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5.1.19

And the Bead Goes On...

Inside a small studio space in Edgartown, jeweler Stefanie Wolf is crafting designs that reach far beyond the Island’s shores.

Islanders don’t think of her in the same breath as more well-known Vineyard-themed brands – The Black Dog, Vineyard Vines – but don’t be fooled. Jewelry designer Stefanie Wolf has a large online following and sells wholesale in nearly a hundred locations.

“I’m selling my jewelry nationwide to shops, museums, galleries, and other websites,” she said. Her clients include the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Smithsonian catalogue, the UncommonGoods catalogue, and the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite, California. Some of her “off-Island” accounts have come from customers who discovered Wolf in Edgartown or online, but the majority discover her work at trade shows in New York City and Atlanta, through direct mail marketing to potential retailers, and through social media. “I’m making a new effort to post to Instagram every day,” she said. “It’s a fun challenge.”

But if her presence nationwide is reminiscent of the big Vineyard brands, in other ways, she’s the opposite. Rather than manufacturing Vineyard-themed items off-Island, or even out of the country, she manufactures jewelry out of materials from on- and off-Island in a four-room shop/studio on North Water Street in Edgartown. It is here, in a space vibrating with color, that the jewelry designer and her team of three year-round employees (the number rises to six in the summer) fashions stones and glass and metals into colorful tile beaded jewelry, some of which features a custom Island stamp.

Though she also produces a few items for men – money clips, keychains, cuff links – she is best known for her glass beads, especially the tiles, which she enjoys taking in different directions. She gets most of them from a glassmaker in the Czech Republic.

Wolf primarily works with stones and colorful beaded glass tiles sourced from Europe. “They’re a modern twist on a classic,” she says of her necklaces. “The new set of pearls.”
Jocelyn Filley

“I have visited his factory twice,” she said, and both times she felt as if she’d entered an artist’s fantasy playground. “They are the most exquisite beads – the colors, shapes, and finishes....I’ll just see a red and then spot six other shades that complement it. I see so many ways to put them together because they want to be together. I find a pile of colorful beads so inspiring. I just want to dig my hands in.

“People pick up the jewelry and admit it’s fun to fondle. It’s tactile,” Wolf told me on a bright summer day, her long salt and pepper hair worn in loose waves.
She was wearing two of her own creations: a turquoise “beach stone” necklace and a signature bracelet made of neutral, off-white, earthy colored, and white swirly glass tiles mixed with unexpected sparkles.

“You can wear my designs anywhere, especially my best-selling, sixty-inch-long tile necklaces. They’re a modern twist on a classic. The new set of pearls.”

Like many Vineyard stories, the path Wolf followed to year-round living on the Island was unexpected. Born in California but raised in Connecticut, she longed to spend a full summer on the Vineyard after having spent a few vacations here with her family.

Her moment came in 1995, after her freshman year at Wellesley College, when she unknowingly laid the groundwork for her future career. Just for fun, and hoping to supplement her income as a waitress, Wolf decided to try her hand at beading. With thirty dollars worth of materials from Phillips Hardware and the now-closed Beadniks, which she stored in a tackle box, she fashioned her first necklaces and sold them at the former Oak Bluffs stores Jamaican Me Crazy and The Last Mango. She came back the next summer and continued developing friendships, necklace designs, and roots.

Jocelyn Filley

She did not at that point think that jewelry design would become her career, however. During the final two summers of her time at Wellesley she set aside beading and worked in neuroscience research labs at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before graduating, she was hired by a corporate recruitment company to work as a business strategy consultant, a job she kept for three years.

“It was like getting an MBA,” Wolf said, working with clients such as the investment bank Goldman Sachs. “I learned a lot about business and technology. It was 1998, the dawn of the internet, and businesses were trying to figure out how to leverage it.”

After a few more years at a dot-com in Boston, she was burned out, quit, and moved to Hawaii, where she came across an old friend from the Vineyard, Chuck Fisher, who was skippering a boat for the Hyatt Regency. The two became close, and she took a job as crew on a catamaran. “My proudest accomplishments were learning to free dive down to a mooring that was twenty feet down at Molokini Crater to tie off the boat with a bowline knot underwater and sailing to Oahu from Maui.”

As much as she loved the relatively carefree life in Hawaii, however, she felt compelled to pursue a master’s degree in counseling in San Francisco, where Fisher joined her a year later. To ease the stress of school and her day job at a bank, she began to bead again. One bead led to another.

“People were liking what I was wearing and wanting to buy what was on my neck. I began selling them on the side. The super-cool studio where I practiced yoga invited me to have a trunk show....I would sell tons of jewelry.”

Jocelyn Filley

A complete sellout at a holiday craft fair left her thinking, “Okay, I’m onto something here.” She applied to be a street artist in San Francisco and was accepted into a competitive marketplace with “a lot of up and coming artists.” It wasn’t an easy road, however. Without a car, she would arrive at a friend’s apartment at 5 a.m. where she stored her tables. Wolf sighed while explaining what physical work street festivals and shows are.

A turning point came after graduation, when Wolf began earning time toward her counseling license. She still had thousands of hours of intense emotional work ahead before that would happen. “New graduates get the toughest work with the most marginalized populations,” she recalled. After several years of interning, including a volunteer stint on the national suicide hotline, she finally reached a crossroads. Should she continue as a therapist or devote herself to her jewelry business?

“I was half-assing both. I took a year off to pursue jewelry and realized...I could have done well with therapy, but jewelry was way more fun! I never looked back.”

She and Fisher married in a ceremony at Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs in 2006 and moved to the Vineyard permanently in 2009 when it was time to start a family. Now, their third-grade daughter, Sofia, attends the Oak Bluffs School and enjoys beading with mom in the evenings that they aren’t at the dance studio for Sofia’s classes.

Like many Vineyard artisans, Wolf draws on the spectacular natural environment for her palettes, which she has dubbed with such names as emerald forest, sea glass, South Beach, lagoon, cloud, and tide pool. She also appreciates the quiet off-season months, with time for research and design projects, punctuated by the brief summer months filled with a high volume of people from all over the world cycling through and giving her feedback. The artisans’ festival, in particular, is a kind of testing laboratory for her work. At last summer’s events she observed people picking up her new lockets. “Could they open it okay? Did they like the color? Is the price right? Once I fine-tune things, I can make and sell them on a larger scale.”

Her move to the Island hasn’t been all storybook, however. Three years ago she was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which left her normally athletic self confined in a back brace and struggling to keep up with the pace of her rapidly expanding workload. These days, still without her usual energy level, she is hoping for remission of the disease but is also trying to be more strategic. She is delegating more and scheduling less. Signs around the studio echo her resolve. They are emblazoned with sentiments such as “Be fearless in your pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.” A selection of bracelets with images of the Island also feature some of Wolf’s favorite inspirational lines, such as the Van Morrison lyric, “Smell the sea and feel the sky let your soul and spirit fly.”

“New things are still happening,” she said. “I’m just trying to ratchet down my stress level.” She is not out of the woods yet, but aims for “a healthy business and a healthy life” and thanks her staff for stepping up to fill in any gaps. “I really couldn’t do it without them,” she said. “They are amazing.”

And rest assured, Lyme disease has not dimmed her creative spirit. Sitting in her office, surrounded by bamboo plants, she pulled out projects from nearby boxes. “I have so many designs in the works,” she gushed.

“I love how my new, larger beads have a crazy sparkle pop and an earthy edge....I try to create something new every day.”

Comments (2)

Linda Everly
Blackstone, MA
I love Stefanie's jewelry. The colors are so fun to wear!
June 4, 2019 - 10:49am
Alicia Kullas
Taunton, MA
I met Stefanie on the Vineyard several years ago during our annual voyage to The Winnetu. Black was my game back then for clothes and beads. Now, I love ocean colors and was really captivated by her Magnetic Stack Bracelets that she introduced back in April. I bought the Lagoon & Purple and wear it everywhere. I don't do diamonds and flash very often, but really appreciate her creativity and functionality that fits my lifestyle. The complements for my new bracelet are endless. I wish her well!
June 6, 2019 - 4:41pm
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