- Kathryn L. Williams
Mary Jo Pane, Jewelry Designer
Growing up Catholic in Omaha, Nebraska, Mary Jo Pane never imagined that one day she would find herself making modern, spiritually inspired jewelry by hand in a New York City apartment. But sometimes miracles happen, and in Mary Jo’s case it meant founding Miracle Icons by Mary Jo Pane, a line of bracelets and necklaces featuring antique and vintage religious medals.
With a celebrity client list longer than a pair of bracelet-covered arms (think Bruce Springsteen, Matthew McConaughey, Justin Timberlake, and Johnny Depp, and Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Halle Berry, and Mira Sorvino), and a foothold in high end retail stores like Barneys and Borsheims, Miracle Icons continues down the blessed path that began with its creation in the fall of 2001 just after 9/11. Making the cover of “Rolling Stone” notwithstanding (courtesy of Mr. Springsteen), the thrill for Mary Jo is designing and creating her one-of-a-kind pieces and tapping into that sense of spirituality. When her jewelry has soothed souls in troubled times, and possibly helped heal in illness, it’s even better.
It takes about a New York minute with Mary Jo to see she has a heart of gold. Who knows, but perhaps that’s one reason why the idea for Miracle Icons came to her, in a vision – because at the time, she had no idea how to even make jewelry…
Photos courtesy of Kevin Fennell
RG: Mary Jo, I am so happy to talk to you. You started a contemporary jewelry business, Miracle Icons by Mary Jo Pane, in 2001 that offers spiritually inspired necklaces and bracelets featuring vintage religious icons. How did this come about?
MJP: On September 10, 2001, a very good friend of mine was diagnosed with stage 4 inoperable lung cancer. She didn't tell us for several weeks. The first week in November it was her 55th birthday and we had a huge birthday party for her. It was a very bittersweet evening. Everyone was feeling kind of melancholy because we all, in our minds, stage 4 inoperable lung cancer... I made her a birthday card and on the birthday card I put a St. Anthony medal. I told her, well, she's Jewish, but while she was going through chemo she could hang on to that medal and rub it and he would make her feel better. It was a brand new medal that I bought at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
RG: And St. Anthony in the patron saint of?
MJP: Anxiety, and things that are lost and found, and expectant mothers, and he has a whole laundry list of things. So we were still taking pictures with cameras then. On my way to work Monday morning I took the film to get developed and on my way home from work I picked the pictures up and I called my girlfriend and she said, 'Come over here right now, I need to rip up the pictures, you can't show anybody.'
MJP: So I walked over to her apartment. It's about a half mile, it was really cold out and we chatted for awhile. I walked home, it was even colder, and when I got to my apartment I realized I had picked up the wrong set of keys. I called her up and said I'm on my way back and I'm bringing you back your keys because you've got mine. So now it's even colder, and I'm walking on 23rd Street toward the river, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, and I was right outside the Golden Crispy Jamaican Patty place when I have this vision, just as clear as day, that I wanted to take the medals that I wore as a little kid, that I used to hide under my uniform shirt, and make them into really cool jewelry that people would want to wear. My thoughts as I was walking were a combination of what everybody had gone through the last two months in New York, my friend's illness, and how vulnerable we all were.
When I got back up to her apartment I must have been a funny color because she looked at me and said, 'Are you OK?' And I said I have to go home, we'll talk in the morning. By the time I got home, I knew that I wanted to call it Miracle Icons because I believe in miracles. I've experienced, observed, several of them happening, and the next morning I started the process of trademarking the name and the next year, through trial and error, sitting on my bed, taught myself to make jewelry. I have no formal training, it's all self-taught, a lot of support from a lot of people teaching me how to take the chains and make them look like they're antique, where to go buy beads, where to do this, where to do that. And that's how it all started, and almost a year to the day from that vision I shipped my first jewelry.
RG: Oh my goodness.
MJP: And before I forget, my friend is alive and kicking!
RG: That's the most important part!
RG: So let's back up for just a little bit. You talked about when you were a child that you would hide the medals under your outfit.
MJP: Under our uniform shirts, because we were forced to wear them and they were probably on stainless steel chains, and most likely they were aluminum and they weren't very attractive. You know, when you're a little kid, I'm thinking 5th, 6th, 7th grade, you didn't want to wear that stuff!
RG: Do you remember who you were wearing?
MJP: No. I would say most likely, since I went to Our Lady of Lourdes grade school, I would bet my bottom dollar Our Lady of Lourdes. Probably some type of Sacred Heart. You know in the '50s and '60s I don't think we were big on the saint medals, we were more just the Mary Jesus Cross thing.
RG: I want to talk later about miracles and your belief in them, but I want to go back to the vision that you had for right now. Did you have any hesitation going forward? Had you ever had anything like this happen prior to this or happen since?
MJP: Nope, nope, nope. I have not. It scared the living daylights out of me because it came from nowhere, I had never experienced any kind of psychic thing like that before, but I saw it. I saw it as clearly as I'm looking across the room at a painting that my niece made me when she was 3 years old. I saw it.
RG: What did you see exactly? Was it an actual vision that you were seeing?
MJP: It was probably a vision of the medals and you know, making them cool and making them like people like you and I would want to wear. Proudly wear.
RG: What was your first reaction after that happened, other than perhaps being a little scared and freaked out?
MJP: Unnerved. Unnerved, but then as I was walking home, the name came to me. It wasn't a vision it just came to me. I kind of started to get comfortable with it and then it just became this task of how do you do this, where do you go? When I first started doing them I was using new medals, and I found just through trial and error this amazing woman in Rhode Island who had about five or six casts that they had used in the '30s. They were these beautiful Art Deco casts and we had St. Anthony, we had a Miraculous medal, we had St. Anne. I still have a few of them around.
RG: That's sort of a miracle in and of itself. How did you come upon this woman?
MJP: I just started calling foundries in Rhode Island, and then at a certain point I realized that what I was doing anybody could do. It would be very easy to just buy new medals so I started buying up old medals. I have never ever bought aluminum. I would say most of the medals I use are nickel, brass, white metal, and a few are sterling. And they're old! I do nothing, absolutely nothing, to manipulate these medals. They are old. You can see people have prayed on them, you can tell, and that's when I love them. I love when I get a medal where the relief is almost gone and you can tell that this was meaningful to somebody, and then that meaning gets transferred to me or to whomever gets the piece.
RG: Where are you getting the vintage icons from now? You're kind of cornering the market in many respects.
MJP: There is a man in Belgium who deals in religious artifacts who has been going to flea markets all over France and Belgium for about 14 years buying up medals for me. I went and visited him once. He knows the resources, he knows where to go, and for me it would be just flying in the dark so I stay here.
RG: So 23rd Street. Did you have any connection to the number 23?
MJP: Not that I know of.
RG: Did you start frequenting the Jamaican Patty place?
MJP: No, and in fact it's closed now. But when I go by it I feel like I should make the sign of the cross. Trust me, when I walk on that stretch of 23rd Street I do offer up a little prayer!
RG: I'm sure! So I take it that at that point in your life you had stopped wearing any religious medals. You were still going to church though, correct?
MJP: I have my mothers' Baptismal locket and I did wear that from time to time. In fact I do still wear it from time to time. Was I wearing anything of a religious nature? No, probably just Mom's baby locket, and yes, I was going to church at the time. I am a practicing Catholic, I believe it's more spiritual than it is believing in the tenets of the Catholic Church because there are many things that the church preaches that I don't believe. I'm out there, and kind of everybody, everything, is accepted in my church. I have luckily found a church in New York where they don't say you're going to hell if you have an abortion, they don't say you're going to hell if you get a divorce, they don't say you're going to hell if you're gay. In fact, my church has a gay and lesbian task force.
RG: Which is very different from most of the Catholic churches.
RG: So you were at the time working in the fashion industry and had a very substantial job.
MJP: In the early '90s I launched Dolce & Gabbana in America. I did that probably for five years, and at the time Miracle Icons started I was running an independent multi-brand showroom.
RG: This particular vision, I can imagine it would have given you a lot of trepidation to move forward, to tell people why you were doing this, to explain it.
MJP: Actually, I kind of liked how weird the story was. My boyfriend at the time just kept looking at me, like was I OK, but as it moved forward and he started to see it work, he embraced it as well.
RG: Could you have at the time envisioned where all of this might go?
MJP: No, no, I could not have envisioned that I would have this huge celebrity following, I could not have envisioned that I was going to be selling Barneys New York.
RG: I want to talk about all of that. Your pieces are incredibly beautiful. I for one have long admired them and I know I am not alone! Barneys is a very high end specialty retail store, and you also sell at Borsheims in Omaha, which is where you're from, and they sell fine jewelry and are owned by Warren Buffett.
RG: So what do you think it is about Miracle Icons that attracted such high-end stores?
MJP: You know, at the time I had the idea, I don't know if you remember that summer where every single person in the world was wearing crosses.
RG: I do!
MJP: OK, so this was kind of the tail end of the cross thing, and I think that's what attracted Barneys to it. By luck of the draw, it was a total and complete evolution of that trend.
RG: I remember when crosses were big in the '80s after Madonna started wearing them, too.
MJP: Right, right!
RG: The cross thing went on for quite awhile. So some of this, your vision, also had kind of perfect market timing, and it allowed you time to learn how to actually make jewelry. The timing of it all is rather perfect!
MJP: It truly was. Boy was I lucky. Somebody up there is watching over me.
RG: Let's talk about the extensive celebrity following that you have. I'm just going to name some names. On the men's side, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, Kendrick Lamar, Johnny Depp, Matthew McConaughey, Justin Timberlake, Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, Ricky Martin, and Jake Gyllenhaal, and those are kind of just for starters.
MJP: Yep. I actually saw The Rock in a bath towel. His stylist had gotten something from me and he wanted me to remove the patina so they asked me could I come to his hotel at the Four Seasons on the 48th floor with a total wraparound view of the city. He was in the shower when I got there and I was in a room with his hair person, his makeup person, and his stylist, and nobody had made him aware that I had come in. All at once a door opened and there he stood in nothing but a bath towel, and I must say he was probably one of the most beautiful specimens of human skin I've ever seen!
RG: You kind of had a wraparound view in two ways!
MJP: Yes, and he was darling and charming, and then he went and put his clothes on and came back in, and while I was fixing the necklace we were talking. He played football at Miami and I'm a big Nebraska fan and we talked about Orange Bowls. There's just such a commonality that runs through this whole thing. My nephew grew up loving The Rock. (My nephew) had leukemia, and he again is another miracle. I reached out to the stylist and she said, 'Oh, he'll call him some day. Give me his number.’ Nobody told me when the call would come through, and I was in Omaha in my nephew's room and the phone rang. I just happened to be sitting there when Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson called my nephew.
RG: See, another miracle.
MJP: Yep, it was pretty cool! And Bruce Springsteen.
RG: Bruce actually wore them on his album, 'Magic,' and he wore them on the cover of Rolling Stone, right? What did that feel like for you?
MJP: It was amazing! I remember when I saw it, he was on the ‘Today’ show the day that the 'Magic' album came out. I did not have my glasses on and I'm walking across and I look at the TV and I went, 'What?' And then all at once my phone started going crazy and everybody was, 'Do you have on the Today show?' 'Yeah, I have the ‘Today’ show on.' I was going to be at a charity event the month after that, so I went out for a run on Saturday morning and as I'm running back up Lexington Avenue the big posters were pasted all over and I see this white T-shirted Bruce with my necklaces on, and I was like, 'Holy man!' As I came back into my apartment my phone was ringing, it was a friend who is a music agent and he said to me, 'Have you seen the inside cover of this album?' I said I have not, and he said get yourself out and buy it and yeah, there it was! Then I met Bruce about a month later. He was in a hallway walking into the event and I was with the event planner. Nobody realized Bruce was standing there yet so we had this moment where they said to him, 'She's been making your jewelry,' and Bruce Springsteen acted like I was the big deal.
RG: That's so sweet.
MJP: I mean, I'm standing with Bruce Springsteen and it was like I was the big deal. And then people realized he was standing there and he had to move on. But I did have a moment with him!
RG: That's wonderful! A large part of your business has been with men, and then you've got this celebrity following. You also have women celebrities who are wearing your pieces.
MJP: Oh yeah. Mira Sorvino came over to my apartment with her double wide stroller one day with both kids in the stroller and came into my studio apartment and went through medals with me because I made some special pieces for her.
RG: And Michelle Obama, Halle Berry, many others, Hillary Clinton.
MJP: I don't know how she got them, I guess somebody must have bought them for her for a gift. I have no idea the provenance of that at all.
RG: And Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State.
MJP: Wore them all the time. Through my friend Susie Buffet, who probably owns more of my jewelry than anybody in the entire world. Susie’s philanthropy, what she does for women, what she does for underserved kids, that to me is bigger than Bruce. To call her my friend and to have her like my jewelry enough that she would pick something out and send it to Hillary Clinton is amazing to me.
RG: That is amazing. I'm trying to get at what it is that you think the celebrities are responding to.
MJP: You know, Kathryn, I think that just like you and I, a lot of them were raised with religion, raised with these spiritual guides, and you know, for awhile we all went away from that. I think it's something that they respond to just because it feels good. I don't look at this as religious jewelry. I look at it as jewelry for the spiritually evolved, because I have never met a person of any faith, when they were sick, who would not accept a St. Peregrine bracelet, the patron saint of cancer. Or accept St. Dymphna for mental health or St. Rita for healing. I just think it's something that makes people feel good.
RG: Because a lot of these people I've named are not Catholic, or were not raised Catholic.
MJP: I know Hillary's a strong Methodist. Bruce yes, Bruce was raised Catholic. I have noted on most of the necklaces that Bruce, and this you're going to love, on most of the necklaces that Bruce has picked up for himself, there are a lot of Marys on them. If you listen to Bruce's music, Bruce sings about Mary, not the Virgin Mary, but Mary is an ongoing woman in his music.
RG: The pieces that you're making for men and women, are they essentially the same or is it a different line?
MJP: No, no, everything is the same. At Barneys I sell the men's department but we know for a fact there is a huge crossover client. Those floors kind of meld together and when I do shows at Barneys women buy from me all the time. The first show I ever did at Barneys, this woman came over and she was absolutely mesmerized by the medals. I had probably a couple of thousand of them in a case and she just was blown away by it. She was going through it and saying, 'Oh my God, I love this, I love this,' she said, 'But I can't, I can't, I'm Jewish.' I just kind of smiled at her, and she kept coming back and finally she bought a bracelet with Mary on it and she looked at me and said, 'Well it's OK, because she was a Jew.' And I looked at her and said, 'And so was Jesus.' I mean, I don't think of it as religious jewelry, I don't. I think of it, you know, it's kind of like that whole vintage charm thing, vintage this, vintage that. That's more how I look at it.
RG: Are these pieces for the most part pre-made or are you doing a lot of made to order?
MJP: Everything is made to order.
RG: So if somebody wants a piece of your jewelry, they come to Barneys or they come to you wherever you might be.
MJP: Or my website.
RG: You're making it with them, on site.
MJP: At Thanksgiving weekend, the Friday, Saturday, Sunday after Thanksgiving, I do a huge custom show at Borsheims where people come with lists. They line up and they wait for me to be able to give them personal attention. Several years ago this little girl walks up to my table and she has this piece of paper all folded up. On this piece of paper she has this list of saints, and the first saint she asked me for is St. Philomena. Now, that is not your normal run of the mill garden variety saint, and it happened to be my mothers name. So I looked at this little girl, I think she was probably all of 9 years old, and I said, 'That's an interesting request. Why St. Philomena?'
She told me that her mom, who was a young woman, had cancer and that her mom was in a church somewhere and prayed to St. Philomena. So I made the little girl the necklace, and I mean everybody at the table, we were all very teary about it. I said, 'Next year you're going to come back with your mom and you're going to bring her to the show, right?' And she said 'Yes I am.' And a year later, the little girl walked in with her mom, her dad, her older sister, and they all came and got a piece of jewelry, and they come back every year. This little girl, I know she will not mind that I'm outing her and giving up her name, Lauren Patterman. She actually wrote a school essay on me. That, to me, means more than those celebrities.
RG: Because you have a huge heart.
MJP: And the connection with them, I mean, they're my friends, I see them now. You know, some woman came up to the table one year and she was a grandma and she was telling me that her grandson was born with, I don't remember if he was deaf or had this horrible ear disease, and I said to her you need St. Cornelius. St. Cornelius happens to be the patron saint of ear disease. And we cry and we laugh, and I've made friends with people in Omaha that I never knew before, and that three days is pretty amazing.
RG: I can imagine. Do you do a similar thing here at Barneys or are those pieces already made?
MJP: I do custom shows at Barneys but nothing compares to what happens in Omaha. But I'm from there, I have a huge family there, Borsheims has spent a lot of time nurturing me because I am a native daughter.
RG: That's a huge thing. Let’s talk about the miracle part of the name. You have an Albert Einstein quote on your website that says, 'There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle and the other as though everything is a miracle.' You've already mentioned some people who have seen their medical conditions resolve. Do you think that there's a direct connection? Do you think it's belief? Do you have any idea what the connection is?
MJP: I would like to think so. I have had many people come to me and ask for St. Gerard. St. Gerard is the patron saint of infertility. I’ve also met a lot of those babies!
RG: I love that!
MJP: I think it's the person's belief and having it there and looking at it. Like I wear a bracelet with St. Philomena and St. Joseph on it and I call it my Mom and Dad bracelet. When things are really bad I'll look down at my Mom and Dad bracelet and I'll just say, 'Yeah, right, hello!' You know I think there is a connection that way. The saints are pretty amazing.
RG: Did you already know a lot about the saints before you started making the jewelry? I can imagine that you perhaps learned a lot about them as a child.
MJP: Probably not.
RG: Did you study them at some point?
MJP: Let's see, as a kid I would have known Our Lady of Lourdes because I went to Our Lady of Lourdes school, and I would have known St. Bernadette because of her connection to Our Lady of Lourdes. I knew St. Joan of Arc because that is my God-given middle name. St. Joseph, St. Anthony, hello, I have two Italian grandmothers, he's like every Italian grandma's boyfriend. You know, no. I have learned more about the saints in the last 15 years than I ever dreamed I would.
RG: What did you take for your Confirmation name?
MJP: Dorothy. My godmother's name and the hilarity of St. Dorothy, St. Dorothy is the patron saint of brides and I have a very sick sense of humor. And whenever friends of mine get engaged or their kids gets engaged I send them a St. Dorothy bracelet and I always point out to them that if you look at a St. Dorothy medal, her hands are shackled. But then when you read her story it was a forced marriage and she didn't want to get married. You know, the stories of these people are astonishing.
RG: You must have really learned a lot over the years.
MJP: I have. The ‘saint of the day’ thing is on my computer and it's the first thing I check every morning. It's funny, when I was a little kid there used to be this thing called Dial-A-Saint in Omaha and it would tell you whose feast day it was and give you a little blurb about the saint. Who knows, maybe this is part of how it all came about. And I was addicted to it. I did it religiously, so to speak! I'll never forget, I was with some boy in the neighborhood who was not Catholic and we were down in the basement at his grandmother's house. We had to stand up on a chair because we weren’t tall enough yet to reach the wall phone, and I dialed the saint and let him listen to it and for some reason he didn't like it and pushed me off the chair and threw the phone at me and hence I got my first chipped tooth.
RG: Oh no! So the saints caused a tumble for you! Perhaps they're making up for it now. Do you have a favorite saint or a favorite angel?
MJP: I would probably say my most favorite saint is St. Anthony because of my mom and my grandma. I have a huge affinity for St. Rita. She's like the female St. Jude. She’s the patron saint of loneliness, desperation, healing. I remember I had a not so great break up, and I was lying on the bed after the guy broke up with me on the phone, how terribly mature for a 50-something year old man.
MJP: And I'm laying on the bed and I got up and I need St. Rita. I went over to the case and I got St. Rita and I immediately made myself a necklace that I wore for the longest time. When a girlfriend had a similar experience I paid it forward and gave her the necklace.
RG: Did it help her, too?
MJP: I think it did!
RG: Are there favorite saints, so-called favorite saints, of people buying your pieces?
MJP: Favorites, I would say St. Anthony is definitely a favorite, St. Francis of Assisi, Michael the Archangel, St. Theresa, and because this man is buying in bulk for me, it is really hard. I tell people please try not to be saint specific with me because you're going to ask me for a saint that I might not have. The bulk of my saints are incredible, every Virgin Mary appellation there is, a lot of Sacred Heart, a lot of Jesus, a lot of St. Theresa, a fair amount of St. Rita, and in the guys, St. Benedict, who I have learned is the patron saint of architects, he's the patron saint of school children, he's the patron saint against temptation. So when friends say to me, 'I have a friend who is trying to get over some addictive personality, who's the patron saint of addictions,' I said, 'I don't have the patron saint of addictions but how about against temptation?' and we use St. Benedict.
RG: It's interesting, too, as I'm thinking about this, because as old as these are, they would have been produced in bulk and presumably it would have been whatever the popular saints, or important saints, were at that time.
MJP: And remember also regionally, because they're coming from France and Belgium. I think that's why we have a lot of Our Lady of Lourdes, I think that's why a lot of St. Teresa, certainly a fair amount of St. Joseph, a lot of St. Christopher. Thank God he's been reinstated. A lot of St. Christopher.
RG: France and Belgium, were they the countries that were making these predominantly?
MJP: I was with a Belgian woman at a dinner party one night, and she was fascinated about the whole thing. I said, 'You know most of them are coming from Belgium. Why is that?' And she told me an interesting story. She was probably my age-ish, and she said that in Belgium, when children go to visit their grandparents on Sundays, when they leave the house the grandparent will take a safety pin and pin a medal on them. I have gotten plenty of medals still on the little safety pin.
RG: I remember the safety pin from growing up.
MJP: Several years ago my aunt gave me, and I've made them into a necklace, the medals that my grandmother had that she pinned to her bra every day.
RG: That was a popular thing for Catholic women.
MJP: Yeah, Italian nonnas loved to do that.
RG: Why was that? Do you know?
MJP: Nope! Sadly I cannot answer that question.
RG: I'm sure there are women still doing it. I wonder what the men did with them, or did the men not wear them in the same way?
MJP: You know, I don't ever remember seeing my grandfather wear it, or my father. I remember my brothers wearing them on chains but again it was the same stuff I was wearing, and it was not very attractive. I have the necklace with my grandmother's medal, it's St. Anthony, a four-way cross, St. Philomena. Presently I cannot put my hands on it, but that's nothing new! I tell people, ‘If I tell you I have a medal and you want it, you need to tell me, 'Now take it right this minute and go put it here,' because it is inevitable that I'm going to misplace it.’ You know, there are thousands of medals here.
RG: I cannot even imagine what your apartment looks like!
MJP: Everything is made out of my apartment, which is a 470 square foot studio apartment.
RG: Is it covered in medals?
MJP: No, I put them away. I have to tell you, I made a promise with myself that no matter how big an order I was working on, no matter how long I worked, everything had to get put away at night, because I also have to live here and it's also a lot of energy having those boys and girls out! A couple of months ago I said to my sister, 'You know, I left that order out on the floor because I was going to pack it first thing in the morning and I didn't sleep well and I think it was all that extra energy in the room.'
RG: Do you think of them as, protecting might be the wrong word, but it must be an interesting feeling to live amongst all of these medals.
MJP: I feel very protected.
RG: When you're creating a piece, is there a vision you have? Is there an energy you're trying to create for whomever is going to wear it, and does it make a difference if you know who the piece is for?
MJP: If I know who the piece is for, nine times out of ten they've asked me for a specific thing. When I'm making them there is total thought that goes into every piece. If I'm working and I look down and I see that I've put on a boy saint, as I call them, I immediately say, 'OK, well, we need some feminine energy here' and I will put either a girl saint or Mary on it. There is thought. It's not like I'm just randomly doing things. If I have a huge order, I'll lay out a bunch of medals that will be the first medal, and then work from that pile picking other things out of the case to be sure that everything looks and feels right and has the right energy on it.
RG: Do you ever get the sense that divine intervention is involved? Do you pray or meditate before you begin to work?
MJP: Back to the St. Rita breakup thing. I will never forget, I was sitting in my therapist's office and I was just so sad, and she said to me, 'I want you to do me a favor. I want you to go home and do your work and spread all those saints around you and talk to every one of them as you're making jewelry.’ And I did, and it helped, and I've often wondered about the energy of those particular pieces as they went out into the world!
RG: Do you have any idea how many pieces you've made at this point?
MJP: No. Somewhere in the tens of thousands.
RG: Let's see, from 2001 it's 17 years, let's say 16, which is minus the year you spent learning to make it, so that's a lot of jewelry! Do people stay in touch with you? Do they write to tell you about things that have gone particularly well?
MJP: Once in awhile, yeah. I do have this core group of people who keep in touch and let me know that they've bought something new, and they send me pictures of themselves wearing it. Social media has certainly increased the communication with my clients.
RG: Does a lot of your business come through the internet?
MJP: Not really, and that's thought out. I have a large business in the stores, and when you've chosen to work in a quantifiable medium you can't just go sell five thousand million people, because somebody's going to get disappointed, you're not going to have the inventory to fill those orders. My online business is a nice little business but it's not my main business.
RG: You're just one person doing all of this, which is extraordinary in and of itself. Had you thought about expanding at some point? I don't know how you scale something like this and still keep it personal.
MJP: I don't either. But I am thinking about what you said to me the other day about maybe it's time I write a book.
RG: It's definitely time! It's an extraordinary story. I think back from the vision itself, it appears to you and you have the foresight to trademark the name when you don't even know how to make jewelry.
RG: So there's a huge learning curve and you’re self-taught, you didn't go to school to do this. Obviously you have the fashion background and you understand certain things about fashion merchandising, you understand marketing. But this a Huge undertaking for you.
MJP: It is, it was! I kind of love it and dig it now and, you know, it has allowed me some pretty cool stuff.
RG: I can only imagine in the early years when you're making the jewelry – you were still working full time, you had to have been exhausted. Of course the obvious question – is there a saint to ward off exhaustion?
MJP: In the early days I would get up at 4:30 in the morning, I would work from 4:30 until about 7:30, I would take a shower, I would go to work, I would come home, I would work awhile, and by 8 or 8:30 I was back in bed to get up at 4 o'clock in the morning again to get back at it.
RG: Do you ever tire of it? There's a lot of routine involved.
MJP: No. I have not, yet, and you are correct, it is repetitive work. But I have not, because I love it. I love what I'm doing and I love knowing that this is going out into the world. The celebrities are nice, but I like that it's brought me people like you, I like that it's brought me people like the Patterman family. I like that it's brought me that little boy's grandmother. To hear those stories and to know that these people get what I'm doing is pretty amazing.
RG: It really is. You're getting new people all the time, you're getting repeat business all the time. Just from a merchandising and marketing standpoint, you're a long stayer at this point. It's been many years and it's a thriving business. But in a time of fads – you know, we talked about the crosses and Barneys. I mean, that ultimately went away. This isn't. This has stayed.
RG: To what do you attribute that? Is this part of the vision, is this something other, something else, divine intervention, that wants your jewelry out there?
MJP: You know, faith, the times we live in. I think that people are looking for something to make them feel good. I mean, I'm thinking now, when Susan St. James’ son was killed, somebody sent her a bracelet and I have this beautiful note she wrote me. It's just things like that. Jake Gyllenhaal wrote me a letter. Matthew McConaughey sent me an autographed picture. People walk into my apartment and they go, 'Who is that up there? Is that who I think it is?' It is, yeah, that's him. And then Matthew bought Jake, Lance Armstrong, and I forget, there were four, but anyway, he bought them all a gift from me, and then when Jake made his next movie he requested from the costumers to wear my jewelry. Which is really kind of cool because Jake is Jewish.
And my nephew, who is an actor in Hollywood, is friendly with Mark Wahlberg and turned him onto my jewelry, and when he made 'Daddy's Home' the costumers walked into wardrobe and they had a tray of stuff that they bought at Barneys and Mark Wahlberg directly went to my necklace and said, 'That's what I want to wear.' Colin Farrell wore it in some bang-bang-shoot-'em-up movie, but the best was my then-8-year-old, now teenaged godson, who was obsessed with the Transformers. They requested my jewelry for one of the leads to wear and my godson just thought his Aunt Mary was the bees knees because it was going to be in the Transformers movie.
RG: I can imagine Aunt Mary's a really big hit!
MJP: Yeah, some days I am!
RG: Somehow you've always, from the stories you've told, had a knack. I don't know if this is the fashion piece, the merchandising piece, but from a marketing standpoint you were able to get a lot of press really early on. I’ve found you in national magazines and big newspapers.
MJP: Right, because I was the only one doing it. I was the only one doing the saint thing. And you know, I've been knocked off many many times. I guess imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Last week somebody sent me this thing that somebody's making, these gaudy, hideous rings, and she said, 'You just need to be aware of this,' and I said, 'Well believe it or not there's one sitting on my desk that somebody bought me as a gift. It's still in the box.’ I've been knocked off a whole lot of times and I just tell myself, ‘Yeah, but they're not in Barneys.’
RG: Right, and they're also not yours.
MJP: No. I’ve seen people who have knocked me off who are not using old medals. Because my eye, I know now. I can spot a recast medal a mile away and you know there's a lot of that out there.
RG: I'm sure you've become the expert on this. Have you changed what the designs look like from the beginning? Do you evolve them?
MJP: Oh yeah, oh yeah! If you saw the first pieces I did and you saw where they are now it's like day and night. My friend and client John Gorsuch, they have stores all over Colorado and a huge catalog business and major online sales presence, and John started buying Miracle Icons when I first did it because we were buddies. He was here last night looking at my new jewelry and he just looked at me and said, 'I cannot believe where you've come from.' He said, 'This is rock on designer looking amazing pieces and your bead choices, it's just amazing.' Coming from a friend that means a lot, especially someone who's been buying it since Day 1.
RG: How do you think that came about? Do you think you had an innate sensibility to make jewelry?
MJP: Yeah. You know it's funny, my therapist also does past life regression stuff and I did a session of it with her just because I have a curiosity about all kinds of psychic stuff. She told me that in the session she saw me as a white woman who had been captured by the Indians and the Indian women were showing me bead work and how to do bead work. I thought that was fascinating.
RG: I love that. You've kind of taken it to its next stage, it's next evolution. Do you have a sense about what's coming in jewelry going forward and where you're going to take this?
MJP: Sometimes I look to see what the big guys are doing to get an idea. I got very inspired when I went to see ‘Heavenly Bodies’ at The Met. There was this amazing necklace from the 1300s, there was this gorgeous chain and then in the chain were cabochon rubies. Now, my customer is not going to buy a cabochon ruby. But I kind of did my own interpretation of that necklace which happened to turn out really beautifully. I look at magazines, I look at the big guys’ shows on style.com and see what they're doing jewelry-wise and sometimes I'll get inspired by them. But mostly I just kind of do my own thing.
RG: Have beads gone in and out of favor as the years have gone on?
MJP: Maybe color wise. Color is always a big indicator, fashion wise, but yeah, I look and see what the color trends are and then do my own thing. Sometimes I pay attention and sometimes I don't.
RG: If you were going to expand, have you thought about adding on to the icons and moving into other areas? Maybe something Jewish? Something Muslim that's comparable?
MJP: I had somebody stand in Barneys and give me a lecture one day, why didn't I have any Jewish things. The manager of that particular store happened to be standing next to me and I smiled at the lady and said, 'Because they don't exist.' She looked at me and said, 'What are you talking about?' And I said, 'Most of what you're seeing in this case are from the '30s and '40s. If I had a whole cache of Jewish symbols in this case I might get arrested.' She looked at me, and the manager of Barneys piped up and said, 'They were destroyed. The Holocaust.' I had a few pieces that were really and truly vintage Jewish, Jewish memorabilia, and my very best Jewish girlfriend in Omaha has all of them around her neck.
RG: What about Muslim pieces?
MJP: We have looked into finding some vintage hamsas and things. I did a special project for the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha, which – I'm very proud of my hometown, if you can't tell – is this amazing campus in Omaha and houses a mosque, a synagogue, and a Methodist church. They came to me and asked if would I do a special bracelet for them. I had a girlfriend in Tunisia, it was 100 degrees out, and I was texting her, 'You have to go to the market for me, you have to find me some vintage hamsas!’ She did find me about 50 vintage hamsas, which I made into this beautiful bracelet that the Tri-Faith Initiative sold to raise funds for the buildings.
RG: In theory you might be able to get more of those.
MJP: In theory, yes.
RG: As we're talking, I'm thinking of all of the jewelry that perhaps you used to wear but probably don't wear anymore.
MJP: My opera length pearls, my little diamond necklaces, yeah, I don't wear those anymore.
RG: I'm feeling sad for them sitting there, forlorn!
MJP: I’ll give them to my nieces at some point. But no, I don't wear them anymore.
RG: In the homework I've been doing on you, I found you've been incredibly supportive of the gay community.
MJP: Yes, I have.
RG: Again, any idea of why your jewelry became very popular with gay men? Perhaps because of HIV and AIDS, but I’m wondering if it's something else that the gay community is responding to.
MJP: St. Therese is the patron saint of HIV and AIDS. You know, one of the very first trunk shows I did at Barneys in Chelsea, this man came in and introduced himself to me, and my bad that I did not write his name down. Maybe he'll read this and he'll contact me. He told me he was from Omaha, Nebraska, told me he graduated from Creighton Prep, we talked about different people we knew in Omaha, and he bought several pieces from me. He looked at me and he said, 'I love what you're doing, I can't thank you enough. Your jewelry makes me feel part of something that I have not felt part of for years.' He was the first to say it, and I had it said to me as recently as my last show at Barneys. You know it's a weird thing, I am a child of the '50s and I was thinking about this the other day. I grew up noticing that gay people and black people were not treated the same and it offended me. I believe that's where my activism kicked in. Then in 1976 when 'Our Bodies, Ourselves' came out, suddenly the whole thing of women being treated totally differently sprang into my life and there came the next level of activism.
RG: It's interesting that this gentleman said it helped him feel a part of something again, because the Catholic Church has not been gay approving.
MJP: There are pockets. I found one! We have a Pope who kind of is these days. We're in the 20th Century at least, and maybe we'll be in the 21st by the time the 23rd starts, who knows!
RG: It's interesting he would think that, and that it would make him feel a sense of community.
MJP: Yep! And like I said, I had it said as recently to me as my last show at Barneys a couple weeks ago.
RG: It's really incredible where you've come. Do you sit around sometimes and just marvel at what the years have brought you?
MJP: Of course, and I'm thankful. I look at that case of saints and I say, 'Thank you!'
RG: I'm envisioning you in your apartment surrounded by saints! It's interesting too, way back when, at some point you had to say to yourself that this was going to be your life, or certainly your career, for this particular point of time, and you quit your day job. That had to be a huge moment.
MJP: That was huge and scary. I was hoping to stay there at least another year because of the insurance thing. But then one day I realized I was working for a very self-centered man who didn't care and I just walked out. I think my saints walked with me!
RG: What a sweet sentence and sentiment, your saints walked with you! And they've been walking with you ever since.
RG: Mary Jo, thank you so much. Is there anything you want to add?
MJP: Just that it's amazing to me that it happened to this day. I was walking down the street last February and I found this amazing painting on the street in the rain and dragged it home with me. When I got it home in the light and looked at it, it's kind of like the figure is praying. She's sitting in the lotus position and has angel wings so she is now watching over me and she is my ‘Mary Angel Buddha!’
RG: I think there's a new piece of jewelry coming!
MJP: You know, I feel that was all part of the evolution of this thing, that it was not random that she came to me.
RG: Well I don’t know, but I think none of this is random.
MJP: I don't either.
RG: When you think back to 23rd Street, and you're en route to go exchange keys and this is what happens, it's an extraordinary story. There are probably a number of books coming once you start writing.
MJP: You have inspired me, and trust me, I'm thinking about it!
RG: I'm so glad! The secondary one is a book on saints.
RG: It's a wonderful future! I can't thank you enough, and I am extremely grateful and thrilled that you're making this jewelry.
MJP: Thank you, and I'll look forward to seeing you again and continuing the conversation!
This conversation has been edited and condensed.