For jeweler and California native Lilian Ginebra, hearing people’s stories is an unexpected, yet welcome, part of her job. “I’ve found that you develop a relationship with people when you’re customizing something or emailing back and forth about a piece,” she says. “People buy jewelry for so many different occasions, and usually at some point during our interaction, I get to know the reason.”
From engagement rings and symbolic stacking ring sets to initial pieces commemorating loved ones, Lilian has single-handedly made hundreds of pieces over the years – all while juggling family life, as the mother of three kids, and striving to master new metalsmithing techniques in her garage-turned-studio. Through it all, the meaningful connections she’s forged with her customers have been a constant.
“There was one customer who was a soldier, and she ordered a ring,” Lilian recalls. “She was stationed in Afghanistan, and she wore a uniform every day, so she wanted something to make her feel pretty. It’s a neat feeling, to make a piece like that.”
Read on for more about Lilian’s pieces, which are made using recycled metals and conflict-free diamonds, plus take a peek inside her studio.
When did you become interested in jewelry? How did you learn about metalsmithing?
I’ve always made jewelry – ever since I was little! My mother had a bunch of seed beads when I was a kid, and it was really special whenever she would take out her tin. She taught us all sorts of different styles of beading, like how to make little daisy-chain necklaces and beaded things for our jackets. I wanted to explore metalsmithing in college, but the class was always full. Nonetheless, I continued making jewelry and even sold some wire-wrapped pieces to a few shops in San Francisco. When I finished school, I worked in the merchandising department at Levi’s corporate offices, which was really fun.
From there, my husband and I moved to the Dominican Republic, and I had my first baby. In the years that followed, we moved all over for his business. During that time, I was a stay-at-home mom doing everything for the kids. One day after we moved back to California, I thought, It’s time to do something for myself. So, I went online and registered for a soldering class in Northern California. I had no idea what to expect, but I booked the class anyway. When I told my husband, he was really great about it. He said, “You know what? Let’s invite your parents along and turn it into a family vacation.” So we did. After I took that class, a whole world opened up for me.
At what point did your passion for making jewelry turn into a business?
After I finished that class, I had a little studio in my garage where I would teach myself new skills, like a stone setting I learned on YouTube. At that point, it was just a hobby – a really expensive hobby. I had a baby, so when she would take a nap, I would run out to the garage and try to make something. It was hard to juggle it all. It went on like that until my youngest was old enough to go to school, and then I was like, Okay, now I have time, and I could actually sell something, I could fill an order: I could do this.
I didn’t even know about Etsy at that time. I was at a party at my parents’ house, and my sister-in-law said, “You should open an Etsy shop!” A couple days later, I set up my shop, but it took me a really long time to get to where I am today. In the beginning, I would get so excited about each new skill I learned, and I would put everything into a single piece of jewelry. It wasn’t until I was able to look at my work with a more critical eye, and focus on making the kind of jewelry that I would actually want to wear myself, when my shop really started taking off.
How would you describe your style?
My jewelry is simple and comfortable. You can wear it while you’re being active, and it’s not going to get in your way. I also really like making jewelry that complements the person wearing it. I would never want to make a necklace that would walk into the room before the person.
Can you tell us a little bit about the materials you work with?
I work with recycled metals and conflict-free diamonds. Being mindful of the environment is important to me, and I hope it is for all businesses, big and small. My parents were part of the hippie generation, and I was raised on a commune until I was in middle school. I was taught from a young age to respect the land and take care of the planet. My parents used to say, “Leave the land the way you found it, if not better.” I really try to carry that with me in everything that I do – especially my business.
What are some of your favorite stones?
I love anything rose-cut or hand-cut — just any stones that are natural in their appearance. Instead of having a perfectly clear sapphire, or a perfectly clear diamond, I like to see the textures inside. When I look through the light and see all of the natural inclusions – that’s when I find a stone most beautiful.
What inspires you?
I’m really drawn to all the beautiful shapes and colors that occur in nature. That probably goes back to my childhood – I spent most of my life until I was about 11 or 12 just running around, climbing dogwood trees. When I design, botanical motifs just come to me. I’m also hugely inspired by the gemstones I work with. In the evening, I’ll take out my sketchbook and sit with a big tray of gemstones, just staring at them and putting them together in different combinations. That’s one of the main ways I design – just playing with the stones and sketching.
How do your designs go from being a sketch on a piece of paper to a band of gold around someone’s finger?
After I’ve made some sketches, I take whatever metal I’m working with and cut a length for a ring. I don’t do any casting, so if I want to make a petal, I’ll melt a little ball of gold and then hammer it out and shape the petal; each piece is completely made from scratch. If I need another shape, I’ll melt it, hammer it, shape it, and solder it all together. From there I move on to the finishing, polishing, and stone-setting. I do it all!
What is it like making an engagement ring for someone? Have you had any memorable interactions with customers that you want to share?
I love selling jewelry for all different reasons, but I especially love selling wedding rings, because it’s something that someone might eventually pass on to their children. It’s just really special. And the people who want to wear my jewelry for the rest of their life – they are not fussy brides. They like to have something pretty and dainty that isn’t ever going to get in their way. There was one bride who told me that she wanted something eco-friendly, but at the same time really sparkly – something she could wear while swinging on vines in the jungles of Costa Rica. When she told me that, I thought, That is so cool! We can do that. And then she sent me a really beautiful photo after the proposal. I love when people send me photographs afterward. I get so excited about it.
What are some of your goals for the future?
My short-term goals are to keep learning new skills and keep improving on the things that I do now. Eventually, I would like to get into casting – that would help me streamline my process a little bit. In the long term, my ultimate goal would be to have a little shop – a little showroom where people could see my jewelry in person.
All photographs by Lilian Ginebra.