Local designers offer unique shopping experiences
It isn’t the most elegant or exceptional gem in my jewelry box, but the dainty, smoky quartz pendant I purchased on a trip to Colorado has for years been my favorite accessory.
Each time I wear it, I’m reminded of that dewy, summer morning stroll through Colorado Springs, where I encountered an elderly couple who made their living panning for raw gems and minerals in the Arkansas River. Their modest shop was cluttered with handmade jewelry, each piece unique.
I learned that the proprietors had descended from prospectors and were keeping a tradition alive. They thanked me for my $20 purchase as if it meant all the difference in the world, and on that day, maybe it did.
It is well worth it to sometimes forego the convenience of big-box retailers and patronize creators from within our Emerald Coast communities.
Pensacola resident Christine Miller started her business, Storm Shadow’s Jewelry, shortly after her mother’s passing in 2013. Miller, who is part Cherokee, Creek and Apache, said she learned indigenous beading techniques from her mother at an early age and created her online gallery (stormshadowsjewelry.com) to honor her.
“My business’s name is a combination of my Indian name and my mother’s,” said Miller, who today specializes in gemstone, wire and chain mail jewelry. “When I went to settle out her estate, I discovered tons of beads and jewelry she had made. Some of that is for sale, but I have learned how to make my own creations.”
Miller said she continues using the techniques her mother taught her but, through her own studies, has developed a penchant for chain mail — armor-like accessories made of intricate, metallic-ringed “weaves.” Some take “days and days to learn,” she said, while others are simpler.
In Miller’s opinion, some of her best pieces were specially made for individual customers. Recently, she helped a woman memorialize her departed pet by encasing a bit of its fur in a miniature glass bottle.
“I did wirework around that bottle and wove her a chain so she could always carry it with her,” Miller said. “She trusted me to make that tribute for her, which meant a lot. I always love receiving custom orders and being able to create unique, specific pieces for people.”
A former wardrobe stylist in Nashville, Merry Beth Myrick began making her own accessories to complement the unique looks she put together for celebrities, such as Grammy award-winning artist Brandi Carlile.
But the glitz and glamor of styling photo shoots, red carpet events and commercials eventually faded, and Myrick yearned for true community. She packed up and headed for Santa Rosa Beach, where she has been honing her metalsmithing techniques for the past five years.
Working with copper, silver and gold, Myrick likes to incorporate unique materials, such as hand-molded sting ray skin, to stretch her creativity. Her creations are available at a number of local retailers and Wearmerry.com.
“I let the metal talk to me,” Myrick said. “I never plan a design or draw it beforehand, because the final product will be a let-down. Working with new materials is a way for me to take my brain to a place it doesn’t normally go. It’s a challenge, and even if I have to back down, I’m learning along the way.”
Myrick often listens to audiobooks while she works. She is moved by words and acknowledges their influence on her artistry.
“A character will be angry, and suddenly, I find myself working with points and making dagger-like designs,” she said. “But, if I’m swept away in a romance, the metal will look brushed and soft.”
For that reason, custom orders are her favorite projects. Learning people’s stories and creating pieces that embody them, she said, is the best part of her job.
“Jewelry is sentimental,” Myrick said. “It speaks and reminds you of a feeling. When I can capture that for people, it feels like a therapeutic experience for both of us.”
Like Miller, Mary Ellen DiMauro’s calling stemmed from a family pastime. At age 10, DiMauro received a sewing machine for Christmas from her grandmother, who then taught her how to work with fabric. Today, she sells her gauzy, beachy, bohemian apparel at maryellendimauro.com and by appointment at her studio at 416 S. County Highway 393.
Originally from Athens, Georgia, DiMauro first traveled to the Emerald Coast for a college fashion internship, and in 2016, she participated as an emerging designer in South Walton Fashion Week. It was the feedback and support she received from that experience, she said, that “got the ball rolling on the beach.”
“I fell in love with the area and knew I wanted to build my brand here,” DiMauro said. “Everything I make, I design with comfort in mind. It’s loose, flowy, relaxed and much of it is one-size-fits-all. People can shop the collections I have available, but right now, I’m doing a lot of made-to-order pieces.”
DiMauro is a self-proclaimed “textile hoarder” whose designs are often inspired by the materials from which they’re made. There is beauty in imperfection, she said, and she demonstrates that with asymmetric hemlines and the use of repurposed, vintage cloth.
“I love anything with texture,” she said. “I cannot throw away a scrap of fabric, and I think that’s something special because in the fashion industry there’s so much waste. I like to say, ‘No scrap left behind!’ In 2022, I’m working to get all my fabric sourced sustainably, whether I’m recycling material or getting remnants from major fashion companies.”
Brandy Carter also has experienced the effects of what she calls a “throwaway society.” She and husband Brent Carter inherited her parent’s footwear repair business in Panama City, but they found that today’s consumers are quick to toss out an old pair of shoes and buy new ones.
Brandy wondered, “Other people make shoes, why can’t we?”
Focusing on sandals, the Carters took apart Brandy’s flip-flop collection and redesigned a shoe founded on comfort. They amassed a following selling their “Southern Soles” brand at farmers markets and in 2019, opened The Gulf Coast Sandal Factory at Pier Park in Panama City Beach.
“It’s a factory because people can come in and pick their foot bed and strap colors, add arch support or a wedge, request an embroidery and get it custom-fit to their foot,” said Brandy Carter. “You get to be the designer.”
Carter said customers can expect a 24-hour turnaround time. They ship orders for free. Southern Soles are made from marine vinyl (the same material used for boat seats) and are washable and waterproof.
“The reception has been overwhelming,” Carter said of being a local artisan. “Each year, customers are coming back to buy more. They’re coming back with their friends and family; they’re putting in more online orders.
“Word of mouth alone has helped us grow tremendously. I can’t talk about it without getting emotional; the whole experience has been a blessing.”