Turning lace into livelihood

Gabrielle Bratton uses intricate bits of lace and coats them with wax to make jewelry in Charleston. (Tyrone Walker/postandcourier.com)

Gabrielle Bratton is the first to say that school wasn’t her favorite thing growing up.

“Books were not my thing,” the Raleigh native said. “I preferred to work with my hands.”

That turned out to work in her favor.

Her parents urged her to take art classes in high school.

Bratton took an interest in jewelry, bought items at a bead store and made necklaces and bracelets.

“I would just give them to people if they liked them,” she said. “I did it so much I ran out of money.”

Then as special events such as proms or other dress-up occasions came around, her friends would ask her to make pieces for them.

“I told them if they would buy the beads, I would make the jewelry,” Bratton said.

She did and toward the end of high school, she starting selling a few pieces.

Her interest in jewelry led Bratton to the University of Georgia, where she majored in jewelry and metals.

The summer after her freshman year, she fashioned several pieces and held a trunk show in Raleigh.

“I was surprised. I did really well,” she said. “I told myself, ‘I can actually do this.’ ”

After she graduated in 2010, Bratton visited her brother in Charleston and decided it was a good market to try out her enterprise.

“It has a good art scene, but it’s not overwhelming,” she said.

Having purchased many of her supplies in a bankruptcy auction for a jewelry store, Bratton first started making items out of her peninsular Charleston home, but she needed a bigger place. A friend told her about someone who might have some space in a Heriot Street warehouse.

Bratton checked it out, plopped down the rent in November 2010 and has been in business nearly two years under the name Gabrielle Jewelry.

On the walls of her warehouse work space hang pieces of old, fancy lace in all shapes and sizes, some still white, others colored with melted wax or bronzed with the casting touch of a metals factory in Rhode Island, where she sends her pieces to be finished.

“I get lace from all over,” she said.

Antique shops are favorite places to discover bits of vintage lace tucked away in a basket. The Internet provides a vast supply, mainly from across the U.S. but also from as far away as Eastern Europe.

Some people even send her their old wedding dresses or veils. She cuts off what she needs for the brooch, necklace or bracelet the family requested for their daughter’s wedding or other special occasion and sends the rest of the material back to the customer.

“I love getting old wedding lace because of the stories behind it,” Bratton said. “It’s sentimental.”

She could buy lace at a cloth shop, but she prefers old pieces with intricate designs so she can make one-of-a-kind items.

Bratton first snips out the lace pattern that she thinks will be the most attractive for a necklace, bracelet, brooch or earrings, then she dabs it in a thin layer of melted wax of turquoise blue or bright pink on a cookie sheet atop a hot plate heated to between 100 and 300 degrees.

Once the wax cools, she fashions the piece with a glue-like wax, snips off any unsightly threads and paints it if necessary before sending it off to the metal-casting factory in Rhode Island.

Bratton could perform the metalwork herself, but she doesn’t have a kiln and works in an unheated and uncooled building.

She bundles up in the winter, works mornings in the summer and likes the site because she uses materials that allow her to air out the building if necessary.

She also uses instruments that sometimes make a lot of noise and need to be in a place where it’s OK to be loud.

“It’s nice because I don’t have to worry about it,” Bratton said.

Small pieces such as earrings sell for $75 to $85 once they’re finished, and the price goes up from there. She once sold a necklace for $2,000, her most expensive deal to date in her fledgling enterprise.

Bratton’s handiwork can be found at the Gibbes Museum, certain galleries in North Carolina and online.

“I’m not in any stores in Charleston, but I would like to be in some,” she said.

With so much time put into making what could become heirloom pieces of jewelry, Bratton admits little time remains to market her products locally or make business connections with upscale shops.

“I’d like to have my own storefront, but I am not there yet,” she said. “Last year was about building inventory. This year I would like to get into some stores.”

Her pieces at the Gibbes Museum Store have been a hit, museum spokeswoman Marla Loftus said.

“It’s very popular, and people love the fact that it’s so unique and lightweight,” Loftus said.

The museum will even set up a piece to be commissioned by Bratton from people who have lace that they want to be made into jewelry. Bratton takes custom orders as well.

First-year sales pleased the upstart businesswoman, but she also is content with her career choice.

“I’m pretty lucky to be doing what I like,” Bratton said. “It’s really fun, but I still have a lot to learn.”

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlance wise.