As a child Monica Graves saw pebbles and instantly thought business. While other young teens were hanging out at the mall, Monica the budding entrepreneur was designing custom T-shirts and babysitting every kid on the block. A visit to a bead store with a friend sparked an idea that has grown into a custom jewellery business that’s reached cult status in the Bay Area and given brides a signature look as they walk down the aisle.
We spoke to Monica in her glamjulz Burlington studio and connected the dots between beads, brides and Xanadu.
Hi Monica, it’s great to be sitting with you here in your beautiful studio. Did you know from a young age that you wanted to be an entrepreneur and a jewellery maven?
I remember my very first really entrepreneurial thought from when I was very, very young. I was in kindergarten and we went out for recess. I walked through the parking lot into the field. I looked down and I saw all these little pebbles and I thought, If I pick up a million of these and sell them for a dollar a piece, I’ll be a millionaire.
So you were an entrepreneur on the first day of kindergarten?
In my head I played it all out. I wouldn’t have to go to school anymore and my parents would be able to pay off the house and they’d be able to pay to fix up the cottage. We could be there all the time and we could go to Florida and we could go to Myrtle Beach. So that was my very first little spark of that feeling, Get me out of school and let’s get onto the good stuff.
From an early age you were already thinking, "There’s money here." I love that. When it came to getting into the real world and the “good stuff,” did you leap straight into glamjulz?
No, I had other entrepreneurial leaps. When I was 15, in the 1980s, I started Designs by Monica, my own T-shirt company. People came to me with their favourite characters and I’d put them on shirts. I painted Elvis, Marilyn Monroe – the nostalgic stuff was really big then. I decided I needed more exposure, so I set my sights on the 21-day summer show at the CNE and got a student venture loan for $4,000. That money paid for my booth, my materials and all of my costs. After I paid the loan back I figured out my hourly rate was 75¢ an hour.
You didn’t make very much money at the CNE that year but did you gain anything else?
I learned how to engage with people. I could feel that real connection. I learned how to approach strangers. Up until that point I had shown my T-shirts to family and friends and I had the support of my high school. But the CNE was a different situation that I learned a lot from.
The highlight of that learning?
I got comfortable talking to people.
Did you have a business after the summer show?
During that high school T-shirt time I was also babysitting every kid on the block. I took care of seven kids at a time, and I loved that too. In that way I found my entrepreneurial spirit young!
Then what happened?
When I got out of high school, I took a job at Canada Post and I worked there for 18 years.
Wow! That came out of left field for me. Canada Post?
It was unexpected for me, too. I went to Sheridan College for Early Childhood Education because I loved kids. Then I landed the Canada Post job at 19. I was making great money and I thought, I don’t really need to be a kindergarten teacher, I’m going to keep doing this.
What does a budding jewellery artist do at Canada Post?
Canada Post was fantastic. While I was there I took business courses and wrote the business plan for glamjulz. That was the 1990s.
From writing a business plan for glamjulz to actually making it happen. Connect the dots for me.
A friend asked me to check out a bead store in Toronto. At that time, beads were the new thing and it just hit me, really sparked my interest.
What were the steps between loving the bead store and sitting in your own successful studio?
It was kind of strange because when I first started with the beads, I thought, I love the beach thing. So I want this to be cool and beachy. A couple of the first pieces I made were for my guy friends. I was buying Fimo Clay and just mushing it up into these spiral designs and then putting something like a piece of leather on it. We grew up in the ’70s, so they’d be, like, This is so CHiPs or Hardy Boys. Guys asked for more and I was saying, “Yeah, let’s do more stuff like that.” Then I started doing jewellery for girls. It was the same idea but with a beautiful clear jewel on top.
You were doing all of this and working full time at Canada Post?
I would work all day, grab some dinner, go to my studio, work from 7 p.m. until midnight, then go home about 1 in the morning. I got up early the next morning, back to Canada Post and did it all over again.
I have no idea how I did that, by the way.
What’s your inspiration for your jewellery?
I have always really loved sparkly things and I’m so influenced by Xanadu, Archie Comics and all that stuff. That was where I was drawing my inspiration from. I had a couple of designs that were doing really well and I wanted to expand on that. So, I’d look at magazines and see what celebrities were wearing and that kind of thing.
So you drew inspiration but kept it all very uniquely Monica?
I never wanted to be like everybody else. I wanted to be the company that was different, creating pieces that were classic. If you’re wearing a piece of ours ten years from now it will still look like you got it yesterday because it’s unique. You’ve never seen anything like it before.
When did glamjulz evolve? How did you go from making amazing unique pieces for a few people to where you are now?
I was doing weekend craft shows for a few years. Then somebody took one of my bracelets into Joelle’s on Brant Street in Burlington and said, “Call this girl, she makes the best jewellery!” Joelle called me, and looked at our line. I was shaking when I went in to meet her, it was just this whole other big part of the business. It was very empowering for me because that first order was close to $500. That helped me call another store and another.
At that point it got real?
Yeah, it was, OK, this is not just a hobby.
So, there’s a glamjulz mensch out there, who did something good without wanting to be acknowledged. Did you ever find out who brought your piece into Joelle’s?
I still don’t know who it was!
And from there?
When it all started to happen we needed to have a name for the business, something better than Designs by Monica! My husband said, “Let’s take this to another level,” and he came up with the name and designed a logo.
How did the name glamjulz come to be?
He said: "What do you think of glam?" And I was, like, “Glam? I don’t know. What if people say "clam.” He said, “Glam, like glamorous, like 1980s roller skating. He started describing the logo and I was all in, saying, ”That’s it, you’re right! glamjulz, it’s glamjulz.”
Glamjulz makes me think of beautiful custom pieces and brides.
I love working with brides. They have a vision of their wedding day right from the time they are little girls. They bring that dream to our studio and we make it happen.
Do you keep a close eye on bridal trends?
No, I don’t look at what’s trending in bridal. That’s because our brides arrive and say, “My favourite colour in the world is turquoise and I love it with lavender. Those are the colours of my wedding.” We bring it all together for them and it’s about them, not what’s in magazines.
I love when I read that brides are having jewellery made as gifts for their bridesmaids and mothers. This is something everyone would love to get.
They wear it on the wedding day and then again and again. This is jewellery you can wear with a gown or with a jean jacket.
Any special memories of brides you’ve worked with?
There are so many special brides, they’re each special in their own way. But one bride, she came in and said, “I want this to be all about my girls feeling their best when they are standing beside me." She chose black dresses for each of them.
Because everyone looks great in a black dress!
Exactly. Then she had me create one of our ten-strand necklaces – that’s a really big statement piece – in their favourite colours. One had lime green, one had hot pink, one had bright orange, one had purple. It wasn’t, "Let’s make sure they all look the same!" it was about reflecting each of the bridesmaids’ unique personalities. That was pretty special.
Okay, talk to me about your pieces. You mentioned a ten-strand piece, what is that? How are they all different?
We do a lot of styles. We have a simple little necklace that’s one strand, but you can do four or ten, it just depends on the look you want. We also have necklaces you can wear short or long. They are so versatile – you can wear them as a belt, a necklace or wrap it like a bracelet. A lot of brides call those our honeymoon necklaces because they know that they can mix it up.
I love that idea. Honeymoon necklaces.
They’re special on the wedding day and then forever.
Do the brides come in and make the jewellery using your beads? How does this work?
Oh no, brides come in and tell us their colours. Brides are very well prepared. They come with their fabric swatches, sometimes they’ll even bring the shoes the girls are wearing, all of the elements of what’s happening.
What’s your favourite piece of all time?
It evolves for sure. I think I still love our ten-strand because it looks like a mess of crazy that all somehow works brilliantly together. I love it when pieces are unexpected and not perfect. My favourite pieces are statements. You can wear whatever you want and just add this fabulous texture, and that makes your whole outfit look fantastic. Like art you wear.
The brides who choose to have you create a signature piece for them aren't the kind who walk into a jewellery store saying, “I'll take the one off the rack, it's close enough."
Where do the beads come from?
We source them from all over the globe. A lot of them come from the Czech Republic because they have a very nice quality of glass and crystal. Sometimes we will use Swarovski crystal.
I know you do charity pieces. Does Swarovski show up in those?
Yes, we use them mostly in our fundraising pieces. Those creations are something we are very passionate about. We work with Juravinski Cancer Centre and Halton Food for Thought. With that one, kids can give these little apple bracelets to their teachers. A really special one for us happens at Christmas. Each year we design earrings that raise money to help a family with a mom or dad who has cancer. This is called the Three Little Wishes Fund. It raises money to help the children in the family.
Do you do all the designs yourself?
I design them myself and also get inspiration from my entire glamjulz team. Every season I come up with a colour story of eight different colours. Some of my choices come from what’s trending with Pantone but mostly what I am personally inspired by. Last fall we did our ABBA gold disco necklaces. We’ve also done a series based on a crazy colour combination, with red and turquoise and white, and called it the All-American Girl collection.
Sounds like your inspirations are always changing.
I get influences from different places. My husband also gets in on design. He’s very good at seeing how things work, how pieces function.
So there’s a whole glamjulz team at work behind all these shiny pieces?
It’s a real team effort. It’s not just me anymore and I really love that. My passion in business has grown to include inspiring women in any way that I can.
An aspect of your life and business that I’m very jealous of is your business road trips.
I’ve always wanted to have this life. Unlimited travel is a big passion for me.
How did you manage to meld travel with jewellery?
In 2009 I went to Florida to meet my parents. I thought to bring my jewellery collection and show my pieces to a couple of boutiques in the Keys, where they were staying. It was the perfect spot for the jewellery. Now I’ve built a whole network of retailers in the States.
I see that you travel a lot with your mom.
My dad passed away in 2012, and I said to my mom, “You’ve gotta keep going.” I needed to expand my market there, in the U.S. So now the road trips are our thing. These trips are my time with Mom. She’s the best – she cooks for me, keeps me organized and pours the wine when we unload at the hotel. I always ask, “What’s your first, and what’s your most important job?” She says, “Pour the wine!”
There is no better place to end our chat than with the word “wine.” Thank you so much Monica, it’s been an incredible pleasure.
It’s been fun!
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