by Samantha Thompson Hatem
photographs by Tim Lytvinenko
Gabrielle “Gabe” Bratton loves a good story almost as much as she loves making jewelry.
Bring her your grandmom’s old lace wedding dress or yellowing veil, and Bratton wants to hear everything behind that fragile and delicate lace before she transforms a piece of it into a one-of-a-kind piece of statement jewelry. Bratton, 27, has mastered the lost art of painstakingly coating pieces of lace with wax, casting them in bronze, sterling silver, or gold, and then hammering and polishing them into dangling earrings, a bib necklace or a cuff bracelet. The result is much like Bratton herself – jewelry that feels as strong as a Roman soldier but look as dainty as piece of 19th-century French lace.
“She’s just so creative,” says Catherine Fain, owner of the Raleigh-based women’s clothing line Ramey Rhodes, who grew up with and even babysat Bratton. “She can see a piece of jewelry in a scrap of fabric.”
Any of her pieces is worthy of a night on the town, whether it’s with jeans and a T-shirt or a cocktail dress and heels. They make bold statements. They’re big, stunning, and hard to miss. But most importantly to Bratton, they’re meant to last forever – both the jewelry and the story.
“The reason I fell in love with jewelry in the first place is the story behind it all,” she says. “Growing up and playing in my grandmother’s jewelry box and hearing where each piece came from…I am a sap for the story. I want everyone who gets my pieces to feel like they are getting a story. Something that they are going to have forever.”
Bratton has always known this was her path.
As a child, she couldn’t sit still. “I’ve always made something with my hands,” she says. “I was obnoxiously crafty. I always had an art project.”
When she was a teen, getting homework done was a challenge. “I would have all my books out on one side and my trays of jewelry out on the other, and when I would hear my mother coming, I would drop the trays under my bed,” she says. “I would wake up before school and make jewelry. I mean, I was obsessed.”
It was no surprise that as a student at University of Georgia she found her way to the metalsmith studio, casting wax-covered burlap in bronze to see what kind of jewelry she could create. “I feel in love with metals,” she said. “I could go to school for another 10 years and still learn more about metals.”
Bratton, who grew up in Raleigh and graduated from Saint Mary’s School in 2005, credits her close-knit family with nurturing her creative side. Her mom signing her up for ceramics or painting classes around Raleigh. Her dad letting her go to the basement woodshop, where she could work on art projects. Her grandmother restoring her old sewing machine so Bratton could make clothes. That same grandmother also would take her to buy beads so she could make jewelry. She made jewelry for her friends, and then: “My dad said,‘Why not take $100, buy what you need, and make it and sell it for a little bit more.’ ”
She sold to her brother’s friends, who needed presents for girlfriends. Then she moved on to trunk shows, which helped get her business going when she landed in Charleston after graduating from Georgia. With money from graduation, she bought used equipment – a bench, hammers, an electric tumbler – to set up her studio in an unheated warehouse.
Her big break came when Garden & Gun magazine chose her jewelry for the style category in its 2010 Made in the South awards, which highlight Southern hand-crafted artisans. That led to more exposure, more trunk shows, and eventually retail stores, including taigen.com and the gift shop at The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary.
After a few trunk shows, I realized I could really make this work,” she says.
When her lease was up last year, she decided to return to Raleigh and opened a new studio above a second-hand furniture store off Whitaker Mill Road.
With her dog Dash by her side, Bratton can work for days perfecting a single piece. She begins with lace, either an heirloom piece for commissioned jewelry, or something she’s found herself in an antique store or online. Using a wax pen with a heated tip, she coats the lace with wax, slowly painting so it’s thoroughly and evenly coated but not too much so that the details won’t show when it’s cast. “It’s worth going really slowly with this,” she says.
Sometimes, she spends weeks in the studio on this stage. Once she gets it just right, she sends it out to be cast in a kiln. Pieces she is more confident about get sent to kilns in New York; more intricate pieces are cast at Roblyn, a family-owned kiln off Millbrook Road. Here she can talk through the precious metals pieces.
Bratton says about 60 percent of her business is custom work. She’s worked with lace from wedding dresses and veils of mothers and grandmothers making cuff links for grooms, earrings for bridesmaids, necklaces for mothers-of-the-bride and hairpieces for brides. One customer asked her to create a bracelet from her mother’s wedding dress to give to her granddaughter for her first birthday. “It’s just really sentimental stuff,” she says. “What I do is a very personal thing.”
Longtime family friend Lane Nash asked Bratton to make two bracelets, one for each of her daughters, who were getting married within 11 months of each other a few years ago. Neither daughter wanted to wear the same dress, but they did agree to wear the same custom-made veil. Nash ordered the lace from wedding gown designer Monique Lhuillier and gave some to Bratton, who used it to create two one-of-a-kind bronze cuffs. “They’re wonderful because she made these heirloom pieces that are sentimental, and we’ll have for generations and generations,” Nash says.
Bratton’s prices range from $75 for bronze earrings to $1,200 for a bronze statement necklace. Prices are higher for work cast in silver or gold.
Bratton’s jewelry sells because people are drawn to the one-of-a kind uniqueness and vintage feel, says Leah Goodnight, director of marketing at The Umstead. “They are looking for special, locally made items that they can’t find elsewhere in their travels,” she says. “Gabe’s jewelry is an elegant way to remember their stay in North Carolina.”
Eventually, Bratton said she’d like to be in more high-end stores. She’d also like to work with a wedding gown designer to make jewelry based on their laces. And there could be more runway exposure. This spring, she teamed up with Fain on the catwalk at Savannah Fashion Week, and later the two did a trunk show tour through South Carolina and Georgia. Fain said Bratton was the obvious choice to accessorize her contemporary looks, and she was a perfect companion on the road because of her rapport with customers, and her love of hearing their stories.
“She’s her own best advertisement,” Fain says. “She connects with people really well. They’re interested in what she’s doing. Everyone’s always engaged when they hear the story of her work.”
There will be a trunk show of Gabe’s jewelry at Vermillion August 20-21 from 10am-6pm. www.vermillionstyle.com