Flower: Tell us a little about your roots and upbringing.
Clara Williams: I grew up in Ohio in the countryside with a lot of room to play and explore. It was a bit of a drive to get anywhere, so we had to make our own fun and creativity was a part of that. My father had a small workshop in the basement, and I found it fascinating to see what projects were going on—fixing things and the like. My mother was a painter and probably an interior designer at heart. She was always moving the furniture around in our house, and I do the same thing. I think it’s a genetic trait!
So you grew up in a creative atmosphere, but chose to get an MBA and work in the tech sector. Tell us about that.
Part of my upbringing involved that workshop I mentioned, and I really loved figuring out how to make things. I think that’s why I was so interested in technology. I am a true techie—I love keeping up with the cutting-edge trends. The explosive growth at U.S. Robotics, a data communications company I worked for, was so exciting. My years in that field were so meaningful to starting my own business. Those lessons from business school and the workplace informed many of my decisions.
Popular Clara Williams Jewelry Designs
What inspired you to shift directions?
I’ve always loved jewelry from making enamel earrings at summer camp to fiddling around in the Hopkins Art Center at Dartmouth where I was an undergraduate English major. I started creating pieces in the metal-smithing studio, and this was my creative outlet during that time. After my first daughter was born in 2001, I was seeking a more flexible experience than the intense tech environment, so I started designing jewelry for friends, then more in earnest. I started my company with ten thousand dollars, putting my Harvard MBA know how into action.
How has your business evolved?
When I started out, I tried to make something for everyone, offering pieces at all different price points. I realized that wasn’t sustainable and I needed to establish a signature. A dear friend with a great eye for style encouraged me to do what I liked best. That was so liberating for me! To succeed in business, you really do need to listen to other people. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
What inspired the unique interchangeable designs in your work?
It really was a happy accident. I was working with a pink tourmaline as the focal point for one necklace, and I cut a bead in half and attached it on either side of the stone. I realized I had stumbled into a very interesting concept. I presented the first collection of these pieces to the esteemed retailer Mildred Hoit in Palm Beach (who graciously gave me some airtime!) and she decided to run with it.
Tell us where you find inspiration.
My sister teases me that I find inspiration in everything! I do look to nature and enjoy hiking and fly fishing and seeing what colors nature puts together that may be unexpected. I also look to the flowers in my rooftop garden in our home in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. I love to travel and find much inspiration through that—from the stained-glass windows in cathedrals to the animated colors of India. I also find inspiration in the women that wear and help create my jewelry and in my everyday life in our eclectic Chicago studio space that mixes a raw stark side with antiques and hot pink office chairs. For employees who have worked with me for five years or more, I design a collection inspired by and named for them.
What’s on the horizon for the brand?
One of the first strands of beads that I purchased as a designer was a gorgeous strand of tumbled pink rubies. The rubies were strung on an interesting pink rope that was adjustable at the back. Almost 20 years later, I still think about that Indian cord and was driven to fashion a similar concept but in 18K gold and sterling silver. This year, I’m launching my Heritage Collection of adjustable necklaces in homage to that Indian cord. It is both practical and gorgeous. Stay tuned!
The Flower Questionnaire: Getting to Know Clara Williams
1 | On a typical day, we can expect to find you … doing drop-off at school, in my studio checking in with the production team, meeting with clients in the showroom, and working with our sales and marketing team to look at imagery for email campaigns or our website.
2 | An ideal Saturday would include … playing tennis in the early morning, watching my daughter’s field hockey game, and going out with friends for dinner.
3 | If you were not a jewelry designer, you might be … an engineer or a venture capitalist.
4 | What flower best represents your personality and why? The peony. It’s hot pink, big and bold. It’s a spring flower—a great sign of good things to come.
5 | When and where are you happiest? Hosting a rooftop dinner with close friends and family.
6 | Name 3 people who inspire you. My grandmother who is 102. She is a lifelong learner and is committed to community involvement. My daughters—they are smart, creative, and loving. (I know I’m biased!) Tory Burch—she is an amazing businesswoman.
7 | Name 3 things that are essential to your well-being. Elta face lotion with SPF; colorful surroundings; and Greek yogurt.
8 | What is your home style like? I have many family antiques, and I love to mix them with modern elements. I prefer a layered, lived-in look. I want a space to be really beautiful to the eye but approachable and comfortable at the same time. I like being in a home where people know you actually live there.
9 | How do you use flowers in your entertaining and décor? Flowers are a central part of entertaining. Friends who come to stay with us in our home always have fresh flowers in their room, and I love to cut flowers from our garden. For really special occasions I order flowers from my favorite Chicago florist Green Inc. on Wells.
10 | What do you do to relax/recharge?
11 | What is your garden like? It’s a rooftop garden with flowers; pear and apple trees; and easy-to-grow tomatoes, green beans, and a variety of peppers and herbs.
12 | What was your most memorable meal? Pancakes at John’s Place in Lincoln Park Chicago. It was where my husband and I had our first date. He was impressed that I unabashedly ate the entire stack!
13 | If you feel like indulging, what is your food of choice? Fresh guacamole and chips.
14 | Your favorite hotels/travel destinations are …
15 | What are your 3 favorite movies of all time? Thelma and Louise, Aliens, and Tootsie.
16 | Your current TV obsession. Jack Ryan and 60 Minutes.