Gail Kowalski loves rocks. She can even pinpoint the exact moment she fell in love with them. When she was 6 years old, her neighbor’s driveway was recovered with shiny gravel, complete with uncut quartz that glittered when it caught the sunlight. She spent hours in that driveway, carefully picking through the stones and selecting her favorites – her “lucky stones,” as she called them. It inspired a lifelong passion for all rocks, regardless of color, size, composition or singularity.
Shortly after the lucky stones, Gail met the other love of her life (at least at that point): the Outer Banks. Her family took their first vacation to Nags Head in the summer of 1963, and they all fell in love with the area, returning each following year. During the rest of the year, Gail told anyone who asked where she was from, “Nags Head, North Carolina … but my family lives in Pittsburgh.”
For most people, it can take decades, sometimes lifetimes, before they figure out their life’s callings. Then there are the people like Gail, who knew by 9th grade that she would live on the Outer Banks, and in college she took her love for rocks to the next level by studying jewelry making. Her first step after graduating was pursuing both of these passions with no plan beyond opening Jewelry by Gail in Nags Head.
The idea of moving to a new place and starting a business – particularly with no experience or plan – is scary to most people. Looking back on her decision, Gail believes that having the knowledge to do anything is important; however, a paralyzing fear can also accompany fully understanding the risks an endeavor involves. She credits her hopeful naiveté at 22 years old as the reason she pursued her life-long dream. It’s kept her in the same place, living that dream, for the past 42 years.
A bit has changed over those four-plus decades. Mostly Gail wizened to the struggles of working as an artist (from catching herself on fire in the studio), being a business owner (by educating herself in bookkeeping and addressing economic downturns) and living on the Outer Banks (surviving hurricanes, nor’easters and plenty of floods). “I know not to expect the mundane,” she laughed. “Boredom is not in the cards.”
It’s not in the cards for her jewelry either. In fact, it never has been. Her designs distinguish themselves with their unpredictability and fluidity, much like the ocean’s waters surrounding us. Don’t expect symmetry or geometric figures from her pieces. Instead of bracelets with precisely placed patterns or necklaces with pendants that fall in an exact line, Gail’s metals inspire movement, as though they’re constantly in motion, twisting, turning and changing shape.
It’s as though the natural environment’s elements and systems worked their way into the gallery, right into the jewelry cases. Many of the pieces also feature materials such as pearls, shell fragments, natural fancy-colored diamonds and other gemstones that reflect nature’s rugged, unspoiled beauty. They also add a touch of funky elegance, and it separates Gail’s work from the delicacy and dainty precision that’s often stereotypical of jewelry.
You definitely don’t see this sort of style everywhere. The unconventionality of her designs draws attention from a broad audience, ranging from regular customers of 40 years to stars on the Red Carpet – yes, at the gallery there’s an entire scrapbook of actresses and actors wearing Jewelry by Gail pieces at awards shows, photo shoots and Hollywood after parties. For the stars’ stylists, Jewelry by Gail is known as their “wild card.”
Gail’s love for her rocks endures once they’ve turned into wearable art and are displayed in her showroom. Business for her is more than garnering endless sales; she sees it in terms of “placing the jewelry in good homes.” To her, a piece isn’t complete until it finds the right owner. Nothing breaks her heart more than the thought of jewelry wasting away in a jewelry box or chest of drawers, never getting worn.
“It’s endlessly fascinating what the earth yields up,” Gail mused. This thought never occurred to me before, but Gail changed the way I feel about rocks. Diamonds and pearls might be lauded as a girl’s best friends, but now I notice the everyday rocks – the ones dotting flower beds, tucked beneath detritus in the woods and sprinkled across the beach – and realize that each one holds the potential to be its own work of art. Sometimes it just takes the artist with the right eye to discover it then teach the rest of us how to see.
The OUTER BANKS MAGAZINE features artists, chefs, entrepreneurs and all sorts of special people who make coming to the Outer Banks a unique experience for each visitor. Jewelry by Gail was featured in the latest edition.
Nags Head jewelry artist Gail Kowalski is as hot as molten gold Jewelry by Gail a Nags Head treasure
Story by Carrie Brothers, Photographs by Lori Douglas
A little more than forty years ago in the basement of a Pittsburgh high school, an art teacher held a hacksaw. A second teacher and a myriad of students stood by watching with excitement. There in the basement was a locker that had been held shut with a padlock for more than a decade. The crowd stood and waited for the unveiling as the teacher worked to cut through the lock. When the door to the locker finally opened, it revealed treasure: silver, copper, stones, hand tools, and instruction books for making jewelry. As the teachers sorted through the treasure, one offered to instruct jewelry making and to teach the process to the students if there was any interest.
A ninth grader named Gail Kowalski volunteered.
Kowalski, the creative force behind Jewelry by Gail, still marvels at how her career came together. The first piece she made in that basement classroom was a copper cuff bracelet with a brass sun cutout. She later sold it at her high school’s art show. As she negotiated the sale, something clicked.
“The proverbial light bulb went on over my head,” she laughs. “That’s what started it all. A copper bracelet with a brass sun and somebody saying, ‘I’d like to buy that.’ It was like ‘oh, okay.’ That’s what I’m going to do now.”
For Kowalski, there was no looking back. “This is all I’ve ever been able to do. It’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Kowalski, a Pittsburgh native, began traveling to the Outer Banks with her family in 1963. They found themselves attracted to the wild remoteness of the area.
“It wasn’t fancy. You could just be here and really experience the elements. We came every single year for two weeks. Over the years, I just decided this is where I wanted to be.”
In 1977, two weeks after graduating Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Siena Heights College in Michigan, Kowalski moved to Nags Head with $1,500 borrowed from her grandmother — and not much else. She laughs remembering her youthful naivete, but is grateful for it, too. She knows that if she had been fully aware of the challenges facing a new jewelry maker, she would have never even tried.
“When I thought about setting up a business in Pittsburgh or anywhere else, there was no vision. I couldn’t get a picture at all. Yet, I kept having visions of how it could be down here.”
She maintained a small alcove in R&R Junction, a business she describes as “a rabbit warren of rooms” full of a diverse offering of artists practicing their crafts. Five years later, in 1982, and in spite of a daunting 17 percent interest rate, Kowalski set out on her own, and she purchased the shop that Jewelry by Gail still calls home.
Kowalski weaves charming tales as she sits in a creaky office chair explaining how it all came together, how she believes the oddballs and artists had a hand in drawing her to the Outer Banks. As she talks, she reveals a silly and slyly wicked sense of humor: ghost stories and tales of men napping across the deserted beach road pepper the conversation.
“Everybody’s an oddball. It’s always been left of center down here. It always will be,” she adds with undoubted affection and bemusement. Just as the Outer Banks is anything but run-of-the-mill, Kowalski states that “Art is not mainstream,”
Her voice and speech patterns take on a dreamy quality when she talks about her work. Her passion for the art is evident in her gestures and the glint in her eyes as she ascribes personality to metal and rocks.
“The metal, we were meant to find and use, or it wouldn’t have the characteristics it has. I mean, gold is stunning. Oh, there is nothing more beautiful than a pool of molten gold.” And she revels in the juxtapositioning of opposing personalities of the different metals. , Of the amenable 14 carat gold and the more cantankerous platinum as she describes them .
However, “Why would any gem be gorgeous even its crystalline form when it’s buried in the earth”? There’s no reason for gems to be gorgeous.” she laughs. “It’s like they were never intended for the light of day, so why would a ruby be red? So when crystals are found and dug up and then they’re cut, it’s utterly and endlessly fascinating to me that they have these colors. It’s kind of like a giant Easter egg hunt! I think gems and minerals as such are here for us to enjoy the pleasure of their beauty! Perhaps it’s an example of an extraordinary gift from God.”
The way Kowalski marvels at the natural state of gems and metal extends beyond the philosophical and into the physical. She utilizes cut and raw gems, often combining the two. She hand builds in platinum, a rarity among American jewelers and eschews architecture for fluid motion. The resulting work is uniquely recognizable and based in what she terms “asymmetrical balance”.
“[It’s] organic, but not geometric. No hard edges. No symmetrical balance. That’s the best way I can describe it. Movement.”
She pulls inspiration from movement in the natural world.
“I have to be near water [...] I love watching the ocean move around. So, there’s a lot of water elements, I suppose, in what I do. Or, at least, it looks that way to me.”
Nothing is limited by sketches, giving her freedom to listen to the stones and metal. Her pieces evolve from whatever creative force exists within her and needs to find its way out. She does a large amount of custom work. She prefers to meet the person for whom the piece is intended, but when that isn’t possible she tries to find out a little bit about their likes, and dislikes, and something about their personality. Gail also believes that “No piece is complete until it has found its future owner to wear it”
The uniquely recognizable, non-mainstream nature of her jewelry worked to her favor when, on a whim, she submitted pieces to The Platinum Guild International call for entries to their Hollywood suite. The curator of the suite, a room set up like a jewelry store for awards shows, called on Kowalski to be their wildcard entry, the atypical option for the atypical actor to wear on the red carpet.
She jokes about not being able to keep up with Hollywood (or even turn on her TV), but the shop keeps a scrapbook of red carpet appearances. Nicolette Sheridan was the first. Eva Longoria donned a pair of earrings for an episode of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” Bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent and actors Vanessa Williams and Minnie Driver own Jewelry by Gail, and a regular client commissioned a necklace for Johnny Depp, with each charm tying directly to an aspect of his life. Kowlaski even snagged a tabloid mention after an actress was snubbed by a Parisian jewelry store declaring, “It’s OK, I have my Jewelry by Gail!”
“It’s fun! Little ol’ Nags Head making our presence known out there,” she says with a smile. “It really is icing on the cake. As long as the hands keep working, I’ll keep going,” she says. “As long as I have my sight and no arthritis, I’ll keep going. It’s nothing I want to get away from. It’s still so much a part of me that I can’t imagine not doing it.”
It has been forty years since she started making jewelry professionally and thirty-five since Jewelry by Gail opened in its current location in Nags Head. She even jokes about staying at her torch even after she has moved on from this world.
Most of all, though, she marvels at how it all happened, the unlikeliness of a dream she had in ninth grade coming true. She finds humility in the mistakes she has made and the lessons she has learned and seems amazed by it all.
“Jewelry is not a necessity like water, food, and breathing, but it’s an aesthetic necessity,” Kowalski says. “It’s for the soul.”