The Story of Laurel Burch––A Woman of Courage and a Philanthropist

Laurel's artistic spirit emerged as she began making jewelry for herself and others.

Laurel Burch was a jewelry maker who was a favorite of mine. I wore her jewelry, gave her works as gifts, received them as gifts, and admired them––and I do that even to this day. Then one day I got to meet her at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh when she came to talk with the patients and to provide gifts and hope. She was remarkably inspirational.

We all need role models to help us dream, to figure out what we might be able to do, to show us how others do it, to help us understand ourselves and how life might be going forward.

Here is Laurel Burch's story: Laurel had the courage to be different, to dream, and to create The Spirit of Womankind jewelry. Her journey to prosperity encourages the faint-hearted among us.

"I once met a man in the jungles of Bali," says Laurel. "We didn't have more than two or three words in common, but when he saw my drawings, he threw his head back and his eyes sparkled. He beamed; his face was illuminated. His delight was universal. Now he carves the mythical menageries that cluster like shrines in my house, my shops, and my displays. All ways of life increase one's sense of spirit. All offerings come back in such ways.

"When I was a girl, I used to collect little stones in bags. I delighted in their shapes and colors. When I got home, I'd put them in different arrangements and love them. When I started school, I'd rarely come straight home. I'd meander around seeking secret hideouts I knew were full of treasures from other worlds. I remember always dreaming beyond what I knew, then coming up with something that made the dreams come true. When I was seven, I put on shows in my garage for the neighborhood kids. I'd collect money from them, then figure out what I was going to do.

"I ran away from home at fourteen and ended up in a Catholic boarding school. That summer, when the boarders went home, it was thirty nuns and me. I didn't have parents, I didn't have friends. I created my world out of imaginary cultures, other worlds, fantasy animals. I converted my room into the hideouts of my childhood. I'd put on a grass skirt and dance to recorded music from Bora Bora, read The Prophet, or pretend I was a flamenco dancer. Mother Superior didn't approve."

She went on to talk about many of the things she would do and how friends sheltered her and her two children when she had no where else to go. She made jewelry to thank them; these were shaped with beads, coins, bones she found on the streets. She worked in a jewelry store, with most of the money going for a babysitter for her children. She sold earrings for $2 a pair, having no idea what they really could be worth.

One day she walked into a store wearing her jewelry. The owner loved them and asked her to make jewelry for her as well as other stores. "At first my reputation grew by word of mouth. Then I went to NY and bumped into an old friend. She took one look at the jewelry...and said, 'Come on, we're going to Vogue.;" The result was two pages in Vogue and three pages in Harper's Bazaar. Laurel was on her way.

Laurel Burch was a philanthropist as well as an extraordinary designer.

Laurel discovered cloisonne, a kind of enamel work, with which she designed paintings and had the designs made into earrings. She cast metals and wood and had spinoff products on paper, porcelain and fabric. In 1979 she launched Laurel Burch Inc. She was president and CEO of what would become a multi-million dollar business. By the 1990s, she licensed her designs to a dozen or so companies that make and distribute her creations worldwide. Forbes ran a profile of her; every Macy's store in the country had a signature Laurel Burch store.

From her drawings she created Aztec Cat Earrings, Rainbow Cat Necklaces, etc.

Laurel died in 2007 from a rare bone disease that caused her great suffering in life. Today, the number of stories about the giving and sharing of Laurel Burch art are a reflection of not only Laurel, but of the connectedness we share with one another. When all the odds were against her, Laurel Burch mustered the courage to go on. Her story is an encouragement to all who hesitate to elevate their life to the next level.

"All of our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them."––Walt Disney

Thanks to Glenn Van Ekeren for sharing some of this story.

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