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

July 20, 1995|By Vida Roberts | Vida Roberts,Sun Fashion Editor

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."

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