For 30 years, legendary jewelry designer Margaret Ellis created wearable works of art that became indispensable pieces in the jewelry collections of women across the country. A celebrated figure in the industry, Margaret began to contemplate retirement late in the past decade. She figured that would be the end of the company, saying, “I always thought I’d lock the door and walk away.” But opportunity knocked at that door in the form of a talented and industrious young temporary hire named Mclaine Richardson.
Mclaine was introduced to Margaret by her mother Connie Cathcart-Richardson, a long-time collector of Margaret Ellis jewelry and co-founder of Nashville Fashion Week. “I always told my husband just buy me something from Margaret for every occasion, and we’ll be good,” jokes Connie. “So Mclaine grew up with me wearing Margaret’s jewelry.” In fact, a ring to commemorate Mclaine’s 10th birthday was the first piece of jewelry that Connie ever gave her daughter. Margaret needed some help over the busy holiday season in 2009, so Connie suggested her daughter, who had been working in marketing at a healthcare company.
Margaret wasn’t necessarily looking to add any new people to her small creative staff, but Mclaine had a passion for jewelry design born of a program studying abroad in Florence, Italy, which inspired her to take more jewelry classes once back in Nashville. One of Margaret’s other long-time employees had given a one-year notice, so the designer decided to bring on Mclaine for what they thought would be a 2-3 year gig. Mclaine began to learn the business and turned out to be a very quick study.
“I already knew the process of making jewelry from my classes,” she recalls, “but I only knew how to do it the slow way. Production jewelry is different. We still make every component by hand, but know some secrets to do it faster.” Long-time employees Edward Tomlin and Anjy Smith taught Mclaine the tricks of the trade as Margaret stepped back into primarily the role of designer. One thing Mclaine noticed was that almost nothing about the business was automated, so she offered her expertise in streamlining the processes and took over social media and technology.
After three years of working together in the business, Margaret approached Mclaine about the possibility of her protégée taking over the business from the mentor. “She told me, ‘You can do this, and I want to help you!’” So Mclaine put together a self-financed two-year deal to purchase the business and its assets in December 2012, including the rights to all of Margaret’s designs. The deal would not have worked, however, without the buy-in of the rest of the staff. Connie explains, “A big part of the deal was that Edward and Anjy were willing to come along as part of the ride, and Mclaine stepped in as a 26-year-old and took over the lease in Cummins Station. She couldn’t have done that if it hadn’t been for Margaret’s confidence in her.” Edward and Anjy still work with Mclaine today creating every piece of the Margaret Ellis collection.
Margaret did everything she could to help make the transition as smooth as possible. Mclaine gratefully recounts, “Margaret prepared a lot of the wholesale customers who at that time were a big part of the business. She took me to market and trunk shows in the fall to introduce me to them. “She wanted our customers to know that I could do it and nothing would change.”
Mclaine did change some things, though, in a very organic fashion. “We were merging the aesthetics between Margaret’s and mine, and it took a few collections for me to feel confident enough to transition to what I thought the customers wanted,” Mclaine explains. “Buying habits are changing. People are paring down their collections and simplifying as part of a more casual lifestyle, so we have changed the collection accordingly. Inflation in our raw materials and our labor costs have increased, so we’ve simplified some designs to make them more affordable. The only way to make it cheaper would be to outsource production, and we’re never going to do that!”
One thing that didn’t change was the name of the company. Mclaine made the conscious choice to honor the legacy of the founder by maintaining the Margaret Ellis moniker on her collections, although more recently people have begun to refer to the company as “ME.” Mclaine knows that it is design that sets ME apart from others: “Our jewelry is for collectors, not just for casual shoppers; they want to invest in something timeless. Some other companies just put together manufactured parts and call themselves jewelry designers. We make every piece by hand and sign it. People love to buy art and meet the artist, and we give them that opportunity.”
One way that Mclaine has made it easier for her customers to meet the creators was by purchasing a cozy house at 2809 Bransford Avenue in Berry Hill and converting it into ME’s studio and showroom. (“People love not having to go downtown and find parking,” she jokes.) Mclaine and her craftspeople design, build, clean and repair their jewelry on site, and potential clients can visit the showroom during studio hours to discover new pieces of the collection or shop at luxury retail outlets around the Southeast in stores like Joseph in Memphis, MS McClellan in Knoxville, Nina Kuzina Gallery in Nashville and at high-end boutiques and galleries in Alys Beach, New York City, Chicago, Hilton Head, New Orleans and other cities.
Although the hours at the Bransford Avenue location are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Mclaine spends a lot more time than that in the office. “It’s not a glitzy job. After we close up for the day, I’ll stay up doing the financials at night and taking hundreds of photos of items for the website. Art seems glamorous, but it’s not effortless. The effort is different behind the scenes as we strive to be creative while we work on increasing our volume. You can’t scale this business and maintain the sort of quality we demand, but we’ produce two full collections each year (the new Spring Collection just launched!) and design and make custom pieces.”
The business has certainly changed since Margaret retired in 2013, five years before she passed away in Mexico in 2018, but there is no doubt that Mclaine is the proper steward of her mentor’s legacy. She acknowledges that their styles are different, but she is no less passionate in her dedication to the artistry of jewelry and the importance of delighting her customers: “Margaret had such a big personality that drew people to her; she could command a room, but I do better one-on-one. I don’t ever want to push people into buying something. I want them to buy it because they want it and they will wear it and love it for years to come!”
There’s plenty to love about ME, and Margaret Ellis’ legacy is secure thanks to this dedicated and capable young woman who continues to move the business forward.
To learn more about Margaret Ellis Jewelry, visit margaretellisjewelry.com.
This article is sponsored by Margaret Ellis Jewelry.