Colorful cats, native American inspired horses, and birds from the tropical to the simple dove make evoke memories of Laurel Burch, an esteemed artist, metal worker and jewelry specialist whose designs flourished, especially in the 1980s, and again have gained popularity in the 2000s. Laurel Burch, born Laurel Anne Harte, was a California native born in 1945. An early marriage in 1964, and a divorce shortly thereafter, inspired the self-taught artist, then a single mom with two young children, to start making jewelry to attempt to support her family.
With two babies and no money, Laurel Burch was 20 years old, attempting to survive on welfare. Her early attempts at providing for her family resulted in a shoplifting charge for taking some meat from a grocery store to feed her son more protein. Through those lean years, though, she quickly discovered a talent for jewelry making, and began to sell her work in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco, California, in which she lived. Holding down a normal job and caring for two small children was particularly difficult for Burch, since she suffered from a medical condition, osteopetrosis, which caused her chronic pain and over one hundred individual bone fractures during her lifetime.
Business was good enough by 1971 for Laurel Burch to travel to China where she developed an interest in cloisonné, a type of ancient metalwork form that involves coating metal with glass based paint and firing the result to created an enamel finish to metal work. Burch first painted, and then used many of her paintings as designs for earrings, pins, and other jewelry, and found an avid supporter in Shashi Singapuri, a well-known East Indian trader, who had first brought her artwork to the attention of the Chinese.
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Later, Laurel Burch formed her own company in 1979, Laurel Burch Incorporated. Burch’s work gained great praise as unique jewelry that wasn’t based on trends. Her profits grew as the company grew and her jewelry gained more notice, and she amply shared some of the profits with organizations like humane societies. Her work expanded into textiles, accessories, and eventually she dissolved her company in the mid-90s, and licensed her designs to a number of different companies.
Though Burch’s work was very recognizable and she was widely praised for her art, her life was complicated and tough at times. A second marriage ended in divorce, but she was happily married to third husband, Rick Sara, at the time of her death in 2007. Her death was caused by complications of her illness, but she certainly left an indelible mark on the art and jewelry world. Especially with many of her designs being licensed, consumers can again enjoy collecting her beautiful work on cups, jewelry, purses, shirts and scarves, and it is likely these designs will long honor her memory.