When Cynthia Gale got married at the Belvedere Hotel 17 years ago, she made sparkly crystal and hematite jewelry for her bridesmaids that matched her wedding's 1920s theme.
The attendants might regret the flapper-style dresses when they look back at old photos, but they can be proud of those earrings. Owning a piece of Gale's jewelry puts her bridesmaids in good company.
Today, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, NBC newswoman Ann Curry and children's advocate Marian Wright Edelman own pieces of Gale's jewelry. And her work can be found in such major institutions as the National Gallery of Art, the John F. Kennedy Center, the American Museum of Natural History and the Washington National Cathedral.
Gale, a 1981 Dulaney High School graduate who now lives in New York, has carved a niche for herself designing museum-piece jewelry - which means institutions such as museums, galleries and theaters often commission her to create pieces that represent or are based on exhibits, collections or architecture in the storied buildings.
For example, when the Kennedy Center renovated its famous opera house last year, Gale designed a set of silver and gold jewelry with glowing garnets and opals based on the theater's magnificent 34-year-old Lobmeyr crystal chandelier.
She has recently crafted sterling silver pieces for the Washington National Cathedral, inspired by wrought-iron gates from the 1930s that were made by Samuel Yellin, considered by many to be one of the foremost blacksmiths of the 20th century.
Soon, she'll be putting together a collection for the American Museum of Natural History that incorporates a future dinosaur exhibit.
"I am a museum junkie," Gale, 41, says from her parents' Lutherville home, where she has been preparing for three Washington-area events this week. "I am absolutely addicted to museums, what they stand for. Our country's national institutions are very important to me."
As a child growing up in New York and the Baltimore suburbs, Gale was regularly exposed to the arts. Museums and performances were a regular part of life. She remembers being a singing, dancing, passion-filled Anita in West Side Story at Dulaney High.
After finishing high school, Gale went on to the University of Delaware and spent a year at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. From there, the lithe beauty spent years abroad working as a model. While traveling, she fell in love with Indonesia and began working there with a family of silversmiths, creating sterling silver pieces that were a detailed blend of the primitive and the urban.
In 1991, she started her own jewelry-making business, GeoArt by Cynthia Gale, which expanded into the lucrative custom-based museum niche - which she calls the Cynthia Gale Collection - in 1995.
She loves to use rich, exotic-looking jewels - such as blue topaz, citrine and cranberry pearls - that she finds on annual summer trips to Bali and Java with her husband, daughter and son.
But since the early days when Gale worked with the Balinese family of 19 brothers and sisters in Indonesia, her work has grown to a more polished and sophisticated look that museum curators particularly appreciate.
"When you see her jewelry, it's pretty magnificent," says Ann Stock, a vice president at the Kennedy Center. "She's extremely creative."
Many of Gale's creations are made using a technique called repousse, an ancient, labor-intensive and painstaking form of metalwork that she uses to shape jewelry by pushing designs through metal.
Not just any jewelry-maker can sell her wares in museum gift shops, as well as in an independent showroom and high-end department stores such as Neiman Marcus, Stock and others say. A patient and dedicated artist has to comb through the halls of a museum or historical structure, pull out what's special and make quality jewelry that accurately reflects that.
"Everything we do, every piece, every designer is approved by our curators," says Judy Luther, product development specialist for the National Gallery of Art. "We look for the quality of products that will really represent our collection."
Gale isn't just skillful, says Erik Vochinsky, general merchandise manager for the Washington National Cathedral. She also has a sensitivity toward museums, institutions, art and history.
"What we try to do with our product development is to celebrate that heritage and the artists and artisans who made this place what it is. And to create public awareness of what a cultural treasure the cathedral is," Vochinsky says. "We've been working with Cynthia for over three years. And we keep coming back to her, adding to the collection of designs that she creates based on the symbolism and artistry of the cathedral."
Gale's pieces start around $15 and go up to $600.
"I've done a lot of traveling. But I am a Baltimore girl. And I come from a family that was very modest," she says. "So I understand what it is to design jewelry that is expensive for people who want that kind of product; but I also feel it is just critical to design pieces for people that are very affordable."
Even her pricier jewelry sells quickly in museum gift shops, institution officials say, because the pieces have meaning.
Many pieces are spiritually based, such as a best-selling prayer bracelet or a set of cuff links in the shape of the Jerusalem cross given to South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a gift. Both Oprah Winfrey and Ann Curry have one of Gale's more popular pieces - the Seven Family of Faiths bracelet, which has dangling charms representing the seven major world religions.
Most customers, however, simply appreciate being able to take away small pieces of the cultural, historical or religious institutions they love - in the form of beautiful jewelry, Gale says.
"There's a story there," Gale says. "When people wear [my jewelry], they feel like they're wearing something that has meaning behind it."