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A Way with Words

updated 07/10/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/10/2000 01:00AM

Jewelry designer Jeanine Payer was showing her wares in a boutique in Portland, Ore., recently when a woman approached her. "She said her daughter collected my things, but she was in the hospital," says Payer. "She was searching for something that would give her the inspiration to hang on." They selected a necklace that its maker hopes will boost the ill young woman's spirits—and maybe bring her a little luck. "I've had people tell me they've gotten better wearing my jewelry, or that something bad in their life has been fixed," says Payer. "It can be overwhelming."

After all, hers isn't just any jewelry. Most pieces are hand-inscribed with inspirational passages from poets, philosophers and writers; the 33-year-old San Francisco artisan will also custom-make baubles incorporating tiny photos of loved ones. Winona Ryder, Seal and Lara Flynn Boyle are all fans of Payer's line, which sells from $175 for a silver ring engraved with a quote from an Islamic philosopher to $1,500 for a platinum necklace bearing a Chinese poem. Jessica Lange, who wore a pair of Payer's earrings featuring baby photos with angel wings when she accepted the Best Actress Oscar in 1995, later wrote to Payer, "I've never bought much jewelry before, but I find yours to be works of art."

Payer got the idea for her unique jewelry-with-writing while practicing her signature with a metal-engraving drill. To find the quotations she uses, the lifelong poetry lover (Coleridge, Auden and Rilke are three favorites) flips through the scores of volumes from Shakespeare to Goethe that are crammed on her office bookshelves. One result is her popular Book of Elements necklace, which features "pages" of gold and silver with a quotation on weathering change from the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu: "Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?" Says Payer: "Wearing words next to the skin is a romantic notion. I'd like to think a poet would like this idea."

Customers clearly do. With her line a hot seller at over 250 stores around the world, Payer's business grossed more than $2.5 million last year. "Our customers feel a real connection with her," says Alex Viteri of the online jewelry store Miadora. "The pieces mean something different to everyone." Says singer Seal, who has commissioned Payer pieces inscribed with his own verses: "Jeanine's creations synchronistically express both artist and wearer."

Payer links her success to her liberal upbringing. The only child of Susan, 51, an arts administrator, and Jim, 55, a spa-equipment salesman, Payer grew up a beach-loving child in Southern California. Her parents divorced in 1972, and 11 years later she and her mother moved to San Francisco. Payer graduated from a private high school before finding her niche as a sculptor while studying at the city's Academy of Art College, where she began tinkering with jewelry—"nothing welded because I didn't know metalworking at the time."

To make ends meet, Payer juggled part-time jobs as a waitress and as a salesclerk at Aerial, a hip San Francisco boutique. She was sporting her own earrings ("antique buckles with tiny photos and ribbons woven through them") one day when a visiting jewelry designer stopped her. "She said, 'Where did you get those earrings? I have to have them!' " recalls Payer.

So did Aerial's owners, who invited Payer to create and sell her designs on their premises. Meeting customers face-to-face inspired her to branch out into metals ("I wanted to give them something that would last")—and business took off.

Her line is a huge hit because "each piece contains a little piece of Jeanine," says her husband, Michael Brown, 40, a psychoanalyst. "There's a surprise in each, a grain of astonishment." Happily married since 1997 (she designed his wedding band "with my fingerprints all around it and a poem Michael picked inside"), Payer hangs out with him and their three cats in their Nob Hill apartment when she's not searching for new poetic expressions to adorn her designs. "I don't want finding the words to be like work," says Payer. "I want it to be more serendipitous."

Shirley Brady
Karen Grigsby Bates in San Francisco

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