Leigh Maxwell: Handmade with Heart

With collections inspired by the women of the world, jewelry designer Jennifer Maxwell is behind the stunning brand, Leigh Maxwell. With pieces developed in 18k gold and precious gemstones, handmade designs are prominent and designed to last for generations. Maxwell has created a powerful, beautiful brand, and is sitting down with Pietra Communications for a behind-the-scenes scoop.

Tell us about your friendship with Brigitta. How did you meet, and at what point did you decide to collaborate on a line together?

Our friendship began 7-8 years ago when I interned in the jewelry industry. I was looking to learn the basics of goldsmithing and CAD work. Brigitta was my bench instructor. We had a similar aesthetic and enjoyed working together, so when I started my business, I naturally hired Brigitta. She was my only employee for the first five years of Leigh Maxwell. Now we have another extremely talented bench jeweler in our studio who helps create our one-of-a-kind creations.

Do you both design or who manages what part of the business?

I have always been the designer behind our pieces, but Brigitta and Chad often weigh in on final designs. They both have more experience on the bench than I have, so they are great at troubleshooting and helping with the functionality of pieces.

Why is the commitment to hand fabrication, and the use of natural gems a focal point of your business?

Hand fabrication is the foundation of Leigh Maxwell. I was initially led to the jewelry industry after having collected handmade jewelry on my travels. When I reach for the jewelry from those times, I am immediately transported back to the locations that touched me and am reminded of the relationships developed with local artisans. When I stopped traveling to stay home and raise my children, I realized the art of hand fabrication was rare in the US and I was inspired to learn the art myself and continue to value the artistry of hand fabrication.

Tell us about the significance of Cedar Rapids to you, and your company.

Cedar Rapids is where I was born and raised. As a child, I did not appreciate the Midwest and could not wait to get out. After college, I returned to Iowa for medical school and have been here since. I could not be prouder of my Midwest roots. Midwest Nice is a real thing, and the work ethic of a Midwesterner is no joke. The state of Iowa is beautiful, with bluffs along the Mississippi, green rolling hills, and wide-open spaces to roam.

What are some milestones that are represented through your jewelry? Are there certain ones that customers often reach out to you for?

Many of our customers are self-purchasers and find many opportunities to express their individuality through their collections. Our hearts are our biggest sellers and are often gifted to celebrate anything from Mother’s Day, birthdays and, of course, Valentine’s Day. We have also been honored to create bespoke pieces for special clients to commemorate significant family traditions.

For Jennifer Maxwell, how did you transition from your previous career as a health physician to jewelry?

I touched on my transition from medicine earlier. When I left medicine to stay home with my family, I continued to treasure my memories of international travel and the relationships built during that time. The jewelry I collected on those travels serves as a reminder of those times. When I decided to take bench classes, I had no intention of creating a business; I just wanted a hobby. I am genuinely so grateful for the opportunity I have had to turn my hobby into a career I love.

Brigitta Luttrell, how did Syracuse influence your career, and what was the transition into jewelry from there?

I received a BFA from Syracuse University in Jewelry and Metalsmithing so jewelry was a part of my career path from the beginning. The program was focused on hand fabrication and pushing the boundaries of what jewelry could be. As Leigh Maxwell has grown, I’ve taken on more administrative role in the company, but my background in art and fabrication is useful in the development of our collections. We are lucky to have a very excellent jeweler, Chad, working with us in Cedar Rapids.

Where did the idea for the Camo collection come from? Usually one thinks of rough and tough, and this flips the idea on its head with a beautiful luxury product.

The camo collection came from a chance green sapphire found in Los Angeles. I was looking for new green gems for a fall collection and fell in love with green sapphires. They are subtle compared to other green gemstones and fit our aesthetic of casual luxury so well. My first thought when seeing them was Camo. As an Iowa girl, camouflage was more associated with hunting than fashion, but in LA, I saw camouflage as a fashion staple in a new light. With many of our clients having homes in places like Jackson Hole, Houston and Big Sky, it made sense to try Camo, elevating it from hunting gear to luxury fashion. It took much longer to develop the process than I had anticipated. It was essential to get the mix of colors perfect and the pattern to subtly say “camouflage” without screaming it.

Tell us about the symbolism in the Bahari collection.

I have always been a water girl. The ocean is where I feel most at home, so naturally, I tied the beauty of the sea into my collection. Bahari means “the sea” in Swahili, so that is where the collection’s name originated. We lean into the most luscious pearls in the Bahari collection and keep things simple. The pavé “stars” in the collection represent how the sun reflects off the surface of the waves.

Can you discuss your Amani Collection and how it reflects African beading, as well as why you chose to represent this?

The Amani collection is the DNA of our brand. These disk pendants feature graduated pavé in concentric circles, like the intricate beadwork created by artisans in East Africa. Other pieces within the collection are simple and represent the simple rhythmic nature of life in East Africa.

You have a lot of fun heart pendants. What is your personal connection to hearts and why the draw to expressing them in pendant form?

If the Amani collection is the DNA of Leigh Maxwell, our hearts are the heart of the brand. Having been born with a congenital heart defect, which was repaired at age 5, I was frequently the recipient of heart motif gifts. As a teen, I decided I never wanted to see a heart again and would never have considered myself a heart jewelry person. In 2009 while training for a marathon, I experienced a heart attack due to a rare heart condition called Coronary Artery Dissection. I was fortunate to survive that heart attack and a second one in 2014. I have since been involved with and support the American Heart Association. Our hearts come from this experience. With 30% of our pavé being reverse set, our hearts are slightly edgier and not your traditional sweeter heart. People have gravitated to them as symbols of love, recovery, or remembrance.

Which gemstones have been your favorites to work with?

I often get this question, and my answer is ever-changing. I love a good rose zircon, but I am also a sucker for an unheated fancy tanzanite. There are just so many options I can’t land on just one!

Can you share your personal and professional mantras?

My mantra is the same, both personally and professionally. It’s about relationships. Whether in work or play, relationships come first for me. I love meeting the artisanal miners when I travel to East Africa, and I love knowing the person who cut my gems or the vendor I purchase them from. My retailers are the best, and I love the friendships developed there and the customers I have met while at trunk shows. I’m still determining if that is a mantra or more of my ethos, but that is the core of everything for me.

As the two continue to work together, their designs consistently exemplify the power of being a woman, and the inspirations each have encountered along their journeys as designers. To learn more about the designs from Leigh Maxwell, visit www.leighmaxwell.com. They also can be found on Instagram @leighmaxwelljewelry.

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