Jeweler turns bad year into fuel for her fire

Lisa Lehmann Designs deepens customer relationships after loss, injuries and bout with cancer amid pandemic.
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An aquamarine ring is one of the unique pieces designed by Lisa Lehmann. Courtesy Steve Czerniak Photography

Although Lisa Lehmann’s life in the past year reads like the lyrics of a country song, she’s using the pain to forge a stronger business.

Lehmann founded her jewelry business, now called Lisa Lehmann Designs and based in Grand Haven, 19 years ago after she quit her career in graphic design to homeschool her four children.

Before that, she hadn’t done any metalworking, but she had earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Calvin University in 1991.

Once she started experimenting with making jewelry and realized how much she loved it, Lehmann took a couple of metals classes at Kendall College of Art and Design to expand and refine her skills from beaded jewelry to working with stones and metals.

“I love fire. It was really fun (to learn metalworking); it just totally clicked for me,” she said. “I found my passion when I first put a torch in my hand.”

The youngest of five children growing up in New Jersey, Lehmann said she always knew she wanted to be an artist.

“My grandpa was an artist, and he died when I was five months old, so I never met him, but art was very much in who I was, and my mom was super creative.”

Although she hoped to go to a dedicated art school, her parents offered to pay for her education if she went to Calvin. Jewelry-making classes were not available; her emphases within her BFA were photography and illustration. She said that foundation in taking photos and drawing has been helpful in everything she has done since starting her jewelry business, from sketching out all her designs to doing her own product photography.

After college, Lehmann did odd jobs until starting her own graphic design company, Studio Elements, in 1994.

“I think I’m kind of a natural-born entrepreneur, and I didn’t really want to work for anybody else,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘I can do this; I can totally do this.’”

She taught herself how to use a computer at a time when design was just going digital, and she was successful in business for many years — but something wasn’t right.

“It was a good job, and it was consistent, but I hated it. I just didn’t like working behind a computer. I’m more of a ‘get my hands dirty’ person — as I look at my hands right now and they look like I’m a mechanic,” she said, laughing.

In 2002, she closed her design firm and soon opened her jewelry business, and it’s been her life’s work ever since.

Lehmann works with metals, including silver, bronze and gold, incorporating beautiful and unique stones into the jewelry and often doing custom pieces. She has a basic line — mostly all made of sterling silver — called the “essentials,” meant to be a starting point to build upon.

“I think that jewelry is a great expression of who you are and what you want to exude, and it’s all done well with layering,” she said. “So, my essentials line is your base pieces, like a bar necklace or a long layering piece or a simple earring, and then I love working with unique stones … creating really unique pieces.”

The entire first floor of her house is her studio, with three workbench stations for design and layout, soldering, and stone setting, and a myriad of tools including rolling mills, ultrasonics and “a plethora of hammers and files.”

“You can never have too many tools,” she said, chuckling.

Lehmann currently has one employee and often has two or three interns at a time, usually students from Grand Valley’s metalworking program. She said she wants to keep sharing her knowledge with interns, who she can mentor and then send out into the world to follow their own dreams.

“I always expect them to leave because it’s the way it should go. They learn the ropes of owning a business and doing it, then go off and do their own thing.”

Lehmann said she feels confident and happy today, despite 2020 being one of her worst years on record. On top of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on business, she also tore her ACL, MCL and meniscus in a knee injury; her mom died; her dog died; and she got breast cancer. And that is on top of her divorce two years ago.

“2020 was bad for everybody; mine was really bad,” she said. “But I’m standing, and I’m smiling, and I’m looking forward to a new year.”

She said despite everything that went wrong this year, there were little blessings, such as a new friendship with Jenna Arcidiacono, chef and co-owner of Amore Trattoria Italiana in Comstock Park, which helped bring the realization that everything Lehmann does is for a greater purpose.

“I don’t want a do-over (of this year). I have grown, and I feel like I’m far more confident in who I am as a woman and a business owner and what I want to project and what I want to accomplish. I’ve never felt this sort of confidence that I’m coming to the end of 2020 with. I feel like I accomplished so much and got through so much that I’m just better — and me being better will be better for others. Because the bottom line is, I want to make other people happy and I want to make an impact on their lives, which is why Jenna and I really connected. … At the end of the day, it’s never been about the money for me. Obviously, I need to make a living at what I do, and I love that, but it’s really about the people.”

Lehmann has decided her business won’t be about living up to everyone else’s standards in 2021 — getting bigger and better, getting product into more stores, or having an exploding social media presence. She wants it to be about forging deeper connections with the customer base she has — which is already pretty large and spread across the world.

During the shutdown, as she wasn’t sure what would happen to her business, she started doing custom painting and custom jewelry making, which led her to launch a Patreon page that allows fans to support her work.

“I want to connect more with the people on a deeper level, if that makes sense, like I would rather sell really specifically to my firm client base and build that client base so it’s solid, instead of just more and more and more (to customers I’ll never see again),” she said.

Lehmann also added a blog to her website, blog.lisalehmanndesigns.com, where she has been writing about her cancer journey and her struggles with depression in 2020.

“I feel like I’ve been given this platform and this voice, and I want to use that to give it to people who maybe don’t have that platform,” she said. “I just really love people, and I want to cultivate that.”

She has been doing more jewelry remakes lately — for example, if a loved one dies, their survivor might bring in a piece of jewelry that they want melted down and remade into something new that will live on as a tribute.

“This necklace I remade, they’d been married for 30 years and the husband passed away, and (she) gave me his (and her) rings, and I remade a necklace. I had three rings, put the diamond in the center, their faith was a big part, so I made a cross and put that in the chain and then a little heart on the back. When the woman got it, she had to go in her bedroom and didn’t come out for two hours — she was so overwhelmed. The daughter was telling me the story and that she was just so thankful for this piece.

“This is what I get to do. I love it. I love being a part of people’s stories.”

More information about Lisa Lehmann Designs is at lisalehmanndesigns.com.

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