Never take "no" for an answer. Jeweler, Ileana Makri, learned that at the age of 13. "He told me what I was asking was impossible; that it would break. I told him, 'No, it won't,'" she says recounting the conversation she had with a goldsmith during her first attempt at producing what would later become her signature piece--her tiny diamond Thread Band ring.
Although, that original sample did break, fast forward a few decades and we're sitting in her new, stunning jewelry box of a store in Athens--a perfect amalgamation of rough (hardwood floors) and shiny (gleaming cases displaying glittering jewels)--made possible, in part, thanks to many perfected versions of those "impossible" rings.
"Jewelry was always my passion," Ileana says; as a kid she used to play with glass beads, lace, and stones. It was only after she had her two daughters and lived in NYC that she decided to pursue it professionally. Studying at the Gemological Institute of America developed her intrinsic talents.
Her first collection consisted of 8 minimally designed items, "Made with very thin gold bands set with the smallest diamonds available," she describes. Notably, minimal jewelry wasn't prevalent then; Ileana's designs were strong contributing factors to its rise in popularity. Those first delicate pieces are still a strong part of her collection and although Ileana has since created much bolder, more colorful items her heart is still in them.
However, producing new collections thrills her. "I like combining colors and experimenting," she says. Her latest collection, Deco, is a stunning explosion of color and shapes, precious stones and one-of-a-kind settings. Ileana puts it simply, "It's about putting different colored stones together." I would rather describe it as a collection for the serious collector, or the stuff jewelry dreams are made of--what woman wouldn't fantasize about the architecturally inspired, diamond Deco Escape Earrings?
"The truth is that there are many sides to all of us," Ileana says referring to what inspires her. "It's intriguing to figure them out in myself and reveal them through my work." Her finished items always express her psychological state while designing them. "My lace collection is very fragile and I know that in the period I made it I wanted to express fragility," she says. "Other collections are much bolder; it all depends on the moment in time and what I wanted to express." She agrees that, the same is true for customers who are naturally drawn to jewelry that expresses physically what is going on emotionally inside them.
Her motto is, "fine jewelry for no special occasion," and this goes along with the main design element she adheres to. Function--jewelry must never interfere with everyday life. For this reason she wears every item she designs extensively before officially including it in her collection. "I definitely design for myself!" she exclaims with a smile.
Her favorite part of her job? "I love choosing stones!" she says, enthusiastically. "I'll sit until early morning with all my stones spread out on my very big, white table and start putting designs together. It's magical." Having her daughters, Myrto and Amalia, join her business is another aspect of her work that thrills her. "I feel their support; they are inspiring, creative, hard workers and impart me with a lot of strength," she says proudly. One of the main things they've helped her with is knowing when to hold back and when to move on. "I didn't used to allow collections to 'mature.' I’d do something and the minute I did and had my samples ready I was onto something else. My daughters are trying to discipline me."
The fact that a designer of her caliber has chosen to share her new serene store space (which she perfectly describes as a "temple to jewelry") with other designers perfectly indicates the kind of person she is. "I love jewelry. A store caters to all types of people; why not give them the possibility to see the work of many other designers who otherwise would not be available in Greece?" she says as she glances around the glittering cases and displays. "My work is here too; customers can choose either it or somebody else's; it doesn’t matter."
Does she still have that first Thread Band? "I did! Both the one that broke and the successful sample that didn't," she says; unfortunately, they were stolen from her home last Easter. "I was devastated," she says, sadly. But finally the words of a friend helped her through it. "When something leaves, something else comes," she recounts with a smile. "Instantly, I became happy for what was coming." She glances around her store; it seems it's the "something else" those prized possessions were traded for.
Does she have any advice for somebody wanting to pursue their own dreams? "To do what they feel without fear. The first step is the most valuable part of the journey," she says. "But unless they start it won’t happen!"
After all these years of dedication and hard work, Ileana Makri's found such well-deserved international success on a level that most people can only dream about. Has that changed her perspectives? "Deep inside I'm still that child that made that first thin diamond band. I always feel good in my little corner playing with my stuff. Back then it was glass beads, now it's gems but it’s all the same thing." Glass beads vs. diamonds. One thing's for sure--even her childhood glass bead jewelry must have been amazing!
(Originally published in The Huffington Post on May 1, 2015)