Jewelry Designer’s Pioneer Story is a Limited-Edition Gem

Paula Dawkins is a pioneer on the Asheville arts scene. Photo by Tim Barnwell

Paula Dawkins does 99 percent of her jewelry-design work on a computer. But the first idea is always a drawing, to be found somewhere in her piles of filled-up sketchpads. “I don’t seem to run out of ideas,” she says.

Dawkins graduated from Appalachian State University in 1972 with a degree in psychology, intent on finding answers to life’s meaning. Pursuit of existential purpose, however, soon gave way to practical matters. “I realized I needed an income. Somehow I hadn’t put that together with getting a college degree.” A friend suggested she try her hand at making and selling jewelry. “It was working for him, so it should work for me. Or at least that’s what I assumed.”

Equipped with only a jewelry saw and a few basic tools, she began making silver jewelry (mostly pendants and simple earrings) using coins. She describes these early pieces as “basic” and “crude.”

“The prices started at $5 and climbed all the way to $25,” she recalls. After a while, she decided to try her luck selling her creations at craft shows.

Much of Dawkins’ work visually references the mountains.

“The first show I did was in Richmond, Virginia. I was so broke that I could not get a hotel room until I made some money.” Luckily, her first sale was to a woman of fine taste. “[She] was a nanny pushing one of those expensive baby carriages, and [she purchased] my most expensive items. Needless to say, I got a hotel for the night.” She even got to go out for dinner. “I remember it like yesterday, and it was 45 years ago,” she says. Dawkins continued working craft shows for several years, doing as many as 32 in a 12-month span.

In 1983, she moved to Asheville, and a few months later, opened Jewelry Design, becoming a pioneer artisan on Lexington Avenue. Then Carol Schniedewind joined the firm. “Carol was instrumental in changing our name to Jewels That Dance,” says Dawkins. “She does all the marketing … without her, our design studio would not be what it is today.”

In 1986, Jewels That Dance moved to its current location on Haywood Street. Last year brought somewhat of a pearl-anniversary present: the business was named the top “Designer Jewelry Store” in the U.S. by the trade organization JCK.

Paula Dawkins has a fondness for rings.

In the early years, Dawkins focused primarily on developing wholesale outlets. At one point, more than 75 national galleries carried her work. In the late ’90s, though, with business increasing at her store in Asheville, she decided to devote more of her creative energy to the retail side of her operation. Along with the other three designers at Jewels That Dance, she makes one-of-a-kind pieces (including custom work) and limited-edition designs.

Basically self taught, Dawkins received additional education through courses at Penland School of Crafts, Holland School for Jewelers, training in the use of computer-assisted design from Gemvision, and certification in diamond grading from the Gemological Institute of America.

In the end it comes back to what is basic (though never crude). “I love arranging different gemstones to form a pleasing palette,” she says. “It’s a jeweler’s version of painting. This is the art.”

Jewels That Dance Fine Jewelry and Design Studio, 63 Haywood St. For more information, call 828-254-5088 or visit jewelsthatdance.com.

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