Interviewed by Matthew Totsky
Photography by Brett Mountain
Meet Birmingham resident and jewelry designer Jolie Altman. A native of Chicago, Altman studied architecture at Tulane and later transferred to the University of Michigan to pursue an undergrad degree in political science and a master’s in education.
“I’ve always been a creative person and I enjoyed my studies, but I came to realize that I prefer work that’s more hands-on,” she says. “I like to feel the materials I’m working with, even if it’s just getting dirt under my fingernails in the garden.”
Altman started to make jewelry as a hobby as she raised her three sons. “Our family is fortunate to have traveled quite a bit,” she says. “I collected beads and stones I’d see on vacation. When we returned, I would play around with them to make bracelets, necklaces and other accessories.”
How would you describe your personal vision for the pieces you create? I like to create jewelry that can be dressed up or dressed down depending on the occasion. Some of my favorite materials to work with include African beads, precious and semi-precious gems, Bali silver, brass, bone and pearls. These materials are colorful and unique, and I like to contrast them in unusual ways with darker, low-end materials.
Also, as a general rule, I try to make every piece of jewelry different. Some things I can duplicate in numbers, but it’s more fun for me and more special for a buyer if these are one-of-a-kind items.
Your work can be found in many upscale stores across the country. How were you able to achieve that? I’ve been very lucky. For example, one day I was walking around in New York wearing my creations and someone stopped me on the street and asked where they came from. It turned out he was the buyer for Bergdorf Goodman, a fantastic store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. When I told him I had made the pieces, he asked if he could carry my work in his store.
The same thing happened to me in California. I was out and about and the buyer for a store called Fred Segal spotted me and my jewelry and wanted to carry it.
The local marketplace has also been very supportive. You can find my work at the Barbara Boz Boutique in Birmingham, Milieu in Ferndale and a store called It’s a Breeze in Lakeside on the west side of the state. I also like to work with museums, and I’ve sold items to the Folk Art Museum in New York and the Brooklyn Art Museum.
Can you describe the environment you’ve created in your home? My family and I gain great creative inspiration from our environment. I’ve never been particular about age of the artist or price — within reason — of a piece as long as it makes me feel something deep inside.
Many people who first see my home either roll their eyes or say they have a better understanding of who I am. I’ve always told my children it doesn’t matter what they are passionate about, but it is so important they enjoy doing something that really excites them. For me it is art — creating it and collecting. I always have a smile on my face at the kooky things I have collected over the years.
How do you enjoy life in Birmingham? We’ve lived here since 1990 and love it here. It has a small-town feel, and I know people in the city. It’s friendly and familiar, and I like to support the small businesses and all of the amazing local restaurants.
Has your creativity rubbed off on your three sons? I’m pleased to say it has. They have such original ideas. My husband, David, and I are always there to support them.
Aidan is the oldest. He’s 23 and a graduate of U of M. He and his partner, Shannon, are starting Spice, a charitable spice company. His first product launch begins with spiced almonds, and they are excited to break into the health food market.
Sawyer is 20 and attends Stanford University. When he was 10, he started an online gaming site and, a few years ago, he and his friend Matthew Tukel founded an energy drink business called 313 Energy. From the start, they were very philanthropic, donating 11 cents from each sale to the Detroit Public Schools Foundation and several other charities that support the city.
My youngest son, Carter, is 17 and will be attending NYU in the fall and is already working on his own clothing line. All three of my boys collaborated on an art book that received tons of press coverage. David and I are obviously very proud of our kids. NS
To view and buy Jolie Altman’s work, visit joliealtman.com.