Mary Beth Mead always felt inclined to collect vintage jewelry, especially from the ’40s and ’50s. “I love the colors they used – bright and funky, and a little off,” she smiles gesturing toward a string of seafoam green beads in her studio, a converted shed with piles, containers and strands of beads in every shape and color in every nook and cranny. Shelves, an antique mannequin, and framed mesh wiring display her finished pieces – elaborate, intricate earrings, necklaces and bracelets upcycled from old jewelry.
Waukesha-born Mead never intended to become a jeweler, her former occupations are as random as the beads she’ll string together to create a beautiful necklace.
One of her first jobs was working as a tour secretary for rock and roll bands for five years in Los Angeles. “I worked for Supertramp, Kansas,” she recalls. “It was really exciting. I coordinated with the tour manager, things like making sure T-shirts got to concerts they were doing, setting up interviews. I would go to some of the bigger shows. That was like another life.”
Before long, Mead tired of the Los Angeles lifestyle. “I’m a Wisconsin girl,” she said. “It was very stressful living in LA, especially if you’re from the Midwest. It never slows down!”
From there she moved to Door County, where she grew up vacationing and her parents retired. She made a living working seasonally at random service industry jobs as most Door County residents do: “I waitressed, did hotel work, bookkeeping. I would spend the winters in Colorado or Los Angeles for a small job I could do for the winter.”
While living in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, she met her husband Christopher Parzych. “I talked him into coming here and checking it out,” she recalls.
The couple has called Door County home for about 30 years. Parzych owns and operates Sister Bay Paint Company; Mead helps out with paperwork and bookkeeping. Her foray into jewelry-making is fairly recent, however, for 15 years she worked as a massage therapist.
“My hands and wrists started to go,” she explains. “I thought, ‘What else can I do?’”
As chance would have it, she took a beading class, which led her to explore a bead store, then to the vintage jewelry she collected since high school.
“I remember thinking, ‘There’s this necklace I should take apart and use some of the beads,’” she says. “And I had all this jewelry, with great beads. So I started taking apart all of this jewelry.” With an assortment of old and new beads, she went to work creating fresh, new, original pieces, which she gave away as gifts.
Then her sister-in-law Mary Mead and friend Kay Arneson said, “You gotta sell this stuff. People will want that!”
So, Mead grabbed a few pieces and popped in Viva La Cottage (no longer in business). “Angie [McMahon] was enthusiastic,” said Mead, who also visited Patricia Shoppe in Egg Harbor. “Erin [Anschutz Bosman] was just crazy for them. ‘I’m buying it all,’ she said. She bought everything I had.”
Mead’s jewelry line, Lotus Jewel, did well in both locations. She produced more pieces and started showing them at vintage flea markets, Settlement Shop markets, Turtle Ridge, Ecology Sports, and most recently Spot.
To create such an array of pieces, some tailored specifically for the location they will be displayed, Mead turns to a variety of resources: “I go online, I go to antique malls, garage sales, people will give me a box of old jewelry and say, ‘Here, I will give you this box if you make me a piece of jewelry,” which Mead is happy to do. A number of people have approached Mead with an heirloom necklace, earring, bracelet, cuff link or old chain and asked her to make something from the piece.
She also uses unconventional items to create her jewelry, like buttons (“I love buttons! They are like jewelry,” she says), old zippers, drawer pulls, washers, and most recently vintage fishing lures.
“I have two sisters-in-law who love to fish so I thought, ‘What can I make them?’” says Mead. “So I made them fishing lure necklaces and they were like, ‘You should sell these!’”
Though, with a multitude of options at her fingertips, it’s a wonder she can decide which beads and buttons and pearls and fishing lures go together.
“What I like to do is lay things out,” she explains, “grab one of these necklaces, grab a strand of beads, lay things by each other, throw some buttons there and that inspires me with what I’m going to make.”
Essentially, she thrives on “making something new from something old.” She smiles, studying the cuff link bracelet she wears around her wrist, “I like that somebody else had this.”
Photography by Len Villano.