Written by Dasha Morgan | Photos by Anthony Harden
“The best well cut gemstones sparkle and dance before your eyes,” —says Paula Dawkins of Jewels That Dance in Downtown Asheville. For her a gem show is an exciting event where she finds herself surrounded by what she calls “eye candy,” candy to her creative soul. Some stones are speaking to her, asking for a particular design to be created, perhaps a pair of delicate earrings or a stunning necklace. She may later set the stone in gold, silver or platinum, but she looks for that special stone, one that is more beautiful than the others.
[dropcap]J[/dropcap]ust think of the glorious colors and shades of well cut gemstones: the light blue tones of an aquamarine, the penetrating reds of a ruby, or the rich greens of the emeralds. The gemstones before her eyes at a gem show are all inviting her to create a new design. Perhaps she will surround it with glittering diamonds. Will it be contemporary or traditional or a combination of both? Her creative juices begin to flow, releasing Paula’s vivid imagination. The process has begun.
With an upscale gallery and studio now at 63 Haywood Street, Paula Dawkins is recognized as one of Asheville’s earliest creative artist/jewelers, an early innovator, well before Asheville became the East Coast destination, the Paris of the South, for the young and creative. From the very beginning she made her own jewelry. One day in 1973 a friend had suggested, “If you want to make some money, go into jewelry making.” She took his advice. When the silver earrings she made sold rapidly, Paula was hooked and began going to craft shows and selling her items. Ironically, she mostly went north of the Mason/Dixon line from her geodesic home in Grassy Creek of Ashe County, North Carolina, to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or Washington, D.C. She traveled the craft show circuit for ten years. Two items were very popular: a silver pierced tree the size of a nickel with braided wires and her earrings. These items were then selling for approximately $20 to $30.
Since that time Paula has grown, educated herself, and fine-tuned her understanding of jewelry making. She accepted and pursued the necessary learning challenges that were brought on by her career. She took on learning computer-aided design (CAD) which increases productivity and assists in the creative process. It is a valuable tool, but quite a complicated process to learn. She added new jewelry making equipment with amazing technological precision. She slowly shifted away from being a craftsperson into a fine jeweler who creates special, one of a kind fine jewelry—stunning pieces of original design. By having been a bench jeweler from the ground up, she has a full understanding of the process and can translate it into reality using modern technology. She developed her own signature style with award winning designs.
Over the years, some giant business decisions had to be taken. Jewelry Design, as the business was called early on, went from being a very small 250/300-square-foot business that opened on Lexington Avenue in 1983 to Jewels That Dance on Haywood Street with almost 1,600 square feet in 1986. This was a much better location, between Winner’s Hair Salon and Malaprops Bookstore and just down the street from the Asheville Civic Center. Paula had a wholesale business as well, made a line of jewelry and sold it around the country. She bolstered her ability by attending courses at Penland School for the Arts and Holland’s School for Jewelers. She also obtained her certification in diamond grading from the Gemological Institute of America. She sold her designs to at least 75 national galleries and retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. Over the years her local retail business grew and improved due to the increased foot traffic and more window shoppers. Eventually it became necessary to downsize the wholesale division. Paula no longer sells wholesale.
Paula loves to travel and visit new countries. She has kayaked down the Snake, the Salmon, and the Colorado rivers. She has camped in Maine, been to St. Johns, and the Thousand Islands, as well as the Everglades. She has gone to England, France, Greece, Germany, Thailand, China, and India. Some of the trips opened her eyes to indigenous jewelry styles. She noticed that the jewelry in Germany was often sleek and modern, while the jewelry in India was very intricate and detailed. Each country seems to have a particular style. Recently, Paula and her showroom manager of 23 years, Marlene Clevenger, went to South Africa to visit the diamond mines there. Wearing white mining uniforms and hard hats with lights, they visited the Finsch Diamond Mine, South Africa’s second largest producer of diamonds. “I was amazed at how much rock it took to find just one diamond, and then where the diamonds were actually found—in riverbeds, in pipes, all over, ” said Paula. They saw rough diamonds being cut by master cutters with amazing skill and expertise. Jewels That Dance only buys ethically sourced diamonds and diamonds that are conflict free. (For your information, conflict diamonds are diamonds that have been traded to fund rebel wars.)
In 1997, Paula and her co-owner Carol Schniedewind wanted to renovate, enlarge and expand the gallery and studio. The Haywood Street space now has approximately 3,200 square feet. They enlisted Barbara Field of Spaceplan and local artisans to create a striking facade that would be in keeping with the city’s Art Deco architecture. Undulating Art Nouveau sculptural relief ornaments frame the store’s facade and entrance. The storefront window invites shoppers to come inside for a closer look at the fine jewelry. Once inside the building, modern track lighting and elegant display cases made by Bulls Eye Glass add to the jewelry’s handsome handcrafted appearance. Contrasting colors in the background of each case with side lighting accent the designs and craftsmanship of the fine jewelry it displays.
A couple of years later, Paula and Carol had the opportunity to buy the building. They decided to join with Patti Glazer of Glazer Architecture, Beth Retser, and Irene Pyper Scott to form an LLC. They turned to Charles Taylor of Blue Ridge Savings for a loan. He appreciated their business plan, believed in their future, and the fact that Jewels That Dance would be located in the building, and thus was willing to take the risk. These women were possibly the first women-only group to take on a project in downtown Asheville. They totally renovated the upper floors and turned those spaces into condominiums. Paula and Carol purchased the Jewels That Dance space. The LLC was dissolved after the condos were sold.
With these decisions, Paula became a part of the revitalized Asheville, which was slowly making changes. She credits many of Asheville’s leaders in the ‘80s with saving and preserving so many of the amazing architecturally significant local buildings, such as Pack Place and the Grove Arcade. People like Julian Price and Roger McGuire worked tirelessly to revitalize downtown Asheville and had faith in the future of the city. They were willing to invest in the city. There were many other pioneers who helped clean up Asheville and bring it to the vibrant city we see today—with such a wide diversity of people and activities. How many cities have a nun impersonator flying around on a tall bicycle or a free-for-all drum circle and dancing downtown every Friday night? How many cities have people gliding down the street on high stilts in amazing costumes? Not many. Asheville is a city full of daily surprises, a place people like to visit, with tourists from all over the United States arriving and then returning later to buy a house for a longer stay. As Paula said, “a rising tide raises all boats,” and she considers herself and her store fortunate to be a part of that rising tide.
Paula herself likes to contribute and to give back to the community in whatever way she can. She has given jewelry making classes to students of the Isaac Dickson School, worked for the local YWCA, participated in Bele Chere, is a member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, and donates to many local charities. Paula has received many awards for her jewelry design over the years. In 2008, Jewels That Dance was featured in the October issue of Instore Magazine as one of America’s “coolest” jewelry stores.
Paula’s current workspace is quite large, with a laser welder, a CNC mill machine (a Computer Numerical Control mill machine automates the production of CAD design), casting room, and polishing room. It is simply amazing to see the wax being carved away as directed by the computer. Here is where the creative process takes shape and comes to fruition. There are also offices in the back area. Paula works closely with her co-owner Carol, who “has been invaluable to me, helps with all business decisions, the marketing, and loves the product.” [quote float=”right”]Paula’s current workspace is quite large, with a laser welder, a CNC mill machine, casting room, and polishing room.[/quote]Pete Suder has been at the bench for 30 years, lived in Philadelphia for several years and had his own store in Florida. He has a steady hand. Apparently it takes a very steady hand to make jewelry. Sometimes you can’t even breathe, or you will ruin the piece. Pete is a master stone setter and master jeweler. Stephanie Ellis, who is originally from Iowa, has a BFA in art and design/metals, a Masters Degree in metalsmithing, and has been with the store for over four years. Among other things, she restrings customers pearls, using silk, and must wear gloves to keep the oils from the silk. Marlene Clevenger is the showroom manager, with Becky Ayers and Joyce Hunter on the sales floor, who says, “they make it, and we, the sales force make it go out the door.” Paula finds the responsibility of a large store a challenge and certainly more responsibility than her early years as a traveling craftsman. “I have become responsible for the welfare of others on a whole new level.”
In 2008, Jewels That Dance was struggling to survive like every other business. “We needed to figure out what we did best and pursue that. Carol and I tightened our belts and sharpened our pencils.” Custom work and repairs took on a greater part of the business. With Paula’s degree in psychology from Appalachian State, she found that she had a knack for intuiting her customer’s wishes with custom pieces. In addition, it was, and is, a great pleasure to learn the history of a family piece of jewelry, then to talk over the new design with the client, and be able to show them in three dimension with CAD on the computer how it will look. “There is a lot of trust involved, when a valuable heirloom is brought to me to be repaired or changed.” As for pricing, custom work usually starts around $300 and goes up from there. For the last couple of years, Paula has taken a road trip once a year to the Forsythe Jewelry Store in Hilton Head, where she works with a number of their customers, who are seeking custom jewelry pieces.
Over the years, Paula Dawkins has established herself as a successful business presence in downtown Asheville. Her customers find that she communicates clearly with them and helps them find the right choice for their custom items—within their budget and price range. Today she sees the economy slowly improving. “It is sputtering.” She hopes it will continue to go forward.