The Ring Leader: Rebekah Brooks

  • An employee at Rebekah Brooks, in Northampton, works on a necklace made out of silver and green topaz. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Casey Sawma, an employee at Rebekah Brooks, flush sets a diamond in a post earring designed by Rebekah Brooks. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rebekah Brooks works on engraving a poem into an antique Russian enamel piece for a customer in her studio in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • An employee at Rebekah Brooks, in Northampton, works on a necklace made out of silver and green topaz. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brooks talks to employee Casey Sawma about the post earring she is working on. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • An employee at Rebekah Brooks, in Northampton, works on a necklace made out of silver and green topaz. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rebekah Brooks in her studio in Northampton. Behind her are employees Casey Sawma, Leah Hollrock and Chris Henry. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rebekah Brooks in her studio in Northampton. Behind her is Casey Sawma, Leah Hollrock and Chris Henry. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Custom and antique rings being made and restored in Rebekah Brooks studio in Northampton GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • An employee at Rebekah Brooks, in Northampton, works on a necklace made out of silver and green topaz. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A necklace and earrings by Rebekah Brooks in the Northampton store. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rebekah Brooks jewelry store in Thornes Market place in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rebekah Brooks’ jewelry store in Thornes Marketplace in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rebekah Brooks in her studio in Northampton GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rebekah Brooks works on engraving a poem into an antique Russian enamel piece for a customer. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brooks holds an antique Russian enamel piece; she is getting ready to engrave a love poem into it. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 6/23/2017 9:42:08 AM

Rebekah Brooks’ jewelry store in Thornes Marketplace in Northampton is an intimate and enchanting space. With antique molding, a red velvet gown in one corner and a sculptural bust of a unicorn on one wall, the shop feels like it was lifted out of a Victorian fairytale.

This was the goal for Brooks, 45, the owner of the store that bears her name. Her light-blue eyes, curly brown hair with the slightest filigree of silver and showcase of precious stones give her an equally enchanting air. Wearing classic black pants and clogs and a pair of silver earrings from the 1840s, Brooks described the shop’s aesthetic as a modern take on antique Victorian and Art Deco themes.

“I try to make things that are very classic, that would be passed down, that are not too trendy,” Brooks said on a recent day in June. “A little pinch of trend is good, but you want something that you’ll always like — because jewelry is something that you hopefully will pass down.”

But it’s not all wedding bands and diamond earrings for Brooks. After almost 23 years in business, she has sold everything from a hand-engraved skull with ruby eyes for a cane to a real mummified scarab brooch that now belongs to the head of the Entomology department at Harvard. She has made jewelry with people’s ashes and pieces of hair, and she has engraved the insides of rings with biblical quotes, pornographic phrases and a countless number of lobsters, thanks to a joke on the TV show “Friends.”

Almost every piece of jewelry for sale at Rebekah Brooks is handmade in a studio that’s a short walk away — the rest are antiques that Brooks acquires and refurbishes. The studio, a tight space with five jeweler’s workbenches and a lot of natural light, also supplies jewelry for the other two branches of Brooks’ business, both of which are in the Boston area. In total, the entire operation has 13 employees, including Brooks herself and her husband, Christian Hawkins.

“We’re like an old-fashioned full-service jeweler,” Brooks said. “We are making rings the way that they have been made since the beginning of time.”

They make their jewelry using antique tools and techniques, too. The desks in the studio are lined with an array of old tools, including a delicate jeweler’s hammer and an engraving machine, both of which date back to the 1920s. But Brooks doesn’t shy away from changing things up if she thinks it can improve quality.

“I was always really into doing things my own way,” Brooks said. She said she’s often “making things more feminine and making workspaces more gender neutral.” For example, antique jeweler’s desks are often much higher up than normal desks, so she took one apart and lowered it to make it more comfortable.

“Thank goodness,” Chris Henry, the only man working in the studio, chimed in. He has tattoo sleeves up both his arms and was wearing Doc Martens. “It’s one of the reasons I enjoy working here.”

Henry was working on a number of projects, including resetting a stone on an engagement ring. About 50 percent of the store’s profits come from the wedding industry, which Brooks said is “a complete blessing.”

“It’s one of my number-one favorite things about what I do,” Brooks said cheerily. “Like, you won’t have your clothes and your house and your car that you’re driving someday, but you probably will have the ring that you got married in.”

In the store, there’s a collage of photos of proposals that happened right there — that’s right, every so often someone gets down on one knee in the shop — adding to the whimsical romanticism that pervades the place. And, on that particular Wednesday, a random guy walked into the store with a box of roses, gave one to everyone inside and left.

“Who was that?” Brooks asked.

Karleigh Sheehan-Drumm, her assistant manager, shrugged. “I’ve never seen that man before in my life.”

‘Live your dream’

The daughter of two sculptors, Brooks knew that she wanted to be an artist ever since she was a little girl growing up on a farm in New Hampshire.

“I was raised by hippie artists,” Brooks said. “They never had another job. Their whole thing was, ‘Live your dream and don’t work for the man.’”

Brooks made her first necklace when she was four or five years old — her mom keeps it on her wall at home. “It’s totally asymmetrical and problematic, but it’s from all these hippie beads,” Brooks said. “I think it’s strung together with rope or something.”

It wasn’t until later in life that Brooks decided to become a jeweler. She studied glassblowing and sculpture at Massachusetts College of Art and at Pratt Institute, then began to work as an assistant for a number of different artists, including famous sculptor Kiki Smith and jeweler Ted Muehling, in New York City.

It was through working with these artists that Brooks started learning how to run a business.

“I think the biggest thing that I learned from other artists is that you have to be a good businessperson,” she said. “I realized that you can be the best artist, but if you are not a good businessperson, you are screwed.”

After ten years of waitressing and assisting, Brooks quit her job in 1998 with only $3,000 in the bank so that she could pursue her dream of having her own art studio and making a living off her work. She already had been developing her line for almost two years.

“I said, ‘I’m just going to do it,’” Brooks recalled. “I used to walk around to stores cold and be like, ‘Hey, want to buy my jewelry?’ I don’t think people do that anymore. And it was hard, and I got rejected all the time, and people were mean.”

Working out of a shared studio in Brooklyn, Brooks began to offer her jewelry wholesale at trade shows, selling to stores across the country, as well as in Europe and Japan. Brooks also designed for companies like Anthropologie during this time. “I worked until 2 o’clock in the morning by myself,” Brooks said. “I made all the jewelry for years by myself.”

In 2004, she and her husband decided to leave the city in order to have a family. They bought an old church in Holyoke, Massachusetts that they renovated into a house before having their daughter in 2007. (They also have a son who’s almost five.)

Also in 2007, the economy crashed, threatening the small business. “It was really horrifying because everything I had built looked like it was really at stake,” Brooks said. “We had lost a lot of money in the wholesale business, and we were really kind of freaked out because we had an infant.”

Brooks and her husband thought that they could defer their losses by getting a retail space, so they responded to a Craigslist advertisement and opened their flagship retail store in Northampton with five employees.

“Craigslist is where all good things happen,” Brooks said and laughed, launching into a story about how three of her past and present employees had all met through Craigslist because of a boyfriend and a mattress.

The store was a success. “We thought that we just do it better,” Brooks said. “We like doing it ourselves. We could be our own supplier instead of supplying other people, and we could display it the way we want to see it.”

Their second store opened in Harvard Square in Cambridge in 2012, and their third opened in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood in 2016.

“I thought I was going to be a waitress forever,” Brooks said. 

A little sparkle

After years of interacting with what she calls “good old boy” diamond dealers in New York’s legendary Diamond District, Brooks considers herself a feminist with a mission of empowering women through her work.

“It’s really wonderful to make women feel beautiful,” said Brooks, who could be the fairy godmother of Northampton. “Trying to make them feel inspired and like their reflection and feel sparkly when they don’t feel so sparkly.” She has a penchant for using words like “sparkly” and “spiritual” and praising the benefits of positive thinking. But soft and bubbly as she can be, she runs her business with a firm hand and a tenacious grip on what she wants. She worked to receive a gemological degree so that she could do her own appraisals, and now she can tell in what era a stone was cut within 10 years. (When using raw materials, she makes it a mission to buy from socially responsible companies.)

“It’s been really hard to gain that respect,” Brooks said. “It was blood, sweat and tears with diamond dealers and men who always treated me like a schoolgirl, and still do.”

Because of this struggle, Brooks makes it a point to act as an example for the women she employs.

“One of the joys of my job is working with young women and teaching them that they can do anything they set their minds to,” Brooks said. “I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, and I wanted to be a businessperson — and you can do anything you set your mind to if you work hard.”

Brooks is also interested in getting involved with the larger Northampton community. Recently, Sheehan-Drumm had the idea of having a troop of Girl Scouts come into the store. Brooks taught them simple jewelry-making techniques so that they could earn their jewelry-making badges.

“We’re trying to reach out more to the community and do cool things that are going to be helpful for girls to learn to be leaders,” Brooks said.

That social aspect of Northampton is one of the things that drew Brooks to the area. In her eyes, Northampton had the perfect blend of a an old-fashioned main street with a trendy — but not too trendy — twist for her to set up her business.

“It’s got old hippies, it’s got farming culture, it’s got good food, it’s got artists, it has intellectuals because of the colleges,” Brooks said. “People are very kind to each other.”

In this respect, in particular, Brooks fits right in. While walking from the studio to the store, Brooks offered to help a man and a woman struggling with some big boxes.

“You’ve already been so helpful today,” the woman said.

“Just let me know,” Brooks said. “I’ll be back in a minute.” 

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