill, and one Italian chain supplier completely shuttered. Like much of the fine jewelry sector, however, sales ultimately weren’t affected, bucking COVID-19’s downward shopping trend. The jewelry market actually thrived during the pandemic, since shoppers place more value on investment items, and necklaces are considered more versatile than, say, high heels.
“You can wear a mushroom [pendant] with your sweatpants,” says Neale. “You can wear it casually or you can wear it dressy.
“And hopefully, it brings you some joy and makes you feel happier.”