Minneapolis, MN—Janel Russell of Janel Russell Designs Inc. of St. Paul, MN, has had an interesting career. It began the way so many do: she needed to make a living. Today she is a personal jeweler with a non-traditional but very successful business. And she created and licenses one of the most iconic designs in the industry, one that pulls up more than 28 million results—yes, that’s 28 million--on a Google search. The Centurion recently spoke to Russell about her career.
“I was married young, then divorced with a son by age 22,” says Russell about her start in jewelry. “I needed money and had tested high for jewelry making.” She attended a Minneapolis vocational school for jewelry manufacturing and repair in the mid 1970s and, following that, she worked with G. Allan Jewelers in downtown Minneapolis, doing custom work and repairs. But a few years later, she got restless.
“One of my schoolmates had developed a line and wanted a rep in the Twin Cities areas,” said Russell. “I had been doing that for three weeks and mentioned it to my parents. My dad was furious and very unhappy with me.” As it turned out, Dad thought it was ridiculous that Russell was repping someone else’s line: he felt she should be designing and selling her own creations.
Russell took her father’s advice to heart. In 1981 she developed the now instantly recognizable ‘Mother and Child®’ design, which began selling well right away, and steadily gained popularity. “That took me down a new path and I was lucky enough to run into the Kirchners at a trade show. We began a licensing agreement, something new to us both and they took over manufacturing and distribution. They have developed it beyond what I was doing with it. They took it from a design sold in five states to one sold all over the US and beyond.” Initially they renewed their agreement yearly but Russell says they’re now “married for life.”
The original Mother and Child design; at right, a later version based on a heart.
And while the Mother and Child is a large part of Russell’s business today, she’s continued to design and offer custom work. Currently she works as a personal jeweler in a jewelry co-op featuring three businesses in a townhouse. While each business has a website presence (with e-commerce for online buying), they are a quiet business. No advertising.
“We don’t do outreach marketing,” says Russell. “If someone is happy, that person will send us anywhere from two to four more people. We’re all on Facebook and have an internet presence as well.” Russell currently is redoing her website and is working with GemFind on some e-commerce based solutions. “It’s a needed next step.”
The store location has evolved. “We tried a few locations over the years,” said Russell. "We finally decided to go higher end. We built out this office in a townhouse with no walk-by traffic. We work by appointment, although some of our special customers do drop in on occasion. We’re a traditional business in many ways, although our presentation is non-traditional.”
The townhome is three stories. There’s a basement for storage. The first floor houses Russell’s office, reception, and the showroom. The showroom has showcases built into the walls with no glass, so that customers can reach in and pull out items. “When we initially moved in here we had little stock,” says Russell. “We didn’t put anything in the showcases unless it was made here. Then, after four years of having nothing in the showcases, we started buying lines that didn’t compete with what we do.” Today the showcases stay filled with jewelry in price points from $250 to $2,000.
And the third floor? It’s evolved into a space for jewelry making and an area for common tools including CAD and milling equipment. “We get lots of manufacturing done.”
Russell today has two partners. Jake Fuhrman was her first partner and they still work together. Russell initially hired him, appreciating his artistic spin on jewelry. Fuhrman and Russell worked together in a jewelry store for Russell’s high school teacher and have the longest relationship. “Jake and I were together for eight years before we moved to this location 11 years ago,” says Russell. “Our personalities fit.” Today he’s the person behind First Impressions, the company that makes custom fingerprint jewelry. He began creating them in wax models and today it’s a matrix program for it all. All the fingerprints are made on the third floor.
The third person is Andrew Bugher. “Andrew’s strength is fabrication and he currently offers CAD and mill service work for jewelers.” Today the three of them work tougher in the townhouse along with their teams to manufacture the various pieces.
Not all the partners have been permanent. “Mike Magee started out as blacksmith making swords then he went to work for George Sawyer making Mokume Gane. Then he took up Rhino and Matrix and taught CAD at a local Community collage. Jake and I met him at a Gemvision event then and shortly after he moved into our space. He was with us for about four years before GIA pulled him for the GIA CAD and bench work program in Carlsbad. We miss him!”
So how does it work with three personalities with three separate business in one building? “After so long, we know each other and we try to get along,” says Russell. “Of course there are issues from time to time but we work them out.” The three don’t all keep the same hours. “They come in earlier, and I stay later,” says Russell. And at the holidays, “We just live here, like everyone else during that season!” she laughs. They do manage each other’s customers as needed. They have commissions established when one is out of the office, so that they can be interchangeable to keep business moving.
Back to the idea that started it all: Mother and Child. Russell offers a number of variations on her original design through her online store, and in 1999 created the Mother and Child Heart jewelry line. At this time, both the heart and original designs are owned and distributed by the Richline Group. And if you Google ‘mother and child pendant,’ you get about 28,500,000 results in less than a second.
Not surprisingly, such a popular design is ripe for knockoffs. “Over the years, I have filed 60+ complaints in Federal Court, four in Canada, one in South Africa and two in Europe,” says Russell. Her attorneys also have sent out more than 200 cease-and-desist letters. Today, her website carries this notice for those who would create unauthorized copies:
Russell has licensed four designs but none have hit as well as Mother and Child, she says. “It just won the hearts of so many people that it worked. And a lot of credit goes to Kirchner for terrific distribution and a great relationship.” Today Russell keeps designing and sometimes keeps up with what she calls ‘grunt work’ in order to free up her partners to do more technically challenging pieces. She jokes that she tries to get her partners to do all her work, but it’s clear that jewelry and designing will always be her passions.