Independent. Powerful. Unique. Those three words describe not only the brands, but also the entrepreneurs, behind this year’s nominees for the GEM Awards for Jewelry Design. Foundrae’s Beth Bugdaycay, Brente Neale, and Lauren Godfrey of Harwell Godfrey are fierce female founders that consistently bring playfulness, polish, and soul to the fine jewelry design landscape.
Scheduled for Jan. 14th, 2022, this year’s in-person GEM Awards from Jewelers of America (JA) will be a particularly celebratory ceremony, given that the 2021 awards took place in July virtually, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Gem Award for Lifetime Achievement will go to Stephen Lussier of De Beers, and nine more nominees representing three other categories will be announced live at the event.
“In the category of Jewelry Design, they look for brands who had an extraordinary year of debuting jewelry that has a signature design aesthetic, pushes boundaries, and shapes the future of design,” explains JA’s Amanda Gizzi.
Here’s a bit about each of the three designers:
Beth Bugdaycay, founder of Foundrae
Bugdaycay switched gears from a career as fashion industry CEO in 2015 to launch the brand with her husband Murat, a former developer. Foundrae jewelry offers mix-and-match components brand devotees cherry-pick from to create personalized looks. “The symbols are the most valued aspect of our jewelry,” the designer says. “The meaning they convey is greater than their value in gold.”
Bugdaycay was dressed for a black-tie event when she heard she was nominated. “It was extra special because my parents were in town to attend the PEN America annual gala with my husband and me,” she tells The Zing Report. “I found out just before we left, so in the car, on the way, I told them, and we celebrated together.”
The past year was a challenging one for small brands, but for Bugdaycay it was also “a time of real connection with our team and customers,” she says. “I answered every phone call and forged a few new friendships remotely.”
Lauren Harwell Godfrey, founder of Harwell Godfrey
After a successful career in creative direction for brands such as Adidas, Levi’s, and Ray-Ban and with a jaunt in the culinary field, Harwell Godfrey found herself with requests for the handmade jewelry she designed and wore. Referencing ancient textiles, African Diaspora patterns, and the Four Elements healing properties, she created a jewelry line with a distinct voice. “I’m often told that my work—described as maximalist, geometric, colorful—is surprising and unique.”
Jewelry journalist Tanya Dukes wrote Harwell Godfrey an email informing her about her nomination. “I always like seeing her name pop into my inbox and was absolutely stunned when I read the news,” the designer says, adding, “I teared up and called my husband.”
Like many small business owners, Harwell Godfrey rode the challenges of the effects of COVID-19, finding silver linings when she could. “We lost people we work closely with to COVID-19,” she says. “Fine jewelry is special because it’s made by hand, by skilled, special humans, and sadly as humans, we are all very vulnerable to this virus. It’s been heartbreaking.” On the positive side, she had the time and space to focus on work and design, which helped her grow as a designer.
She’s recently put philanthropy at the heart of her business, donating $197,898 (and counting) to causes including NAACP, World Central Kitchen, Human Rights Campaign, and Futures Without Violence through her Charity Heart series (a new Charity Heart is launching soon).
Brent Neale, founder of Brent Neale
Neale’s namesake brand was launched after an illustrious eight-year career working for Kara Ross at the height of that brand’s popularity. She attributes her success to a form of relatability, especially to the Big Apple. “It’s a very New York-centric brand aesthetically, using local production and hand-cut stones,” she reflects, adding, “We are serious jewelry that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s also hands-on and personal, and that comes through in the stories we tell that resonate with people.”
The moment Neale found out she was nominated for the GEM Award was comic, but also meaningful: “Coming back from walking my kids to school, I was trying to get through my emails and accidentally walked in dog poop,” she says. “So, I was trying to get it off my shoe and answer emails simultaneously.” When she saw she was among the nominees, “I was extremely surprised and very honored.” —By Roxanne Robinson
Purchase tickets to Jewelers of America’s GEM Awards here