Judith Arnell: A Passion for Jewelry
I first met Judith Arnell shortly after she opened her Pearl District store on NW 10th Ave. Everyone I’ve spoken with regarding Judith adores her, and she’s continually praised for her charisma and charm. For nearly a decade, she’s managed to remain one of the most sought-after jewelers in Portland, Oregon. She brings diversity to the table by creating custom, handmade jewelry while also offering a full line of high-end, designer jewelry in her store. While getting her start during the 1970s in Chicago, Judith quickly became one of the few women to operate her own jewelry business.
Her passion for jewelry sprang from an early age when she discovered her mother’s diamond and jewelry collection. As a teenager, Judith worked long hours babysitting to earn extra money that allowed her to splurge on jewelry. She often spent hours examining the design and the placement of each stone and setting. This process of self-discovery was what initially fueled Judith to pursue a career as a designer. After college, she immediately apprenticed under a French master jeweler from Van Cleef & Arpels. For nearly a decade she sat next to master jeweler Roger Coudert, learning a variety of techniques and necessary tools that would assist her in her journey to become a great designer. Throughout history, the jewelry business has more often than not been seen as a male-dominated industry. Judith challenged these standards by staying committed to producing the best quality jewelry.
Judith is currently in the process of relocating her store along jewelers’ row on SW Broadway, located in downtown Portland. She takes a multidimensional approach to her work, exposing herself to the everyday grind that comes with running a business. In addition to taking full control of her jewelry designs, she stayed fully devoted to designing the store layout, imbuing it with an art gallery-like atmosphere. It is important to her that that there is no jewelry counter and that the store is open and inviting. In this environment, the customers are more comfortable to engage with the staff. When it comes to customer service, she understands the importance of both presentation and professionalism. She carefully hand selects her staff to ensure her clients are provided with the utmost quality service. She’s been called demanding, but some might say she’s a woman who knows what she wants.
As a designer, Judith understands the importance of producing jewelry that is wearable, traditional, and valuable for generations. She takes the time to get to know each of her customers on a personal level. With a better grasp on her customers’ lifestyles, she’s able to deliver by crafting unique and custom-to-fit pieces. She incorporates the highest quality of colored gemstones, diamonds and metals.
My mother inspired me. I remember she had this wonderful collection of jewelry that was magnificent. She taught me how to take care of my jewelry. She used to say things like, “Wearing jewelry during the day is gauche.” You bring it out when you go to the opera, when you go out on the town. Her jewelry was pristine. I own it now. The engraving on it is still perfect because she took care of it. She used to say that you need to treasure your treasures, and you should take care of them as you would take care of a loved one.
As a child, I was mesmerized by my mother’s colored stones and diamonds. I would babysit most days after school, and take any odd job just to earn the money to have my own jewelry. I could never afford what she had, not that she would give it to me anyway. She said, “You must earn it.” By the time I graduated from high school I had something like 25 rings made of gold,
platinum, other precious metals, and gemstones. I couldn’t get enough. I analyzed how each piece was made, how the stones were set, and the functionality of the design. With each piece of jewelry, I kept saying to myself that I could do it so much better. My advantage over other jewelers is that I exude passion. I love gemstones and jewelry. As a designer, the most important thing I look for is its wearability and beauty. I think to be a good jeweler you have to have a passion for all aspects of the business.
Because of this obsession after high school, you studied jewelry design?
No, first I went on to college and I got my degree in advertising and fine arts. My parents told me that they would pay for all of my college as long as I graduated in four years. I was able to take any classes I wanted. While my parents weren’t crazy about the idea of me studying art, they did approve of a degree in advertising. I worked very hard and accomplished two degrees in four years, including jewelry courses. I had a vision, and I wanted to make sure that I could make what I saw.
After graduating from college, I attended the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) to study gemstones. This led me to an apprenticeship with a master jeweler from France. He used to say to me, “These people in America don’t take the time to learn it properly. They learn a bit and all o
f a sudden they think they’ve made it.” Back in France, you are required to do an apprenticeship for a minimum of five years before you can get a job in the jewelry industry. I sat and worked next to him for seven years, learning what it takes to make high quality jewelry.
Was your family in the jewelry business?
My parents were not, but my mother was an artist and concert pianist. She could paint a portrait just by looking at you. It would be so perfect. My father was an engineer. I wouldn’t consider myself the greatest artist, but I work conceptually well. I prefer working with my hands, and often build my jewelry by pulling each wire for the prongs, rolling out the metal, welding it. I get the artistic side from my mother, and the engineering from my father.
What was it like when you started out on your own?
When I got into the business in the early 1970s there were very few women jewelers, but my love of jewelry propelled me into this industry. My passion lies in the making of the jewelry, and it’s less about the money.
I started in Chicago and made a name for myself there. Besides designing and building jewelry, I owned a jewelry store in the United Airlines terminal at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. I co-founded the Women’s Jewelers Association, Midwest Chapter. To this day, the Women’s Jewelers Association is a thriving organization. Building that association was quite the undertaking, and it was a very challenging time in my career.
Who is your ideal customer?
I am trying to attract someone who values what they are getting. Customers who come in with price expectations from the Internet are not getting accu- rate information. How can you tell the quality from a photo? You have to see and touch and compare stones to see the quality. It’s more than just price. I don’t want to compete with that. If they come in and say, “I don’t know anything about diamonds. Can you help me?” I’ll show them four stones with the exact same cert, color, and clarity—all the same price. Even though they have all these similarities, they look very different. The cert, clarity, and price are such a small part of a diamond.
I spend hundreds of dollars bringing in gemstones to analyze in order to get that right one. I send back the stones that are not up to my quality of standards. To me it’s not about the bottom line, it’s about the quality. I want my customers to like and enjoy the stones I get for them.
You’re saying that each stone has its own unique character?
Yes. The way it’s cut, the characteristics within the stone—color, striations, color, purity, and luster. I want to be proud of every piece that goes out. For me, it is not worth it to buy or sell low-quality stones.
What is it about human nature draws us to diamonds?
I don’t know. I think we are all attracted to beautiful things. If something looks pretty, we want to touch it. If he/she is a beautiful person, we want to hold them (laughter). If it’s a beautiful stone, you want to look at it for hours.
How do you begin to design a ring?
I put my heart into every piece, and I put my heart into the customer that is buying it. Before I start building a piece, I interview my clients to make sure it’s the right piece for that person. I need to understand her lifestyle: maybe she plays golf, tennis, or is a rock climber. These sorts of things affect what I create. Unless, of course, she removes her ring before she does athletic activities. Is she careful in her appear- ance? Will she take it off the ring when she goes to bed? Customers are surprised to learn that jewelry can be damaged while they sleep. I am not only designing for the piece itself, but also for the person. I want it to match.
I don’t get into trendy designs or things that go out of style too quickly. I want a timeless look. Gemstones are incredibly important to me. Even the semi-precious has to be the best quality, cut, color, and the best value. Every year I go to four or five major jewelry shows in the US and in Europe. I have to preview the stones before I start building around them. I am so passionate about sapphires. It’s my stone. I have an amazing collection of sapphires of all different colors that are unheated, certified, and all unique.
What is like when you do a reveal?
Typically, when they see the piece for the first time they say, “This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. You have made me so happy, I could cry.” When I hear that I want to cry too. Jewelry can be orgasmic. When you have something very beautiful, it really makes you happy. The unveiling is always very rewarding. I’m a Virgo, so I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I have angst over it. If when the customer sees it they say, “You hit it on the head—this is perfect,” then I know I did it right.
It must be anguishing for the customer when they break or lose it?
I have made some incredible pieces that I’m really proud of. It is a sad day when someone comes in with a ring that is totally ruined. Sometimes the piece can’t be repaired and I have to remake it. Without proper care, metal and diamonds can be damaged. When a customer buys a piece from me, I always tell them that this is an expensive piece. It’s an adornment. You don’t sleep in it, work out in it, and you definitely don’t want to wash dishes while wearing it. Treat it like you would a $200,000 car. Once someone trashes a ring, they never trash a second one (laughter). They respect it a little bit more.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to be a fine jewelry designer?
Don’t do it. The industry and its values have changed so much. Sometimes I feel that I need to get out of this business. It takes so much money to even get started. You have to constantly be buying, and if you’re not selling, you’re not making money. You must have deep pockets in order to stay afloat in this busi- ness. You have to love being in it. The techniques are so different now. Before, we’d sketch out our design and carve the wax. Now, most of the jewelers have CAD machines. Technology is much more advanced. The place to start is to become a gemologist.
What’s happening with your business right now?
We’re in the process of moving from the Pearl to downtown Portland. We wanted to be in the heart of it all, near other jewelry stores on Broadway. We are currently working with contractors regarding the build out of the new space. It’s good to be with a variety of other jewelry stores. It gives customers more choices. Each of the jewelers has different philosophies with regard to different kinds of jewelry. I have reached out to the other jewelers to get to know them better.
Is the store design going to be similar to your old Pearl District store?
Yes, it will be similar. There will be travertine display cases along one wall with pretty much the same number of displays. The space is long and narrow and has a display window facing out on to the sidewalk of SW Broadway.
When did you open your first Portland store?
We opened our first Portland store in the Pearl in 1999. We then moved to NW 11th in 2005, where we ended up staying for eight years. We started with a shell and built everything—from the ceilings to the walls, to the lighting, electrical, plumbing and flooring. We had to configure the store to maximize utility. I learned a lot from that experience, and it gave me a better grasp on how to build onto our downtown store. Lighting is huge for me, and I’m currently working with an expert on having the proper lighting fixtures in the store. With all the traffic downtown, I am looking forward to this new beginning.
Do you still offer your own designs?
When I started, it was exclusively my line. But, that became too much so we had to offer other designers. We feature these fine jewelry designers: Lazare Kaplan, MaeVona, Christopher Designs, Mark Patterson, Mémoire, Milus, Norman Covan, Nouveau 1910, Philip Stein watches, and Ritani.
How do you determine what jewelry lines to carry?
Quality, quality, quality—it’s as simple as that. Nothing we make is mass- produced, and we only want unique, quality jewelry in our store. We don’t consider ourselves to be a price point store. Our customers want something special that has a lasting quality. We sell timeless pieces that can be passed on from generation to generation. When my mother passed, I inherited my grand- mother’s and my mother’s jewelry. It is something that can’t be replaced. I’m a complete sentimental. For me, jewelry provides that physical connection to the past, and it’s something I want to pass on to my children and loved ones. I want to create something that is unique, beautiful, and is worn with care.
photographed by Tim Sugden