Mary DeMarco draws on her sense of whimsy in designing jewelry A Rare Gem

THE BALTIMORE SUN

La Contessa radiates charm. La Contessa's days are spent running her fingers through piles of jewelry and sparkling stones. She is not, however, afraid to get her hands dirty. La Contessa is the label, Mary DeMarco is the woman -- doyenne of a jewelry factory, designer, a Towson mother of three and soon-to-be home shopping maven.

"The Homeshopping Club Network wanted a videotape of me to see how I project, so my friend and I did this corny fashion chatter," she giggles, waggling her wrist in the prescribed TV sparkle-sell manner.

Things are happening for Mary DeMarco. She and her husband, William Wolfe, have parlayed her creative eye into a coast-to-coast costume jewelry business that sells to an impressive list of specialty stores such as the White House as well as to major national retailers, including Nordstrom, Jacobson's and Macy's. The home shopping contract is only a signature away.

Not bad for a woman who started out scrounging thrift shops for jewelry parts. Not bad for a woman whose strongest business asset is a fertile imagination.

"I had always wanted to be a painter. Graduated with a bachelor of fine arts from Towson [State University] and studied at the Maryland Institute [College of Art]. After I came home from studies in Florence, I got a job waitressing at Harborplace," she remembers.

"I loved jewelry and started putting together my own by taking apart old stuff," she says. "The other waitresses started asking me to make up earrings for them, and I soon realized I was making more money selling to friends than I was making in tips."

That was 1983 and she started building confidence and an inventory. "My first store sale was to Delores Deluxe's vintage and consignment shop on Charles Street," says the 35-year-old designer. "I loved that shop, it had fun things and didn't take things too seriously, and that's the way I see things."

She worked around town assembling for other jewelers and learned some professional techniques. In 1986, she and her husband chose the La Contessa label and formed the company. They started small in their Charles Village home, but soon moved to space in the Hampden Mall on 36th Street. "An order from Accessory Lady gave us a big start," she says.

Now, sophisticated machinery at the Hampden factory does the work she once painstakingly did by hand. "We bought the factory . . . let's see my oldest . . . six years ago," she remembers. Like a true mom she counts years by her children. Today a dozen people help her polish, assemble and set stones, and ship the many orders.

"We employ about 12 people, mostly women," she says. "That's not sexism, it's a way of bringing in women from the neighborhood and making them independent."

Three lines of jewelry

With their help, she produces three house lines as well as custom designs for retail private labels. The La Contessa label is the mainstay of the business -- sophisticated yet whimsical and romantic. The signature MDM Mary DeMarco hallmark is cleaner lined, with classical references, and it gets more labor-intensive attention. It retails from $45 to $140. La Terra jewelry, a new venture, is of more earthy inspiration and geared to the budget-minded. Marshall's is the line's first account.

"The house production roughly breaks down to 90,000 earrings -- that's 75 percent of the business -- the rest is split into 10 percent necklaces and bracelets, and 5 percent pins," says Mr. Wolfe. That's a lot of links in the business chain.

Their brick machine shop turned jewelry factory on Falls Road is tiny by industrial standards, but then the products are tiny, too. The second-floor workroom walls and benches are crammed with bins of miniature beauties -- crystals, beads, cast metal settings, and tiny sculptures of insects, animals, flowers, leaves and angels -- which the designer intertwines into a peaceable and lovable kingdom.

"I'm romantic I guess," she says. "But I'm romantic with a smile."

That whimsy translates into charm, and part of the DeMarco technique is to gather small evocative bits into handsome jewelry pieces, much like a treasured family charm bracelet.

She can do chic fun, too. A line of western designs is an assemblage of hats, boots, sheriff's badges and poker hands. "We do very well in Texas and the more glittery pieces are in boutiques in Las Vegas," she says. "The western line was our first big success when it was all the rage about eight years ago and it keeps going."

"The range of her ideas is incredible," says Ceresa Hawthorne. As jewelry buyer for the national chain of Cache boutiques, Ms. Hawthorne has bought DeMarco designs for the past three years. "We toss ideas around and she comes up with something special for us -- usually pieces with whimsy. Among our best sellers have been her zoo animal designs and a romantic heart earring."

The effects of fashion

Although her jewelry has an individual stamp, fashion fads and trends do affect sales. Earrings have been the greater portion of the business and her forte. "We really worked the big earring," says Ms. DeMarco. "But now that fashion is moving to small and delicate styles, I have to rethink some of the lines."

New business also leads in different design directions. Bonnie Grosso, who this year opened Noir in Cross Keys, wanted a bit more glamour and glitz. "The concept of the store is all-black, so I have to be careful to keep it from looking funereal," says Ms. Grosso. "I bought Mary DeMarco pieces with glitter and crystal. I have never met her, but I often remarked on pieces I saw my customers wearing. It was a happy coincidence that I bought from someone whose designs I had long admired."

In her studio, Mary DeMarco surrounds herself with stones, settings, castings and old photos and drawings for inspiration. Her current fancy is coffee-inspired. On her worktable are prototypes for a new line -- tiny coffee cups, saucers and spoons line up on a bracelet -- as endearing as doll house furnishings. It's that gentle touch that sells.

Mary Pat Andrea, owner of Night Goods, the dreamy sleep gift boutique at the Gallery is a DeMarco fan. "It's a new designer-retailer relationship," she says. "We met at a Hampden community activity. My shop features unusual and interesting gifts, her designs are beautiful and romantic. It seemed like a perfect match. The name of my company is Hometown Girls and when you meet one who does great stuff, it had to happen. We're both based in Hampden and find our daughters are in music class together."

Family matters

That sense of community keeps the DeMarco career from burning out in overdrive. "I work all the time," she says. "And, I do have a nanny for my little girls and boy aged 6, 4 and almost 2. But I take two days off in the week to devote to them."

When things get hectic, there are family hands to pitch in. Her cousin Judy works the La Terra earth-friendly gift shop that fronts the factory building, and acts as go-between with the upstairs operation. Mr. Wolfe handles the business aspects and oversees the half-dozen sales representatives. But his degree in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland makes him a sure bet with the factory machinery. He's comfortable in the fumes and whir of the casting room, where pewter is kept bubbling to be molded into pretties.

"Just a few turns of the centrifuge, a cool down and it's done," he says, showing off the unpolished beginnings of jewelry in the workroom.

It's a far cry from the days when Ms. DeMarco and Mr. Wolfe worked together in their Charles Village living room. While she stays close to home and factory, he travels and sells. At 35, she's pretty in a pre-Raphaelite way that complements her designs. He's 38, wiry and energetic.

"We were an Ocean City summer romance. We met at the beach when I was 17 and just graduated from Mercy High School. We have been together ever since," she says. When they do get to travel together, it is to Europe looking for unusual parts for new designs or the top industry trade shows where they show their work.

There have been great years and good years, Mr. Wolfe says, but the greatest aspect of the business is his wife's fantastic imagination.

"I'm always looking, rearranging," says Ms. DeMarco. "I fall in love with objects, natural elements, Victorian curlicues. I repeat a motif in different ways in different metals and stones."

Among her favorites are sculpted frogs, which she arranges into designs worthy of a princess. Theirs is a success story built on romance, fantasy and lucky charms -- and a lot of blistered fingers and long hours at the factory.

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