Leah Z. Portnoy Worenklein

Leah Z. Portnoy Worenklein

Wrist-Full of Jewels
2009 Fire Mountain Gems and Beads
Jewelry-Making Contest

Meet the Designer-Artist
I am often inspired by things in nature that I come across in everyday life that somehow catch my eye. These are astonishing sights that are available to every one of us every day, but most people don't choose to spend the time it takes to notice. For example, I was eating a pomegranate and after each bite, the remaining, newly uncovered seeds took on a new mesmerizing configuration. Instead of hardly noticing the seeds as I'm eating them, I find myself marveling at each brand new arrangement; comprised of absolutely luminous bunches of rounded red jewels, full almost to the point of bursting. When I saw how impossibly beautiful the inside of the pomegranate was, my brain immediately started to figure out whether I could capture this beauty and recreate it.

When I start out making a new piece, not only do I almost never know what it will look like in the end, but I also don't often know the techniques I will use along the way. I like to combine skills that I have learned or discovered in all kinds of different venues, and see how I can apply them to all kinds of different materials. I never took an actual jewelry-making class, but since I was a kid I have always played around with any available materials to see what I could get them to do. To continue my earlier example, I did not know that the technique of crocheting wire was one that people used, but I did know how to crochet, and I thought that perhaps crocheting some wire strung with rounded nuggets of garnet might be a great way to imitate the clusters of the pomegranate seeds.

The piece of jewelry of which I am most proud is actually that same piece that was born because I found inspiration in my pomegranate. Whereas I know that it is not possible for one of my creations to even equal the beauty of the object in nature that was its inspiration, my goal is to offer the experience of that same feeling that I got when I admired and wondered at that impossible and perfect beauty. I tried a few ways that I thought might create clusters similar to those plump seeds before I discovered that crocheting the wire with irregular smooth garnets produced the same feeling I was after. The resulting piece of jewelry is one of my favorite pieces--a cuff of four thick stripes of colors and luminosities: smoky quartz, deep red garnets, bright carnelian and glowing amber, crocheted into gold-filled wire forming a moderately stiff cuff that rests fairly closely around the wrist. I call it " Wrist-Full of Jewels."

Share Your Background
From a very young age I was always drawn to small shiny objects including beads and buttons. I used to walk into town to "The Notion Store" and spend time with all the sparkly items. Even while looking at them in the store, I was rearranging the items in my mind into pleasing groupings and imaginary creations. I started collecting beads before I was nine years old, and I still have and use some of those same beads now. I spent a lot of time trying to put them together in new and different ways with other found objects--whatever I could find. I found nylon quilting thread in my mother's sewing box and I made "illusion" earrings of four buttons magically suspended in space in descending size order. I worked and reworked them until I was pleased and the design was a stable one.

My mother taught me how to crochet and some basic sewing stitches, thereby giving me the tools to start thinking creatively about ways to put items together. The impulse to create served me well in college. Whenever I had a midterm or final exam approaching, I found that making jewelry would clear my head, and then I could focus on studying. I first began to sell some pieces at that time, predominantly pins made from interesting shapes arranged in interesting ways, at what might today be called a home jewelry party at my house. I found great materials (during finals week!) in Chinatown in Manhattan, tons of plastic pieces, sometimes miniature musical instrument replicas. I would take things apart--maybe from a hanging ornament, or some other found object--and use its components.

I actually discovered Fire Mountain Gems and Beads a few years ago when I was watching lots of "DIY" programs on TV. During an episode of "Jewelry Making" with Jackie Guerra, she mentioned that one of her guests was from Fire Mountain Gems and Beads and I immediately went to their website to take a look. Since then I have been periodically checking a slew of other sites to compare their prices, and Fire Mountain consistently comes out on top with the best price. I was hooked. I feel confident that whatever I buy from there is among the lowest, and usually the lowest price, and always good quality. When I decided to start my jewelry business, I bought all my start-up supplies from Fire Mountain. Since I was brand new at this and did not know exactly what I would be needing, I felt especially confident buying from Fire Mountain because I knew that if I ever made a mistake in purchasing, I could return it without hassle.

Beading Success
All through my life, creating wearable items and jewelry was a big part of who I was. Almost all of the attention and praise I received was for the things I created. My father was the rabbi of our community's congregation, and I had a weekly "audience" of admirers anticipating my next creation, whether it be a pin I made, or clips on my shoes, or the way I arranged the hand-me-down clothes that I needed to somehow make "my own." Over time I honed in on a few creative endeavors, and making jewelry was one of my most loved. It was a way I could display my own creations everywhere I went, to everyone I encountered.

Recently, jewelry-making has become absolutely crucial to my well-being. I started experiencing neurological symptoms when I was in college, and I was diagnosed with MS when I was 24, a year and a half after I got married. I had just completed the first year of my five-year doctoral program, working toward a PsyD in School PhD and Clinical Child Psychology. Soon afterwards, my symptoms started to really interfere with my life. Around the time I became pregnant with my daughter in 1996, I started to experience debilitating nerve pain shooting across the left side of my face. I was told that my trigeminal nerve was "mis-firing" due to a condition called Trigeminal Neuralgia that sometimes manifests with MS. Soon after I completed enough credits and internships to earn my Master's degree in 1999, the pain forced me to leave my program and I have not been able to work since.

Over the past 13 years this pain has grown more and more excruciating, despite the scores of medications my many doctors have tried. In 2000, I underwent Gamma-Knife Radiation, and in 2005, brain surgery, in attempts to get some relief. The surgery was not successful in alleviating the pain, but it did teach me that staying still (as I had no choice but to do after the surgery) did sometimes make it easier to tolerate. The downside, of course, is that staying still does not allow me to live my life the way I expected I would, or the way I want to. The more activity I do, the more my pain flares up. Acupuncture and change in diet have helped, but I am not able to work a full day, or with regular established hours, because I never know when I will be debilitated.

Although I have these severely limiting factors, I would rather move on to something good rather than sit with anger and grief over being unable to live the life I wanted, or to carry out the career I expected. So I chose to do something productive that I can do even when I am stuck in bed, and I decided to start a jewelry business. I used to picture how my life would go: first I would spend many years working full-time at helping children lead happier, more fulfilled lives, which I love, and then sometime down the road, after my "real" career, I would enjoy the luxury of opening some little boutique somewhere and sell my creations: unique jewelry, interesting knit and crocheted items, one-of-a-kind-handbags, and more. Given my new circumstances, I rearranged my thinking and realized that this could be my "real" career--I could skip straight to what I always knew I wanted to do in the end. I know that I am happy if I am creating something, and making jewelry was something that I loved and that I could do even if I was stuck on my bed. It was also a way that I could help contribute some earnings to our family, being ineligible for any governmental assistance since I was never able to put in the hours of work necessary to collect any social security benefits.

The two things that give my life real purpose are raising my daughter and creating my jewelry. Guiding my daughter along her path as she grows is clearly the most important purpose in my life, and is an opportunity to do what I love. But, especially as she grows more independent, making jewelry keeps my mind working hard at finding new, innovative and better ways to put objects together and manipulate them into new and beautiful and interesting creations. I am happiest when I am creating, and I have great pride in my work. When I wear or display or sell my creations, and receive praise and recognition for the thought and effort that goes into it, I feel the pride and satisfaction of contributing something beautiful, thought-provoking, and intriguing to others' lives.

View all of Leah's designs in the Gallery of Designs.