The pursuit of joy through art

This 14-carat blue topaz pendant set in 18-karat gold, with 10 pts of full cut diamonds from Denise James' Organic Collection cost $3,800.

Denise James left a lucrative publishing career to pursue what made her happy-the art of designing jewelry.

By Laura Tate / Associate Publisher / Editor

The pursuit of happiness, or more specifically, loving what you do career-wise, is what propelled former Malibu resident Denise James to start designing jewelry.

James, who was a 20-year resident until she recently moved back to Idaho, started out with a degree in journalism, not because she was particularly enamored with the news business, nor because her father owned a publishing company, Miramar Publications, which publishes Special Events and HomeCare magazines as well as the Rental Equipment Registrar, in addition to an assortment of targeted newsletters and supplements. She started working in the publishing business because her parents believed it was a “practical” course to take for a career, James said.

Newly married, in 1977 James and her husband, Tim, moved to Idaho to work for the weekly newspaper, the Star News, serving the small town of McCall and other communities of west central Idaho. In addition to working several “beats” for the paper, she also became its advertising manager, a role she expanded when she came out West to work for her father’s company in advertising, marketing and design (the company’s headquarters were moved to Malibu in 1994).

Although successful and proud of her work, James was not living her and her husband’s philosophy that one should be joyful each day setting about one’s path in life, whether it be a career or another calling.

So, having inherited Miramar, her family sold the business more than 10 years ago to PRIMEDIA (which holds such brands as Seventeen Magazine and Modern Bride) and James started painting and traveling. Having discovered she “wasn’t very good” at painting (“not having the patience to master it,” she said laughing), James then started exploring the world of jewelry-making, first stringing her own beads, and studying gemology and the healing properties of gems. Soon James was on her way to designing much sought after, unique settings for rings, pendants and other jewelry.

Most of her pieces, James said, are one-of-kind designs, using various colored gemstones set in different molds of high-karat gold on which she works with a jewelry maker and a goldsmith, whom she said are fantastic at “executing what I lay out [in design].”

Her newest work, called Terra, is a line using “rustic” diamonds mixed with rose-cut diamonds set in 18-karat gold. James described rustic diamonds as “opaque, natural colored diamonds” that come in hues of grey, brown and chocolate brown.

“They look like something that has been dug out of the earth …. something from antiquity,” James said in describing the gems.

In addition to the unique look of the rustic diamonds, James said the “cost per carat is more attractive,” describing a ring she designed that is made with a 20.7-carat rustic diamond surrounded by 1.26 carats of rosecut, cognac diamonds in a gold setting that cost $10,700.

(The legendary 69.42-carat Taylor-Burton Diamond that Richard Burton bought for Elizabeth Taylor cost the actor more than $1 million in 1969; the most recent recorded price fetched for the diamond was $5 million in 1979, roughly $1.66 million per 23 carats.)

A “piece de resistance” for James last year was a 35-carat rustic diamond pendant that cost $105,000.

Not all Denise James jewelry runs in the high thousands. She also sells smaller items like silver earrings that cost $125 and one unique piece she is excited about-a 14-carat blue topaz pendant set in 18-karat gold, with 10 pts of full cut diamonds, from her “Organic” Collection. It features a leaf over the front of the topaz and hangs on a handmade chain and costs only $3,800.

Her unique organic work has attracted longtime customers like Katerina Alexander, who discovered Denise James’ jewelry 12 years ago.

Everyone in Alexander’s family, from her 11-year-old son to her husband, wears James’ jewelry, Alexander said, describing one piece they all wear that features a peace sign.

“There’s something [about her jewelry] that speaks to people,” Alexander said, explaining that everywhere she wears James’ pieces, people respond to it.

“It’s organic, simple, beautiful,” Alexander said, explaining what she likes about James’ work. “It’s classically Malibu … very relaxed, yet elegant.”

James plans to continue her passion of designing, perhaps soon opening stores in Santa Barbara and La Jolla, adding to the Malibu location and one she has in McCall.

“I hope I continue to be successful at this, and have clients that appreciate what I do … creating new and beautiful pieces,” James said of her future plans. “I hope customers love seeing the new territory I head toward, new stones and new cuts … I keep exploring … it’s a wonderful art.”

Denise James is having a trunk show Sunday, 12 p.m. – 3 p.m. at the Malibu Colony Company, 3835 Cross Creek Road.