One night when artist Laurel Smith was sleeping, her mind projected her future onto the backs of her eyes. She dreamt up a whirring dremel tool, a jewelry-making instrument then somewhat unfamiliar to her, and awoke with a newfound sense of purpose. A D.C.-based event planner in her 20s at the time, Smith sensed she was on the cusp of a major career breakthrough.
Smith is a Charlottesvillian through and through, from the maternity wing of Martha Jefferson hospital to the halls of Albemarle High School. She graduated from James Madison University with a degree in studio art, then relocated briefly to Washington, D.C., and Hoboken, New Jersey, before returning home.
Just as Smith cannot divorce her hometown from her story, art is integral to her existence. Creating has always pointed her toward comfort and confidence—a happy mashup of emotions she first remembers experiencing as a young Spectrum summer camper at Tandem Friends School. In fact, this is where her fascination with calligraphy first sprouted.
Decades later, Smith is the frontwoman of a celebrated, self-launched jewelry brand, “laurel denise,” which features bracelets incorporating inspirational messages engraved in beautiful calligraphy. She leads a fully female staff—including her full-time assistant, Nancy Cronauer, and a map-scattered crew of bracelet makers (aka “Mama Elves”)—in the quest toward artistic excellence. Smith is two women in one: She jokes that she’s “40 percent artist and 60 percent business.” Her online shop offers a sweeping array of accessories and home goods, including options for product customization, and her pieces put multiple mediums into conversation, including leather, metal, and glass.
A mother of two, Smith cites “time” as the most pressing part of this gig. Between caring for and carting around her kids, she hunches over worktables in her home, where her makeshift studio is based. Although her team attends two large wholesale events in New York City each year, most of her sales are shipped directly from her home address. These large-scale trade shows, while excellent opportunities to showcase new work and make human connections with customers, take a toll timewise and financially. “My lights alone cost $2k to rent,” Smith says. “I find that I reach more people through the internet.”
Smith sees her career as a calling to serve others. Her handwritten messages adorn the wrists of assault survivors (“Be you bravely”), breast cancer battlers (“She walks in beauty”), mothers enduring miscarriages (“Dwell in hope”), missionaries (“Be strong and courageous”), and general accessory-lovers alike. Although her curling calligraphy and dainty bracelets may be geared more toward women than men, she points to the drip-down effect of her art’s influence: The messaging behind it all unfurls like a song, and everyone will want to sing along.
“Even if [my jewelry] is just empowering women, all the women I know are empowering everybody else around them. We’re the doers. We lift up our husbands. We help shape our kids,” Laurel says. “It trickles down to empowering people in general.”
With her delicate calligraphied bracelets, jewelry-maker Laurel Denise taps into the bigger picture.