I am thrilled to introduce you to today’s interview subject Belle – who is truly one of the loveliest and most genuinely sweet and gracious women out there. I really wanted to have Belle on here for a variety of reasons – she has a beautiful closet, and is also incredibly accomplished with a fascinating background (former VP who also danced for years, anybody)?
Belle also happens to have a really spectacular jewelry collection. I adore jewelry and always am happy to have the chance to pick the brain of someone with a collection and eye for beautiful pieces like Belle. I know that you will all adore Belle as much as I do – enjoy!
Who are you? What do you do, and where do you live?
Let’s just call me Belle! I am a stay at home mom (or Family CEO as I call it) with two beautiful daughters. I currently live in the Northeast, and have been here five years. It snows from November until March, which is way too long for me, so I hope I won’t be here in another five years. I live in a rural area, but it is bearable because we have a Target! I do most of my shopping via telephone and online or when I travel.
I know you used to be a VP at a large international company, and later on made the decision to leave to be more involved in your children’s lives. How was that decision for you?
I worked in a very specialized area that required me to travel all around the world – Asia, Europe, and South America. It was an incredibly exciting time in my life; my job was challenging but I loved it. My husband traveled a great deal too, and with two very small children at home we were lucky to have a full-time nanny.
For quite a few years everything was great, but as my oldest began to navigate through elementary school, she experienced first-hand some mean girl issues. I had an “ah-hah” moment (as Oprah says) when I came home after the first event and heard what our nanny had advised my daughter. It was so very different than what I would have said it took my breath away. Right then I knew this wouldn’t be an isolated issue and there would be more and more times where we’d have our differences. As sometimes happens in life, the situation resolved itself a few weeks later when we heard that my husband was getting transferred to another state. I felt like the universe was whispering to me that I should not seek employment with that move.
I now have the luxury of hindsight and enough years have gone by that I know it was the right decision–the right decision with the right timing. My daughters have absolutely benefited from me being at home. As kids get older, the problems they deal with get bigger. The issues that were popping up in my daughter’s life weren’t things that could have been solved in a 30-minute talk after I got home from work. I’ve never regretted my decision, though that doesn’t mean I haven’t missed my old life.
Deciding whether to continue work or stay home was scary for me because so much of my identity was tied up with my job. I loved the work I did. I loved being the company expert in my area. It was hard to imagine not being that person any more.
What would be your advice to women looking at making either a similar decision, or staying at work?
I really don’t have any great words of wisdom for someone grappling with this decision, because it is so personal. Just follow your heart. And if you do make the decision to leave work, make sure you plan your own activities that give you an identity outside the home. The first year I stayed home, I set four goals for myself:
1) Take a class at the local college
2) Take on a PTA leadership role, (the PTA’s are full of women like me, who left work to stay home with the kids)
3) Get involved in the Board of an organization that does good in the community, and
4) Become a good photographer. I accomplished all except the photography, as you will soon see through some the pictures I’ve included!
I know that you love jewelry and I think you have such a beautiful collection. What are some of your favorite pieces?
I am a big, big Van Cleef and Arpels (VCA) fan, and have an assortment of VCA bracelets, necklaces and earrings. Not only is VCA beautiful, it is so wearable — I find that I can wear most pieces at any occasion from soccer games to formal parties. I love to throw on a necklace with a t-shirt and jeans and run out the door!
My all time favorite VCA piece are the Frivole earrings. I love that the flowers are three-dimensional and sit up on your ear. It is an earring that looks gorgeous on anyone. When something works well for me, I tend to get “enthusiastic” about it and I buy more than one. I am crazy about the Frivole earrings, so it isn’t a surprise to people who know me that I have three pairs!
Outside of VCA I have pieces from many different lines – Cathy Waterman, Penny Preville (LOVE!), Kwiat, Roberto Coin, Gumuchian, Charriol, Ivanka Trump, and the list goes on. I don’t tend to stick to any one brand, but buy pieces that attract me.
Here are a few of my current favorites: 1) Hermes Torsade bracelet, 2) Verdura Curb Link bracelet, 3) Bottega Veneta Torcello earrings.
What jewelry brands do you love that you think aren’t as well known? Any specific pieces?
I really love jewelry brands that have a handcrafted look and three of my favorites are Elizabeth Locke, Coomi, and Gurhan. All three brands use high karat gold – Elizabeth Locke – 19k, Coomi – 20k, Gurhan- 24k.
Gurhan makes wonderful earrings! The 24k gold is a little soft, but the color is amazing. I recommend that any jewelry lovers get their hands on the Gurhan magazine and spend some time with it. It is my all time favorite designer publication–I look at it so often I keep it on my bedside table. (I actually have a second copy on my office!)
The Splash earrings are my favorite Gurhan earrings. They are also called the “Angelina Jolie” earrings because of this beautiful picture.
What goes into your buying jewelry buying decisions?
I try not to get too caught up in trends. That’s not to say that I don’t buy trendy pieces, I most certainly do. I like having pieces that are fun and “now”, but I try not to spend a lot on them. I try and focus most of my jewelry budget on brands and pieces that I think will last me the rest of my life.
I also try and focus a large percentage of my buys from brands that I know will retain a great deal of their value – like Van Cleef and Arpels, Verdura, and Hermes.
What have you learned over the years in your jewelry shopping?
I have learned a lot mostly by making mistakes. As James Joyce said, “Mistakes are the portal of discovery”—I’ve certainly made a lot of discoveries over the years!
Here are a few things I’ve learned (not in any particular order):
1) Find a good sales associate and stick with them: I can’t say this enough. Find someone you like at a store you love and stick with him or her. When you consistently use the same great person, you will get great service. And that’s what we all want – great service. I have used the same jewelry sales associate for over 10 years and she has done some truly incredible things for me. She looks out for things she knows I will like. She makes sure I’m aware of sales, special orders, special events, and limited items. Most importantly, she goes to bat for me whenever there is a problem, and there have been more than a few problems over the years.
2) Tastes change over time: One of my biggest lessons I’ve learned is that tastes change over time—in two ways, individual taste and societal taste. What I loved in my 20’s isn’t what I love now. I started buying jewelry in the early 1990’s when Neiman Marcus first introduced John Hardy. I was crazy about John Hardy and bought everything I could afford. I still have all those pieces, but haven’t worn them in 15 years. It never occurred to me when I was buying them to consider whether these would be pieces that I could see myself wearing in 10 or 15 years. It is very hard to predict what your future self will love, but now I at least go through the exercise.
I also know what is loved by one generation is very often not valued by the next. I just have to look at the jewelry pieces I inherited from my mother and grandmother to validate that! I have some of the most beautiful teeny-tiny diamond watches and brooches, but I have never had an interest in wearing them and will never have an interest in wearing them. So, even though I have two beautiful daughters, I do not buy my jewelry thinking I can pass it down to them. I know that it is very likely that they won’t be interested in my collection. So I just buy the pieces I love and that I think I will love in 10 years. If my daughters end up loving them too, then that’s just an added bonus.
3) Consider estate (pre-owned) pieces: In one of my careers (I’ve had several!) I was a CPA and one of my big clients was a family-owned jewelry store. I had never thought about jewelry before, but seeing the passion that family had for jewelry got me interested. In those days I couldn’t afford much, so they introduced me to their estate case. It was a wonderful way to start buying jewelry, but not pay full retail. That was over 20 years ago and to this day I always walk first to a store’s estate case. My most recent find was a Rolex Submariner for about half of current retail.
4) Don’t settle: I think we’ve all found ourselves in this dilemma. We want something, but can’t afford exactly what we want. So the question is do you scale down your purchase and buy what you can afford, or do you wait until you can buy exactly what you want? In my personal experience, I’ve found that when I settle on something less than I wanted, I almost always regret the decision. I’ve learned that I need to wait until I can buy exactly what I want. My latest example of this is my Verdura curb link bracelet. I am so happy that I waited for it and didn’t buy something else!
5) If you are a good customer (meaning you buy, you don’t just look!) prices can be flexible: This is not something I knew when I first started buying jewelry. If you develop a relationship with a sales associate and a store, there can be some flexibility in pricing. Not on all pieces, not on all brands (I’ve never had a discount on Chanel or VCA), but it does happen. It is dependent on the price of the piece (the higher the price the more likely it can be discounted) and the line. I always ask if there can be an accommodation on the price. All they can say is no.
6) Jewelry is not meant to be worn 24/7: Very often I hear people say “I want to buy something I can wear all day, every day. Or “Can I wear this necklace in the shower?” This always baffles me! I believe the first thing you should do when you walk in your home at the end of the day is take off all of your jewelry. Your jewelry will last longer and look better if you take care of it!
You clearly adore jewelry. How about accessories and clothing? What are some of your favorite brands, and favorite items?
I love handbags and accessories, so I find I spend more money on them than I do my clothes! I especially love small leather goods. For bags and small leather goods I buy mostly from Hermes, Bottega Veneta, and Chanel. I do buy from other brands when something really wows me. Right now I love Reed Krakoff.
As I mentioned previously, I tend to get enthusiastic when I find something I love and works well for me. I feel that way about the Chanel Luxe Ligne flap. It’s such a beautiful bag I felt the call to have more than one.
I love, love, love Valextra small leather goods—the wallets, the cases, the iPad covers. My friends and family have grown tired of me saying, “BEST WALLET EVER!” every time I pull out my beautiful Valextra wallet.
I am also enthusiastic about Louis Vuitton stoles! I am thinking I might have maxed out my capacity to wear them all, but we shall see!
For my clothing, I mix from all over. I tend to wear a lot of basic pieces from brands that are classic, with clean lines, well cut, and simple.
I know you’re a Bottega Veneta lover. What is it about the brand that you love?
Bottega Veneta (BV) is one of my favorite handbag/accessory brands. I love the artistry, creativity, and craftsmanship that permeates everything they do, whether it is a handbag, a piece of furniture, or jewelry. There is a section on BV’s website called “Hand of the Artisan” where you can watch videos of the craftsmen making different products – knot clutches, cabats, jewelry etc. It is fascinating to see.
I especially love the craftsmanship that goes into the making of the exotic leather bags and small leather goods. The pieces are incredible, especially BV’s crocodile. It is truly heavenly.
One Bottega Veneta item that I am enthusiastic about is the document case. (You might say that I have gotten carried away.) I use them as clutches and carry them anywhere I don’t feel like carrying a full handbag.
For the BV woven handbags, I think the cabat is the queen. My favorite cabat was the “Asian cabat” that was only sold in the Asian market and Hawaii, but it was discontinued a few years back. I haven’t quite figured out why, but whenever I really love something there is a very good chance it will be discontinued (I am still campaigning to get back butterscotch whey protein powder!).
In 2009, Martha Stewart featured Bottega Veneta and Tomas Maier (the Creative Director for BV) on her show. On her website there is a link to the video of their discussion. Near the end of the video you can see two craftsmen onstage weaving cabats.
Beyond loving Bottega products, I love the shopping experience at the Bottega Veneta boutiques. They are such quiet, comfortable, inviting places. It is easy to spend 2-3 hours in one!
What are some of the items in your closet that get the absolute most wear?
I have a very casual lifestyle, but always strive for a classic pulled-together look. It’s winter half of the year here, so I wear lots of sweaters. I adore cashmere, so I have a wide assortment of cashmere sweaters—crew necks, v-necks, and cardigans. Much of my cashmere is Ralph Lauren because I love the quality and the colors.
Although I don’t spend most of my budget on clothing, I do spend a lot on shoes. I love a beautiful shoe, but unfortunately I can’t wear all the gorgeous heels that are popular now. I was a dancer for many years, and have ended up with a variety of foot problems. As a result, I now only wear loafers, flats or low heels. I wear lots of different brands — Tods, Thierry Rabotin, Chloe, Reed Krakoff, Ferragamo, Lanvin, Manolo Blahnik (yes they make flats!), Robert Clergerie, and Gravati.
How would you describe your style? Who are some of your style icons?
I grew up in the South and as a result have some “old-fashioned” ideas about dressing. (If my daughters were reading this, they would vehemently agree!). Style for me hasn’t ever been about been drawing attention. It is about being tasteful and refined. When I was growing up it was called “dressing like a lady”.
Some of the women that exemplify that look for me:
1) A generation before me, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
2) My generation – Kelly Rutherford
3) A younger generation – Reese Witherspoon
What do you scrimp on and what do you save on?
Beauty items. I find that many times an inexpensive brand works just as well for me as the expensive. I do buy some expensive products, but I buy the ones that work for me and I don’t experiment the with every latest and greatest new products way I did when I was younger.
Can you share some advice about shopping/budgeting/style that you’ve learned over the years?
1) Don’t get caught up in the “IT’S ON SALE!” frenzy: I think everyone learns this eventually, but it bears repeating. When I first ventured into designer goods, I bought a lot of things just because they were on sale. I would always buy something, and most of the time it was not an item that I had wanted prior to the sale. Those things would just sit in my closet. I’ve heard this advice from many others before me, but only buy an item on sale if it is something you would have bought at full price.
I will occasionally buy sale items now, but only if it is something that interested me before the sale. I let my sales associates know what I like so they know what I might be interested in if it did go on sale. This leads into my second piece of advice.
2) Find a great sales associate and stick with them: I said this earlier, but it is important. The way you are going to hear about anything going on at the store is from your SA. If a SA knows that you are loyal to them, they will be loyal to you.
How about one piece of life advice?
Always remember that every day is a gift.
You’ve lived in quite a few places. What have been some of your favorites?
I met my husband when we were both getting our master’s degrees, and we got married very soon after graduation. We moved immediately for his job and have moved about every 5 years since. We’ve been in our current location for 5 years now and as much as I’d like to get away from the snow, I’m happy that we aren’t facing a move in the near future.
My favorite place to live by far was the Dallas/Fort Worth area. It was such an easy place to assimilate into because they are so many people moving in and out all the time. There is so much to do there – museums, sports, theater, restaurants, kids activities, and of course shopping!! On top of all of that, we found it one of the most affordable places that we have lived both in terms of housing and general cost of living.
What are some of your other passions and hobbies?
I am a knitter, although I wouldn’t say that I am a great knitter! I love the whole experience—going to a yarn shop, picking out the yarn, choosing the pattern, casting off, and then gifting the item. My kids love to point out that I have enough yarn to open a knitting store! Most years, I focus about half of my knitting efforts on “prayer shawls”. Our area has a number of organizations that ask for shawl donations – churches, hospitals and nursing homes. I love the idea that something I make might give someone that I’ve never met a bit of comfort.
As my daughters have gotten older, I have tried to volunteer my time and efforts where they make a difference. The past few years I have concentrated my time on their schools, spending a day in each school each week. Additionally, I am on the Board of my daughter’s high school. It is a small private school that has a number of challenges, so the work is not easy. It is extremely satisfying.
I also am an avid antiquer. I started antiquing with my grandmother when I was about ten years old. She loved to comb antique shops for celery vases, china, and sterling flatware. I have loved antiques ever since and never miss an opportunity to go to a show or a store.
The thing I always look for when antiquing is Flow Blue china. I’ve been collecting Flow Blue for over 20 years. A little on its history can be found here.
Finally – please share something surprising about yourself!
I am a Civil War history buff. Where I grew up the Civil War was something that people still talked about. It seemed normal to me. It wasn’t until I went to college and started meeting people from all over the US, that I realized that most people didn’t know anything (nor care) about that period of time in American history.
As I grew older I became more and more fascinated by Civil War history–the people, their beliefs, their lives, and their sacrifices. People and their lives were so different from today. As my interest grew, so did my library and I now have almost 200 books on the Civil War ranging from historical fiction to reference books.
One of my favorite gifts from my husband was the ten book series “The Photographic History of the Civil War” published in 1911 for the semi-centennial (50 year) anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War.
Some of my favorite Civil War books are “Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches by the Unfinished Civil War” by Tony Horowitz, “A Stillness at Appomattox” by Bruce Catton, and “Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War America” by William Gienapp.
How amazing is Belle? I read this interview multiple times just because I wanted to make sure I absorbed everything. I know that I’ll be re-reading her advice on selecting jewelry for years to come. Belle’s collections of jewelry and accessories are lovely but it’s her beautiful personality that really shines through here. Thank you Belle for taking the time to share some of your life and learnings with us!