Tokens of Love
updated 08/22/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 08/22/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT
2. Repair sink in cabin No. 5.
3. Design custom bracelet for Dakota Fanning's movie premiere.
An unconventional to-do list to be sure, but hotelier-slash-jewelry designer Helen Ficalora often juggles beachcombers, baubles and celebs in the same day's work. "It's blended together; I just flow through it," says Ficalora, a former full-time mom who took over the Breakers, a cluster of rustic beach cabins in Montauk, N.Y., once run by her parents, after her husband was stricken with multiple sclerosis.
Her desk is a jumble of reservation calendars and ring sizers, but "Helen is a master multitasker," says casting director Laura Rosenthal, who has stayed at the Breakers for eight summers. "She walks the grounds with a piece of jewelry in progress. I have tons of her stuff."
So do some very recognizable fans. "I have given them to my friends and family members," says Brooke Shields, who also wears Ficalora alphabet charms bearing her husband's, her daughter's and her own initials. Lately Ficalora's simple pendants, flowery earrings and textured gold bands have shown up on celebs like Katie Holmes, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kelly Ripa. Jennifer Garner, who has worn Ficalora's trinkets both onscreen (Elektra) and off, worked with the designer earlier this year to create a tulip charm sold to raise money for ovarian cancer research. "She's been so supportive," says Ficalora of the newlywed star.
Before Ficalora turned her attention to red-carpet finery, her focus was family. Living in Olympia, Wash., with husband Robert, 48, Helen, 45, was homeschooling sons Marley, now 16, and Lennon, 19. In 1991 Robert, then an IBM engineer and only 34, was diagnosed with MS and became too ill to work. "It was devastating," says Ficalora. "We were terrified. It felt like a loss of our dreams."
Until then her brother Jay Schneiderman had been running the Montauk property their parents once ran. ("We were motel brats," she says of their youth.) To make ends meet, Ficalora took over management duties. "She was thrown into it by circumstance," says Robert, who still suffers fatigue but helps to manage some symptoms with a special diet. "She learned the ropes and then some."
"It was a good job for me because I could still be with the kids," says Ficalora, who would shuttle the family back to Olympia when the Breakers closed for the off-season. All the while she dabbled in jewelry-making, a hobby that dated from high school. Poring over craft books and taking lessons, she learned how to expertly mold precious metals.
When motel guests began asking for pieces she was wearing, she says, "I'd run to my workbench and make them." Among those early buyers were a few women whom Ficalora dubbed "the New York hip girls," who wore her jewelry back to the city. Soon their friends and friends' friends had to have it.
By 2001 her hobby grew into a business, and Ficalora was selling jewelry via a Web site. (Charms range from $75 to $385 and rings from $100 to $6,000 for a rose-cut diamond.) "It got fast and furious," she says. "I was taking orders all day. My fingers were falling off."
Her jewelry-making is now a year-round pursuit, and Ficalora estimates it grossed $700,000 last year. Yet carving out time to produce the pieces remains a challenge. Marley and Lennon (who now attend high school and college, respectively) pitch in at the front desk and pool, but Robert, says Helen, "needs to rest a lot." Somehow she has found peace with his illness, following the initial devastation that MS wreaked on her family: "My husband being sick helped me evolve."
Her company is changing too. Come November, she will open her first boutique, in New York City's SoHo neighborhood. "They're going to let me paint the outside magenta," to match her signature boxes, says Ficalora, gushing about her favorite color. "That's the most exciting part. My life is so exciting right now. It's transformed into something amazing."
Ericka Sóuter. Eve Heyn in Montauk