The Refined Yet Utterly Wearable Pieces of Jewelry Designer Nell Ballard
Offering everything from custom engagement rings to one-of-a-kind glitz, Nell Ballard makes gorgeous jewelry you won’t want to take off
When Nell Ballard first struck out on her own, she didn’t have a business plan, nor were her expectations very high. The jeweler of nine years (and mother of three small children) figured she would “make extra money for groceries” with her original designs. “I thought I would do a few custom pieces a month,” she says. “I never expected I would be able to make a living for my family like this.”
Nell Ballard Designs is only a couple of years old, but Ballard has already reached a personal benchmark of success. “I can say no to things I don’t want to make,” she says. “That’s a big deal for an artist!” Customers have found Ballard mainly by word of mouth, though her Instagram has been steadily gaining followers and fans, too. On that platform, Ballard shows images of her one-of-a-kind pieces and little glimpses into her South Portland home. Though she says it’s “probably time” to hire a professional photographer, her original snapshots tell a rather lovely and cohesive story. Everything is cast in a warm glow of soft neutral tones: unusual gems like dendritic agates dangle from gold chains, and a pale wooden butcher block countertop is neatly organized with cream-colored velvet display cases. And while Ballard’s face doesn’t often appear on the grid, there are many pictures of her hands. Her fingers (nails unpainted, short, clean) make an appearance stacked with delicate gold rings, her palms (creased, gentle) used to display moonstone or diamond pendants. In these images, her pieces look both glamorous and unassuming. It’s glitz, but it’s low-key glitz.
This is by design. Although she prefers working with rarified materials—her studio is full of rare opals, impure diamonds, and recycled gold—Ballard wants her pieces to be wearable. She doesn’t like to take her jewelry off to shower or chop vegetables, and she thinks her clients shouldn’t have to, either. “I want someone to be able to wear a ring and be bathing their children, washing their dishes, going through the monotony of life,” she says. “I want them to be able to look down at their hand and feel special. To think about a moment that mattered to them. I want to make all my work so that you can put it on and never take it off, so it’s just a part of your life.” To this end, she encourages clients to choose bezel settings for their larger stones (which means the gold goes all the way around the gem) and often applies a thicker layer of gold than other jewelers might use. In fact, when she finds an incredible stone, she feels compelled to “frame it in gold like a little painting.”
All her life, Ballard has been drawn to small treasures. Growing up in Maine near the beach, she spent years collecting seashells, colorful wave-smoothed rocks, and little pieces of beach glass. “Jewelry was never on my radar,” she admits. But she’s always been creative and grew up painting and beach combing—often at the same time. “My mom was the kind of parent who always had watercolors in her beach bag,” she says. In high school Ballard fell in love with ceramics and the sculptural quality of pottery. Jewelry entered her life later. “I went to Massachusetts College of Art in 2007 thinking I might major in ceramics or fashion,” she says. “Then I took a jewelry class. I fell in love with the scale and how precious everything was.” Out of school, she took a job with a jeweler on Exchange Street in Portland. She refined her skills and enjoyed the work, but something was missing. She was “timid” in her designs. “Working for someone else held me back because what I was making didn’t have my name on it. Not even the customer knew I was the one making it,” she says. “Being on my own gives me the freedom to make things I love, even if I don’t know whether someone else will love them.”
From looking at her past work (and her stacked fingers), it’s fairly easy to see what Ballard likes. She’s drawn to simple, defined shapes and balanced compositions. “Art Deco jewelry is my favorite,” she says. “I like the detailing of vintage jewelry and how the geometric shapes work with a stone.” However, her taste in rocks is a bit more contemporary. She sources diamonds and gemstones only from dealers she personally trusts. “I know their history and background,” she says, “and I try to buy Canadian diamonds whenever possible.” (Miners within North America have to adhere to a stricter set of labor laws than some located abroad.) While many consumers still want bright white rocks, Ballard is part of a new wave of artisans working with the “misfit” and “flawed” stones. These diamonds are often named for foods—champagne, chocolate, and (my favorite) salt and pepper. “I love earth tones,” Ballard says. “Lately, I’ve been very into working with rose-cut sapphires in yellow or brown. People think of sapphires as these bright blue stones, but they come in so many colors.”
She dresses in earth tones as well, and when it comes to metals, Ballard has one true love: yellow gold. While she continues to work in silver (particularly when making pieces for her daughter and her friends) and likes the antique look of rose gold, nothing can top that warm sunny glow. Plus, there’s something about the noble element that wears just right. It’s a soft metal that Ballard calls “buttery” and “joyful” to mold. “As you wear yellow gold, it starts to take on these natural markings,” she explains. “I look at my husband’s gold band. He’s an electrician, and over the last nine years, it’s taken on all this wear. I think it’s much more beautiful than a piece of polished gold.” For Ballard, this is the ultimate reward. A piece well worn, well loved, and beloved beyond value to its owner. “What inspires me,” she says, “is preciousness. The preciousness of a moment—I want to capture that feeling.”