If you were hanging out in the grocery line last week, you might have noticed that the Kardashian sisters are fed up with their mom, as the May 21 issue of In Touch magazine told us in all capital letters. What you probably didn’t notice was the little necklace Kourtney Kardashian was wearing—a classy gold bar etched with the name of her son, Mason, dangling from a simple chain. It’s worth taking a closer look because the creator of this little custom piece isn’t in New York or Los Angeles. Nashelle, a custom jewelry and design company owned by a Bend mom, is located in an inconspicuous building on American Way.
Kardashian is one of dozens of celebrities that have fallen in love with Nashelle’s clean designs and handmade jewelry and whose interest has rocketed this down-to-earth company to international notoriety and sales of over $2 million a year.
“I guess we were on American Idol last night,” says owner and founder of the company, Heather Nashelle Straw.
For Straw, who is originally from Juneau but moved to Bend about 10 years ago, the success is still surreal.
“I’m always in awe,” says Straw, who is in her 30s and pregnant with her fourth son. When I meet her at the company’s headquarters she’s wearing a form-fitting gray and white dress. The baby bump is in effect. She has rather hip clear glitter on her eyelids and, despite being tired, she smiles a lot at me, at her employees and when she talks about the company she created.
“I never thought I was going to design jewelry,” she says, but it felt like magic once she did, “with torches and everything. That magical feeling that I was not expecting to stumble on was addictive and I pursued it.”
She began making jewelry in her living room and literally selling it off her neck to customers at the bar she worked at in Southeast Alaska.
Her first retail space was located in the now vacant lot next door to Bend Brewing Company. She got pregnant with her first son as they were tearing down the building there and became terrified of providing for him. That fear spurred her to take her jewelry to a trade show in Las Vegas where she had equally frightening success, she says.
She made $43,000 in three days.
“I just handed the stack to my husband and balled,” she says.
As we talk, the sound of a little hammer hitting a baby anvil rings out through the bays of the building where the company and its showroom has been housed since early 2006.
We walk toward the noise and John Marshall looks up from his work flattening the end of a slender cable of gold fill in preparation to make a necklace. Marshall is one of Nashelle’s employees not formally trained in jewelry making—he was a photographer—but he shares Straw’s artistic and creative values and has been with her company since before its big boom.
“Heather took a chance on me,” he says, as Straw looks closely at pictures of his daughter frolicking in the woods that hang all around his mini-blacksmith station.
“I remember this being a much smaller company—we were just a group of artists,” he says.
That artistry is still hugely important for the company. Trays of stones and spools of silver or gold fill are tucked in all over the Nashelle space providing constant inspiration. Straw and her team design five times a year, sometimes bringing in other creative folks in town like Maya Moon, a custom handbag maker in Bend who is visiting Nashelle on this particular day to pore over the dozens of new jewelry designs on a tall industrial table.
Part of keeping the company creative is providing a wonderful place to work. Taking care of her staff is a big deal for Straw. She provides health care and many of her employees have been with her for years.
Keeping the company in America and providing living wage jobs are priorities even if it’s not easy to make “a handmade product that’s in competition with China.”
Even though the company she created may be international, Straw seems like the kind of Bend mom you might strike up a conversation with while standing around the pirate ship at Columbia Park.
“Start locally and watch the world begin to flourish!” is a line on the Mission page of Nashelle’s website.
Some of the company’s roughly 20 employees regularly teach jewelry making, using Nashelle materials, to fourth, fifth and sixth graders at Seven Peaks School and at Ponderosa Elementary in an effort to keep the arts in local schools. Nashelle donates a portion of its profits to the Family Action Network and Straw has just struck up a similar relationship with the Kids Center.
“Children are my focus,” says Straw, who also donates to effCancer and recently helped support the Source’s Woman of the Year Jen Burgess Thompson in her fight against ovarian cancer.
She should have plenty more opportunities to support the local projects she cares about as her profits continue to blow past expectations quarter after quarter.