Jane Pope’s Balboa jewelry line is the kind of stuff you wish you could find in thrift stores, but never quite can: charm necklaces with clusters of intricate pendants, pearly Lucite earrings, and inlaid enamel bracelets — all with updated settings and chains. What began as a hobby for Jane has become an immensely popular business, with Balboa designs appearing in magazines like Marie Claire and Elle and stores like Barney’s. When talking to Pope, you get the sense that this laid-back southerner possesses a great deal of business savvy, paired with an eye for the strange and intriguing. Papierdoll caught up with Pope on a Friday evening in South Carolina to chat about her designs, her success and the inherent scariness of owls.
PD: So, tell me how your interest in jewelry as a hobby and a career began?
JP: I’ve always been into vintage clothes and jewelry. My grandmother was incredibly stylish and always had beautiful clothes. I was always looking for things like she had, or I would borrow things from her. So, it kind of turned into a hobby. I started to find vintage elements that needed to be updated, or they weren’t in good condition. From there, I just started to do it on the side. I was working in retail. And then I gave myself a reasonable amount of time to see if it would work.
PD: And it did.
JP: It did.
PD: How do you go about selecting the raw materials that go into the final designs? Do you go to a lot of estate sales and thrift shops?
JP: I do. And I also know a lot of antique dealers that go to antique shows and estate sales, and I’ve kind of made relationships that way. They know what I like and they look for stuff for me. They’ll call me and say they found a lot of stuff, so I’ll go and meet them. My search has kind of evolved into relationships with them.
PD: When you’re looking for things to make jewelry out of, is it better for you when you find something in rough condition since that means you get to do a lot your own designing?
JP: It’s definitely more fun. It’s fun to find a super-awesome piece, but it’s more fun when I find things that aren’t so obvious. The hunt is definitely a big part of the enjoyment of it. And it’s better when I get to change the look of something from what it was when I found it.
PD: I noticed that with some of the pieces, it wasn’t obvious that certain elements came from other jewelry. I guess my question is, which do you like better? Do you prefer to do a lot of the work from scratch, or do you like incorporate and re-tool something that already exists as jewelry?
JP: I think the thing that’s special about the stuff that I make is that I am working with antiques. In terms of my preference, I guess I like a mix is the best way to say it. I love the find, I love the re-working and I like making parts from scratch. It’s different than other kinds of art or design where people draw or think of an image ahead of time. Everything I do is based on what I find. I do envision concepts, but they usually come from the things that I find.
PD: Conceptually, your designs are similar to some of the trends I’ve seen in clothing. I’ve run into a lot of clothing recently that has vintage elements that have been taken apart and reworked. For instance, a skirt with the hem lowered or a diagonal zipper sewed into dress to make it less balanced, more asymmetrical. Your earrings especially remind me of that sense of asymmetry. Do you see your stuff fitting into that re-constructionist, DYI fashion movement?
JP: Yeah, I think that’s probably a good way to look at it. There’s definitely beauty in everything I find, which is why I’m attracted to it. I try to keep that part while adding my own flair or touch to it. PD: I’d like you to walk me through the process of finding the various antique bits and pieces to getting to the point where you are ready to sell your creations.
JP: Well, first I meet with vendors to find materials. Then I go back to my workspace. Then I put it all out. Usually, when I get back from a buying trip, I have stuff everywhere in piles. When I get back, I’m so excited cause I have so many cool things that I want to look at them all at once. Then I try to categorize what elements will be good for different styles. The styles are all one of a kind. I mean, people can place orders, but it’s not really like that. Everything’s available at the time that I make it.
PD: Yeah, while looking at your Web site, I wondered how more than one of something could be available to people.
JP: Well, I do tend to customize for people. If someone orders something off the website that I sold two weeks ago, I’ll try to make them something with a similar look. I do remember every single thing I make. I know that sounds crazy, but I’ve spent so much time with each piece that they’re like my little children. So in that way I can kind of recreate a look.
PD: So you can tailor a look, but can’t recreate?
JP: Sometimes I can make two or three necklaces or pairs of earrings of one style if I find more than one antique piece that’s the same. But that’s pretty rare. Mostly they’re all one of a kind.
PD: What are some of the strangest pieces you’ve found that you’ve been able to incorporate into your jewelry?
JP: Probably one of the strangest things I’ve found was an old antique pin that was a little gun with a holster. It had a nametag that dangled down that said “Frenchie.” I made it into one of my first charm necklaces.
PD: The old brooch look is obviously really coming back. Do you enjoy working with the strange shapes and animals of those designs? I’ve noticed a lot of owl brooches in thrift stores for some reason.
JP: Anything with animals is great. The strange thing about owls is, actually, a lot of people are scared of them. I was making a lot of owl stuff, but people weren’t buying it. I don’t know what it was, but people were superstitious about them. But I love finding things that could be personal to people. Animals, cowboy boots, leaves, moons — I know those are all things that are special symbols to people. A lot of my customers are looking for something symbolic, something that reminds them of their daughter’s name, for example, or something special to them.
PD: That’s the beauty in designing each piece individually. You get customers seeking you out for that.
PD: So obviously you’ve seen a great deal of success lately. I’ve been hearing your name quite a lot, with you selling your jewelry at Barney’s and everything. Is it a bit surreal to go from having this be your hobby to seeing your creations around the necks of Alicia Keyes and Paris Hilton?
JP: It’s totally amazing and totally baffling. I think if anyone saw my little studio they’d be surprised that things are going as well as they are. Its unbelievable. Having the stuff in Barney’s was the catalyst for everything that’s happened recently. Barney’s is definitely kind of an ideal for what is fashionable. That was probably the most satisfying accomplishment. That’s helped give me exposure in magazines and with celebrities.
PD: Do you have any plans to expand to selling more on the West Coast or other regions?
JP: Yeah definitely. I sell mostly in stores in the South because that’s where I’m located. I just began selling at a new store in San Francisco. I had someone in Seattle contact me, but their store won’t open for another couple months yet. I have a friend in L.A. and she’s been scouting for other locations.
PD: I’ve read that your company is named after the Spanish explorer Vasco de Balboa. Could you tell me the story of how you picked him as
JP: In one of the original pendants I found, I found a Panamanian coin that was carved out into a pendant. He was an explorer and I’m constantly on the hunt for old pieces, so I felt like it was fitting.
You can check out Pope’s designs at www.balboajewelry.com.