Tarnished Perfection: Local couture jewelry artist finds her path
When Elizabeth Chittenden was a little girl, she and her four older siblings would lie on the bed amidst a pile of jewelry, listening intently as their mother told stories about sentimental pieces passed down from generation to generation. Whether it was a gold watch that belonged to Chittenden’s grandmother or a watch fob that belonged to her great uncle, each treasure captivated her young imagination.
“I just liked hearing the stories about each piece,” Chittenden says, adding that she also loved history because her father was a history buff. “I liked thinking about who it belonged to, and who that person was.”
It’s only natural that Chittenden went on to launch Lizzy Vintage Couture Jewelry, known as Lizzy Couture. Chittenden creates one-of-a-kind pieces out of vintage finds that have stories of their own, such as verdigris glass pearls, chipped crystals and tarnished medals and chains. But Chittenden’s path to vintage jewelry designer extraordinaire wasn’t an easy one — as the 55-year-old Nashvillian explains, finding her “passion” wasn’t just difficult. It took a long time.
“It took me until I was 50 to figure out what I wanted to do,” she says, laughing. A Nebraska native, Chittenden and a musician boyfriend moved to Nashville 28 years ago. Though he left town, she stayed and ultimately carved her niche in the music industry as an assistant working for the likes of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter.
While doing so, she met her husband James, an agent in the biz. But shortly after the couple married, Chittenden plunged into a debilitating depression that prevented her from working, and left her intermittently bedridden. For 10 years, she tried a variety of therapies and antidepressants, all the while — at the encouragement of her therapists and husband — searching for her true passion. She tried modeling and took acting classes. She painted dog portraits because she loves dogs. She even wrote and self-published a book about her father, who served in World War II.
“I’d think, ‘This is it, this is it,’ and then I’d do it for a little while, and I’d go, ‘No, this isn’t it,’” she says, adding that she was fortunate that her husband could support her while she tried different things.
And then, about five years ago, she began to make progress. While selling vintage jewelry in an antique mall, she decided to try her hand at designing it herself. She started with eyeglass chains made from vintage beads and moved on to antique button and crystal necklaces. Before she knew it, she was selling her pieces in stores around town, and she was enjoying herself.
“But I wanted it to be more than a hobby,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to make this so special that people want it; that it’s in demand.’ Otherwise, I’m out there with the rest of the people making jewelry but not making a living. That’s when I decided to take it up a notch and do couture pieces.”
So, about four years ago, she went up to her home studio, closed the door and let herself go. “It just came out of me; I don’t know where it came from,” she says, explaining that she created three of what she now calls her “collage” necklaces. She took them to an antique store where she was selling jewelry, and one of the necklaces sold the very next day. The buyer was none other than Holly Williams, singer/songwriter, daughter of Hank Williams Jr. and owner of Nashville’s swanky H. Audrey boutique.
“When I heard that she was the one who bought it, I thought, ‘That’s it. I’ve done it,’” Chittenden says, explaining that although she didn’t know Williams personally, she knew Williams owned the upscale H. Audrey. “I figured if she liked my stuff, I had a chance to get it into her place and other high-end boutiques.”
Today, in Nashville, Chittenden sells exclusively to H. Audrey. She also sells her pieces to boutiques in California, Florida, Kansas and Australia, and several celebrities — including Jessica Alba, Demi Lovato and Taylor Swift — have been spotted wearing Lizzy Couture.
So, now, each day, Chittenden retreats to her studio, a veritable jewelry fairyland. She creates masterpiece after masterpiece while watching black and white movies or listening to The Black Eyed Peas with her new rescue basset hound by her side.
“I’m in heaven,” she says. And sure, sometimes she wishes she realized her passion earlier in life, but she also believes this is the way it was meant to be. “It wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t happened this way,” she says. “It’s like my whole life has come to this.”
In addition to incorporating her love for dogs and history, Elizabeth Chittenden seeks out the most unique pieces when making her jewelry. Her work is often laden with imperfections, and it’s supposed to be. “I like things that are missing rhinestones or tarnished and funky because that’s how I see me,” says the mastermind behind Lizzy Couture. “They’re not perfect, but there’s still beauty in them.” To see for yourself, visit lizzycouture.com.
“I dreamt my whole life about being a mother,” says Heidi Jellison. “I never dreamt about a big wedding, honestly never even dreamt about the husband part.” Jellison, a 35-year-old concert harpist and harp teacher, laughs at this last bit, but then her face settles into a quiet solemnity.
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