A deeply personal journey led to a source of inspiration for jewelry designer T Lee.
WHEN T LEE took flight to Colorado in 2015 searching for a restorative relief from grieving the loss of a loved one, she was also hoping to continue to contribute to her store in Minneapolis by finding the kind of rich story that could inspire a jewelry collection.
Colorado had been a draw since Lee vacationed there as a child. After college, she returned as a certified ski and snowboard instructor. But this time, the Minneapolis-based custom jeweler had decided to isolate and work remotely in Colorado for four months. “The higher I drove, the better I felt,” she says.
“When I drove out there, I thought that the collection I was going to do was a Jack Kerouac-style, ‘here’s what happened to me on the road’ collection,” she recalls. “But there isn’t much on that I-80 stretch through Nebraska that would inspire jewelry. When I got to Frisco, the town where I was going to stay while looking for a place to live, I had time to spare.”
Intuition kicked in when she stopped in a historical museum. She was drawn to mining implements, old pickaxes, drills and bits, in part because their spikes and rivets reminded her of jewelry. “I sat on the floor of a reconstructed jail cell from 1870 and started to sketch,” she says. “I lost track of time and I came out with a dozen finished sketches.”
It wasn’t only the mining implements that had fired her imagination; the museum also had an exhibit about women who were important in the development of the town. Lee paired the two ideas: extraordinary women and mining.
Her sketches became six jewelry collections built around six extraordinary women who had active roles in the Gold Rush in California, Colorado and Alaska.
When Lee returned to Minneapolis, she and her team created costumes to represent each of the women and staged a theatrical production to launch the collection. “I felt like I was bringing each extraordinary woman to life,” she says.
The series continued with other themes. For the second launch, Women of Freedom, Lee dressed as the Statue of Liberty for the story of Emma Lazarus, who wrote “The New Colossus,” the poem on the side of the statue.
For the third collection, Women of Lost Fame, Lee shared the stories on her website in audio form. “I hired people to read the scripts. For Jocelyn Bell Burnell (an astrophysicist from Northern Ireland), I found a friend who had an Irish accent and she read the script for me.”
Earrings from the Maya Angelou, Women of Freedom Collection.
Many of Lee’s clients attended all of the openings and bought pieces from each collection.
The current collection, The Great Pretenders, represents six women who posed as men to be able to pursue their life’s calling. Their reasons vary as much as the passions they pursued, but the common thread they share is clear: Being thought to be a man moved them further toward their goals. “The warrior, the surgeon, the monk, the journalist, the musician and the athlete. A few who lived their entire adult life as a man, likely transgender women,” says Lee. Instead of releasing the collection as a group, this time she’s launching each woman’s collection individually, beginning with Joan of Arc.
Most of the releases are limited collections or one-of-a-kind creations; Lee is a custom specialist, so none is mass-produced. But many pieces that have become popular favorites, such as the Queen Bee earrings designed for Caroline Churchill, a Gold Rush era journalist and editor of the Queen Bee, have become part of the store’s permanent collection.
Storytelling and jewelry are intricately woven, no matter how the story is presented. “People love to invest in something that’s intimate and personal, and things that are intimate and personal always have stories,” she says.
Women relate to seeing other women succeed, adds Lee. “They recognize their own greatness. It affirms that our ordinary lives are truly extraordinary, whatever we choose to pursue and do. And for me personally, when I ran to Colorado to try to heal my pain, I found my own calling: telling their stories through jewelry design.”