“I woke up one morning and something told me to make jewelry,” Al Stanford recalled. That despite the fact the now 52-year-old doesn’t wear any himself. “I didn’t know a thing about jewelry,” he admitted freely. That was barely one and a half years ago. Up to that point, the New Albany resident had worked as a home designer and cabinetmaker for decades. Then the recession hit and business slowed to a crawl. He was ready for a change.
So Stanford scoured for ideas. Roman and Greek bracelets that relied on simple wires to join the various parts drew him in. Originally, he started in his garage, much to his wife’s chagrin. Earth Grace Jewelry was born.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but it’s also a matter of practice. The first pieces turned out a little bulky. Looking down at his big freckled hands, Stanford remembered he had some learning to do. “I didn’t understand the scale of jewelry, the slickness. I’m a pretty big guy. If you make something dainty and small it’ll take you a while to get it right.”
Fast forward to today. His best-selling item is a slim hammered silver bracelet with a copper cross tied to it, the so-called Grace bracelet. He’s selling his jewelry wholesale to some 130 stores throughout the South and even one store in Alaska. Business is booming, he says, and in April he moved from his garage to a bigger production site, much to his wife’s delight.
“We had a hard time keeping up with demand. We all worked seven days a week.” “We” meant originally Stanford and two employees. Now that number has grown to five and all but one are family members. While he’s guarded about actual sales figures he readily admits it’s so profitable he wouldn’t want to go back to home building.
Besides the cross motif and the shape of Mississippi, his jewelry comes adorned with the right school colors just in time for football season, ranging from Rebels and Bulldogs to Crimson Tide and War Eagle. He uses silver, copper, brass and pewter for his earrings, cuffs, bracelets and necklaces.
In fact, he’s so successful that Chinese knockoffs of his Grace bracelet have started to crop up in stores, despite the fact Stanford has copyrighted his designs. Now, he’s thinking of suing the regional distributor. “It’s one of the hurdles small businesses face,” he said. “I try to buy all my materials made in America with the exception of the Swarovski crystals. Those, of course, come from Austria.”
While he’s been in the jewelry business only since January of last year, Stanford has already developed some closely guarded trade secrets. He’s happy to show off the way he repurposed a treadmill into a polishing machine. Here, PVC tubes sealed with rubber stoppers roll for hours between wires that are strung across the rolling treadmill floor. Inside, in a white bubbly slurry with metal components, finished jewelry pieces are polished to a high sheen. But that’s all he’s willing to explain. The exact recipe and ingredients are top secret. “I’ll put that one in my will for my friend who is a jewelry maker in Jackson.” The same goes for the process by which he cuts and stamps his metal shapes and the contraption screwed to the desks, which his employees use to form the bracelets around.
Reinventing himself at an age when some have begun to count down the years to retirement may be unusual. Not so for Stanford. I asked him how one moves from home to jewelry design. His answer surprised me in its simplicity. “Ultimately,” he said, “design is pretty basic. It’s all about proportions and scale. If you can design a house that’s appealing to someone, then you can design jewelry.” He stopped and thought about his answer for a moment. ”The purpose of design is to make someone like a piece, even if they don’t necessarily know why.”
But not everything in life came easy. At age 40, Stanford developed a condition called spasmodic dysphonia. “Somethimes it’s very hard. People don’t understand me. I simply can’t talk on the phone.” To the untrained ear it sounds as if he’s hoarse, recovering from a bad cold. Instead it’s a neurological voice disorder that causes the vocal chords to spasm, which disrupts the ability to speak and affects voice quality. It can cause his voice to break up or to have a tight, strained, or strangled quality. Stanford said the condition doesn’t hurt. While it cannot be cured, the symptoms can be treated. To that end, Stanford gets Botox injections through his neck, directly into his vocal chords twice a year.
Botulinum – a nerve toxin that is widely used by plastic surgeons to iron out patients’ crow feet and wrinkles around the eyes – is a nerve blocker that effectively paralyzes those muscles that tend to spasm. When we met for the interview Stanford had just gotten his shot a few days earlier. His voice could not compete with the clattering of the polishing machine in the workroom and an employee answered the phone for him. “It gets worse before it gets better,” he told me with an air of resignation.
Sitting at a pine desk he built himself, he explains dysphonia to me and appears a bit embarrassed by his own small voice, yet determined to make those around him understand. But when he talks about his jewelry his face lights up. Clearly, he’s proud of his latest accomplishment.
And when asked how his wife Carla reacted to his late change of career, Stanford said, “It’s her dream come true to be married to a jewelry maker.”
By Sandra Knispel // Photos by Adam Robison