Brenda Smith: Discovering the Gem Inside Herself

photoIf you were watching the Emmy Awards recently, you may have caught the sparkle dangling from House of Lies’ Bridgid Coulter’s ears as she sauntered down the red carpet or posed for pics with her costar Don Cheadle. Those weren’t just any earrings. Those were Brenda Smith’s design and you better believe she was as excited as you might imagine. And she should be. She’s worked hard to see this day arrive.

But never fear if you missed the Emmys you can also see Smith’s stunning Four Peaks Amethyst ring on display at the US Natural History Museum’s Gems and Minerals exhibit, not far from the remarkable Hope Diamond and the Carmen Lucia Ruby. “Oh yeah, I’m in The Smithsonian too. All joking aside, it’s quite an honor!”

Smith’s journey to having her creations showcased by Hollywood stars was neither short nor straightforward but rather fueled by hard work, determination, and the gut feeling that she hadn’t quite achieved what she knew she was capable of.

Smith grew up near Pittsburgh, PA, the eldest of ten kids. Neither of her parents attended university and the means to send Smith were limited. “I always had an eagerness to learn and grow and do something useful with my life, but I didn’t have the opportunity to go to college when I was fresh out of high school. It was always a dream of mine,” she recalls.

Married straight out of school, Smith had her first child at 19 and then attended cosmetology school. She became a hairdresser and found that she really enjoyed it although she always had the sense she wanted to do more.

Bridgid Coulter wearing Smith's Wright Hoops at the Emmy's
Bridgid Coulter wearing Smith’s Wright Hoops at the Emmys

It was 13 years later when Smith finally seized the chance and signed up for summer art classes at Kent State University. “I just loved it. I lived to go there. Growing up, I always had been creative, but it was always limited to drawing. I didn’t realize how much further I could take it.” Those summer classes appealed to her so much, she enrolled at Kent in the Fall. Working full-time as a hairdresser to pay the fees, Smith attended classes year round. It took her five years to graduate with a Bachelors in Fine and Professional Arts, specializing in graphic design.

With a husband in the commercial construction industry and three kids at home, Smith turned down graphic design and printing job offers in New York City and Atlanta. “It was heart wrenching to have to say no. It was flattering that they thought I was good enough, but honestly I think I used my family obligation as an excuse because I felt I wasn’t good enough.”

Instead she took a job teaching art classes at a private school. From there she moved to Hiram College, where she was responsible for all the publications for five years. “Anything that got printed at the college had to go through me, they had to hire two people to fill my position when I left.

In her early 40s, shortly after her divorce, Smith became creative director for Taylor-Hawkins Advertising, a small ad agency based in Akron, Ohio. “I loved that job but it was a tough time for me. The salary was not enough to support myself and the children [her ex was not paying child support] so I worked three jobs – hairdressing and freelance design at nights and weekends – to make ends meet and provide stability to the children. I had to put them through college after all.”

Not long after, she got lucky and nabbed a job selling printing to advertising agencies in Ohio. It paid better, plus she got an expense account and a car and could drop hairdressing from her repertoire. Smith continued in that line of work for several years with two different companies.

In her mid-to-late 40s, she married her current husband and followed him to Georgia where he established a chemical manufacturing business. It was “all hands on deck” so Smith went to Kennesaw State to get an MBA on weekends to help out with the fast growing business. “I was the Creative Director, but I did everything from human resources to marketing. I used all my training in design and was coordinating and managing multiple tasks simultaneously dealing with 23 markets. It was challenging but fun, plus my husband and I were together.”

After ten years, the company was sold and Smith, after being so productive and active for so long, found herself without a job. Moreover, the market crash – which came on the heels of the sale – meant that neither Smith nor her husband could retire long term.

RedYelDropsSMWhile cleaning out the basement shortly thereafter, Smith came upon boxes of old art supplies that hadn’t been touched since her days at Kent State. “My husband was surprised to see them. He didn’t even know that part of me.” With a yen for the old creative days, she decided to take up silver- and gold-smithing classes. She immediately loved it and started planning how she could take it to the next level when she was diagnosed with a 99%-blocked left carotid artery. Surgery followed two days later, with the anxiety of not knowing if she would wake up from the operation. On realizing the surgery was successful, she decided to move forward with her plans for a jewelry-making operation. “I did not want to go to my deathbed wishing I would have tried. It wasn’t the best time to start a jewelry business. But I was not going to wait.”

The turning point for Smith came about five years ago when she attended a Masters Symposium at the Revere Academy of Jewelry Art in San Francisco. “I learned techniques from the best. After leaving that course, I knew I had what it takes. I entered my pieces into design competitions and started winning. Now that I had proven myself, to myself and others, I had to get into the marketing. So I did some high end wholesale jewelry shows and got into a few select stores. I also do retail custom-made pieces.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. A silver-smithing teacher at the William Holland School of Lapidary Arts in Young Harris, Smith has won numerous accolades for her work. Last year, the Smithsonian approached her at the Tucson gem and jewelry show where she presented as part of the American Gem Trade Association. The Institute selected her unique setting of the Four Peaks Amethyst, mined from the 7657-foot Four Peaks range in Arizona, for its permanent gems and minerals collection. “It was a donation. I have to consider it as part of my advertising budget,” she explains with a smile.

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The Smithsonian’s Four Peaks Amethyst

There’s no stopping the 65-year-old dynamic Smith who continues to do commissions, trade shows, and enter competitions, like the one that got her on Hollywood celebrity stylist Michael O’Conner’s supplier list of the Emmys. “I keep telling myself I should slow down but then the other part of me asks why. I simply just like being productive.”

Tips from Brenda Smith

  • Use quiet time to reflect on what really excites you. Ask yourself what work you could do without looking at the clock. Could you do “it” until the wee hours of the morning without regret? It will take a lot of work but if you enjoy it, it’s a clue that you are on the right track.

  • Work to get momentum moving. When doubts come, and they will, push them aside and press through the doubts. This is your dream.

  • When you are frustrated because you are not making a profit, continue to press on. You will break through. Creative satisfaction is as important as profit for self-satisfaction.

  • Life really is short. Have no regrets. Follow your dreams. Take the high road.

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