Ani Afshar curls into a Mies van der Rohe chair in her Chicago apartment. She’s had a long day shuttling between her self-named Lincoln Park boutique and the studio where she designs her jewelry, in her home’s basement.
Her living room resembles a mini-gallery: A whimsical painting by Robert Lostutter is situated above the fireplace, and pieces by artist David Sharpe also hang in the apartment.
The paintings are remnants of Afshar’s days as an art collector and artist, before she began creating the intricate pieces that appear in the Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus catalogs and are worn by the likes of Brooke Shields and Madeleine Albright. Afshar’s story contains as many twists as the braids she uses to connect her beads. Born to Armenian parents in Istanbul, Turkey, Afshar attended boarding school in Gstaad, Switzerland, where she met her now ex-husband, Ali.
The couple moved to Iran in 1973. There, she pursued learning the craft of weaving, an interest at that time considered somewhat eccentric from a woman of her social standing. “My grandmother ran a silk-weaving shop to teach her daughters, but for my generation and class, people thought it was odd,” Afshar said. “Still, it was something I had to do, so I persisted.”
Through weaving, Afshar found a way to express her thoughts and feelings, shaping abstract fiber art that conveyed beauty in functional objects like blankets and bedspreads. When the Afshars returned to Chicago in 1979, friends from their artist circle quickly snatched up her work, displaying her blankets as wall hangings and encouraging her to go further.
Eventually, Afshar began incorporating beads into the threads and fibers she wove. And when a friend brought back some rare beads from Egypt and asked her to “do something with them,” she shaped her first necklace. “It felt like such a natural progression to move from weaving fibers to working with beads,” Afshar said. “There is much that I bring to my jewelry that has its roots in weaving.”
This is readily apparent in Afshar’s current work. Strands of vermeil or sterling silver twist one about the other, separating topaz, tourmaline, pearls and peridot. Woven bands of glass bead, black pearl and gold ornamented wire form a multilayered matrix of shifting colors. Streamers of sheer purple organza flutter from another beaded work.
Over the last five years, Afshar has developed 15 different collections, which include necklaces, bracelets, earrings and pins. Wholesale prices range from $10 to $60 for earrings and $20 to $200 for necklaces.
Collections are given evocative names that convey the look of the line. For instance, Capri, a spring 2002 collection, makes use of glass beads in deep-sea blues with milky white highlights.
Most recently, Afshar transformed her business from strictly wholesale, selling through representatives in New York, Japan and England, to retail as well, with the Lincoln Park store, which she opened in April. She hopes to open a second location in Chicago’s trendy Bucktown neighborhood, and perhaps even a third in Santa Monica, Calif.
Outside of her store, accessories aficionados may pick up her pieces at Harrods in London, the Asia Society’s gift shop in New York and at Ku-Croissant in Japan.
Although her manufacturing business still generates 75 percent of her $250,000-plus annual sales, Afshar has high hopes for retail. “I can’t tell you how vital it is to be able to interact with customers face-to-face,” she said. “To see them trying the jewelry on and hear their comments.”
Afshar has also found that retail customers purchase differently than store buyers.
“With wholesale, it’s only about giving them something new,” she said. “But in the store, I have customers buying lines I created three or four years ago. It’s given my work longevity and marketing value that could never happen with wholesale.”