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Jewelry Designer Has Got All the World on a String


What do American cut crystal from the '40s, sterling beads from Nepal, shards of 500-year-old Chinese ceramic vases, painted wooden beads from Guatemala and metal charms from Afghanistan and India have in common?

They are among the materials North Tustin jewelry designer Ilene Sirota draws from to string her signature necklaces, pins, bracelets and earrings. Her wearable collectibles are a United Nations of beads that connect the past with the present in adornments that are timeless.

To Sirota, 48, jewelry-making is "like cooking. I throw a few of these in and a pinch of this and a couple of those." She begins with major pieces, such as a disc covered in the silk of an antique kimono, and builds from there. Her method is part instinct and part life experience sprinkled with a dash of confidence and the sort of expertise guided by formal art training.

Japanese charms fit comfortably next to Chinese coins and between American semiprecious stones. Components joined from Turkey, Ecuador and Egypt create an eclectic combination that few would consider pairing. But that is the intrinsic charm of Sirota's work: Fans are inspired to wear it with everything from jeans to elegant dresses.

"I don't mind mixing cultures," she said. "They may not get along in real life, but they do on my necklaces."

Years spent traveling with her husband and children exposed the Brooklyn native to the carefully crafted beads, fabrics and other materials that she would eventually figure out what to do with.

The day she graduated from Brooklyn College in 1968 with degrees in art and art history and a teaching credential, Sirota and her husband, Ed, a civil engineer, moved to San Francisco. Within months, they were off to Hawaii and spent intervals in Singapore and Indonesia. In Honolulu, she taught fine art at private junior high and high schools.

The couple zigzagged through four cities in the United States and Canada in 1973 and ended up in Los Angeles. In the following four years, their growing family bounced from L.A. to Iran and Indonesia. The Sirotas moved to North Tustin in 1978 with three children and loads of folk art, prints, indigenous clothes, toys and craft tools and supplies from their travels.

It was while directing the artist-cooperative Galleria at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana a decade ago that she discovered her knack for making jewelry. She and other regional artists fashioned pins for a gallery fund-raiser and, Sirota said, "I made 36 pins and sold them within two weeks. That started it."

Initially, Sirota created a name for herself with colorful pins made of unusual leathers. In 1988, she expanded her material selections to glass, ceramic, metal and just about anything available, and with it her time dedicated to the burgeoning business. Even traveling has turned into casual expeditions for eclectic materials.

"Wherever I go I try to expose myself to whatever is indigenous to the area," Sirota said. "If something amuses me, I buy it and figure out what to do with it later. I know eventually I'll use it.

"I have to admit I'm getting good at it," she said, smiling.

To supply the 48 art and craft shows she now does annually--including 24 this fall--she spends up to 12 hours a day putting together about 4,000 pieces.

Coming shows include this weekend's Red Barn Bazaar at Bixby Ranch in Long Beach and "All About Christmas" at Peter's Landing in Huntington Harbor, as well as the Artistic License ethnic show at Estancia Park in Costa Mesa on Oct. 28 and 29.

Her signature Christmas necklaces attract the greatest attention every year. They feature components from Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador and the United States and sell for $38 to $58.

The rest of the collection is as affordable: spiral bracelets, $42 to $75; necklaces, $32 to $85; earrings, $6 to $35, and pins, $25 to $40. Sirota also takes special orders and creates pieces with the customer's own items.

Just as beautiful pieces shouldn't get stuck in a drawer, Sirota believes "art should be worn and enjoyed rather than static on the wall."

"When I stopped painting to make jewelry, people kept asking me when am I going back to my art--as if that's a real art form and this is not. But I feel like I'm going full circle. This is an extension of my fine art."

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