With family roots deeply ingrained in Southern history, Nashville native Helen Bransford is a thought-provoking soul with colorful stories to tell. Once married to novelist Jay McInerney (they’re still best buddies, thanks to impeccable chemistry), Helen spent most of her adult life in New York, traversing between there and Nashville. A jewelry designer and silversmith by trade, her stunning pieces have graced the likes of Bloomingdale’s and Barneys New York, and she’s now featured exclusively through Green Hills artisanal goods guru Reed Smythe & Company. Helen is also an author who wrote several articles for Vogue in the ‘90s, and she released a candid, self-help book about her personal experience with plastic surgery, called Welcome to Your Facelift. A passionate animal lover, she even has two pet pigs who sleep on her sofa. Please join me in welcoming our newest FACE of Nashville, the wonderful Helen Bransford!
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I’m from here. When I was 21, I moved to London, and I was the head waitress at the Hard Rock Café, the first one that ever opened, which was a lot of fun. The young guy who started it was a good friend of mine, so it was a blast. Then, once it was open and really established, which didn’t take too long — a year or two — I ended up moving outside London to Richmond Park, because I had always wanted to learn to make jewelry. I had watched a jeweler once when I was growing up here — I had taken my wisdom teeth to him, and I had drawn a picture of what I wanted. I watched him turn them into jewelry. I thought then, I can do that. I need to learn to do that; I know I can do it.
Once I had worked at the Hard Rock and made a little money, I went to a trade school outside of London for a year that taught you to make jewelry. They had these wonderful vocational schools, and it was $32 a year. I then did an apprenticeship under some jewelers at Hatton Garden, which is the jewelry section there, then I came back here. I have been doing jewelry ever since.
I still have customers who I’ll see who bought things 30 years ago. I see people every holiday season wearing stuff that I made so many years ago. It just blows my mind.
Can you tell us more about your line?
I would say it’s nature-inspired. One of my absolute favorites is the Dogwood Baby Cup, which sells really well and which I just love. I love utilitarian things; I love making useful stuff. I did a line of finials once, for the top of lamps, for instance. That was fun for me.
I was combing the beach once and found a tiny claw. What I do with some things is I’ll get them, and then I’ll seal them with wax. I make the originals of everything, and then I have them cast. Once I have the mold perfect, it goes into production. I’ll find something and dry it out in the oven, and then I’ll seal the porosity with wax, so it’s smooth enough. But I make a lot of stuff that’s adapted from nature.
I’m probably the worst person to talk about my line. It’s just stuff I like, and usually the last thing I’ve made is my favorite. For a month or two, I’m obsessed!
You have sterling silver spoons, one of which features the quote “Eat, Drink & Remarry.” Tell us about them.
Years ago, I made some rings that had sayings on them. This is like 25 years ago, but I took an old-fashioned typewriter apart — the kind you get at a flea market — and I took off the keys and pressed them into wax. I was married to Jay at the time, and I said, “Give me a good saying.” He gave me some that I was putting on the bands — relationship stuff. Then he said, “Eat, Drink and Remarry,” and I’ve always loved that phrase. That was how that one came about. I wanted to make them like fortune cookies, and that’s the most popular one.
You authored a very vulnerable, straightforward book called Welcome to Your Facelift. Can you talk about the book and how it came about?
I’m a redhead, and I’d been in the sun a lot. One day, I looked at a picture of myself, and I didn’t recognize myself. I said, “Oh my God, that looks like Sonia Rykiel.” It was terrifying to think I looked like somebody else. I had massive sun damage. To make a long story short, I went to this wonderful doctor who was very conservative, and he said, “No, you don’t need a facelift yet. Wait a couple of years.” So I did that. [And eventually underwent the facelift procedure.]
Back then, nobody mentioned plastic surgery. It wasn’t just profusely everywhere like it is now. I didn’t know anyone who’d had a facelift except older people, and even they wouldn’t talk about it. I was having dinner with Liz Smith, the gossip columnist, one night, and she said, “Honey, you need to write a book about this because everybody wants to know what it’s like. And you need to call it Welcome to Your Facelift.” So I said, “Okay, Liz.” Then I started taking notes.
It was easy because it was non-fiction. It was like a journal. I, of course, got very interested in the whole process and interviewed lots of doctors, which was riveting to me.
It’s still not very different, the procedure. What I wanted to have was a best friend guide to say, “Look, here’s what you need to have when you get home; here’s what you need to do; here’s what they won’t tell you. This is what you’ll feel like — you won’t want to go out; you’ll be scared to walk down the street.” I just wanted them to know the skinny because people in the doctor’s office wouldn’t tell you, and nobody would talk about it. I made a list of what you’d want at your bedside, excuses you can tell them at work. It was fun, really. I showed before, during and after pictures. I think there’s a picture in there of me on the day I woke up from surgery, which is terrifying. I’m a huge sweller, so it was just the worst!
We heard you have pigs. Please tell us about your babies!
I have a thing for pigs. Years ago, I got my first piglet. They are so funny and smart. I really love animals — I have an inordinate bond with creatures, which has now even spread to insects. I can’t even kill an insect. So I think maybe I’m moving into Jainism. But pigs adore people, and they are the smartest animal I’ve ever known. They are so smart, it’s spooky. They never forget anything. They are clean as a whistle — they pretty much self-housebreak.
I had this one pig, my first pig, she died a few days short of 21. That’s the one that Jimmy Buffet wrote the book about (Swine Not). Her name was Forky, and she lived with Jay and me and the kids in the Carlyle Hotel in New York, but it was hidden. Nobody knew. It’s this really elegant building, and if they know you have a pig, they’ll confiscate it, because it’s a farm animal.
Now I have two pigs who sleep on the sofa — Pinky and Little Mouse, and they are 9 and 7 years old, respectively.
What is your favorite place to take people when they’re visiting?
That’s easy. Belle Meade Plantation, because my mother was born there. She was born upstairs, so I feel at home there. I could almost be a guide there! My mother died at 81 in 1991, so if you want to do that math, feel free, but she was born upstairs at the Plantation in a four-poster bed. Her grandfather owned it at the time — his name was Judge McGavock Dickinson, and he owned Belle Meade Plantation at one point. His son was my grandfather, and he had TB in his 20s.
Judge Dickenson, who was Secretary of War under Taft, was frantic about that, so he looked all over the South to find a nurse. He’d heard about a woman who was a nurse in Charleston, and her name was Helen. He went to interview her, and her family didn’t want her to a) be a nurse, and b) be a nurse for anyone of the opposite gender. I have pictures of my grandmother, and her nursing uniform goes to the floor. It was just a different world. The judge persuaded her and her family to let her come live at Belle Meade Plantation and work with his son. She did, and they fell in love — she and the son. She wrote volumes of poetry that were published; I was told many romantic stories about her. They married, and she had two daughters, the second was my mother.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My father told me, “Happiness is a byproduct, not to be confused with a goal.”
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you cannot live without?
Animals, chocolate and MSNBC!
Thank you, Helen, for sharing your wonderful stories with us! And thank you to Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography for the beautiful photos.
She has a passion for pulmonary health and patient care, and she’s on the forefront of cutting edge lung health technological advances. Meet our newest FACE of TriStar, Dr. Susan Garwood of TriStar Centennial Medical Center. Click HERE.