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Pratt Institute is the largest school of art and design in the country, with 4,200 students enrolled as of September 2001. The Institute produces alumni at a comparitively sedate, if consistent, rate; 503 undergraduate and 464 graduate students received degrees in the Class of 2001. Our graduates, then, are hand-made, with all the potential for creative expression the phrase implies.
Donna Chambers’ ambitions blazed a new trial altogether. The Fashion Design graduate is now an award-winning jewelry designer and the proprietor of an African-American gift and curio shop.
Chambers, BFA ’72, is restrained in voice and gesture, and her store and basement workshop is as cluttered as Mary Fugle’s office is spare. Chambers’ store, That Old Black Magic, is brightly lit and stocked as well as a respectably-sized museum shop. The shop stocks books, including a respectable selection of African-American romance novels, curios, games, posters, greeting cards and jewelry, all aimed at an African-American audience. Even in the middle of a blustery weekday, a constant stream of patrons came and went.
Chambers’ jewelry workshop, in the store’s basement, has a rather different feel. On the sheetrock wall next to the phone are dozens of telephone numbers in different hands and colors of ink. On the hot water heater is a magnetic replica of the 15-cent Martin Luther King Black Heritage postage stamp. A magnetic tumbler whirs on a countertop, putting the first polish on a new piece of jewelry. The water in the tumbler is brown with gold dust. Boxes with handwritten labels are stored under counters and in corners, and Christmas decorations spill out of one particularly big carton at the foot of the stairs.
On the all are newspaper clippings from USA Today about women’s basketball, including a picture of Chambers’ daughter, sixteen-year-old Cori---an aspiring pro---number 50 in a blue uniform, running hard downcourt.
Chambers’ talent in art design was recognized at an early age by Vera Linens and Oleg Cassini. Vera hired Chambers as a teenager to create textile designs for her multi-million dollar design operation in Ossining, New York, where Chambers was born and raised.
Vera established a scholarship fund in honor of her late husband, and Chambers became the first recipient of the George Neuman Scholarship. In the fall of 1968, Chambers came to study at Pratt. She began her career in the garment center, after graduating from Pratt in 1972 with a BFA in Fashion Design.
“I worked in the garment center for a few years,” she said. “It was boring and the people were mean.” Chambers found her interest in jewelry design when she began doing repair work in her husband’s shop.
She was married to jeweler Irving Williams in 1976. When her husband died in 1978, Chambers, disillusioned with the garment business, took over the jewelry repair business. The shop serviced fifteen neighborhood jewelry concerns in the downtown Brooklyn area, as well as A&S Department Store.
Three years after taking over the business, she created the Donna Chambers Collection of 14 karat gold and pearl earrings and pins.
In 1986, Chambers, a Brooklyn resident for eighteen years, moved herself and her daughter to Westchester, where her jewelry workshop has been ever since.
“In 1990, my lifelong goldsmithing career and passion, and my love for collection beautiful things and black memorabilia, led me to the opening of That Old Black Magic, a store in downtown White Plains,” she said. “The store is an African-American book and gift gallery. Our mission is to promote black culture, lifestyle and diversity in the community and those communities that surround us. I was determined to be a bridge that connects the gap between the artist, author, and the consumer. So I began filling the store with art, gifts, books, jewelry, games, home accents, and everything relating to the Black Experience. I also held readings: some really big names, including Nikki Giovanni, who packed the house, Iyanla Vanzant, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Susan Taylor, Arthur Ashe and others. We’ve also helped to premier and promote many first book authors.”
Chambers’ sister Gail Chambers Redd, is a longtime jeweler in the shop. Gilberto McFarlane has worked for Chambers since 1979; he is the son of a jeweler Chambers worked with in downtown Brooklyn. Gilberto sits at the corner of the L-shaped workbench, working with blunt fingers on intricate gold jewelry that will later hold mother-of-pearl panels. He has close-cut dark hair and wears glasses with a magnifier attached. The three sit within arm’s reach of one another around an L-shaped bench, each working a pool of light.
Chambers’ jewelry is an unusual tactile experience. The antique mother of pearl isn’t exactly warm to the touch, but it seems warmer than room temperature, and has a surface texture like skin. Much of Chambers’ work is created from 18th century Chinese gambling markers. She cuts and shapes the mother of pearl into various designs, then mates it with custom-made gold framing. On the day we visited her workshop, she was wearing a set of fan-shaped mother of pearl and gold earrings of her own design.
“I know some girls who call themselves jewelry designers, but someone else makes their stuff,” Chambers said. “My major at Pratt was Fashion Design---if I couldn’t sew, I wouldn’t know how things go together. When I’d go to someplace on Seventh Avenue, and they’d say, ‘That’s not makable,’ I could say, ‘Give me a machine and I’ll show you.’”
I don’t want to be known as a good African-American designer-most of my jewelry customers are white, as a matter of fact,” she says. “I want to be know as a good designer.”
Chambers’ work does have broad appeal. Some of her largest orders come from retailers in Hawaii and from the Museum Company, which markets Chambers’ jewelry through a national network of retail stores, on the Internet and via catalogs. Her fine jewelry collection has been carried by Bloomingdale’s, Fortunoff’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and The Museum Company, as well as at jewelry chains from coast to coast. Pieces of Chambers’ jewelry have been shown at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, and The Boston Museum of Art.
She is an award-winning designer, a winner of the International Pearl Design Contest; the 1992 Women’s Jewelry Association’s Annual Award of Excellence in Manufacturing; the 1995 Blenheim Award for Design Excellence; and the 1998 YWCA Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Chambers is also a member of the Contemporary Jewelry Design Group and the International Jewelry Design Council.
“I want people to know it’s my jewelry,” she said. “I would like to have a solo exhibition at some point. It’s fine art. I don’t want it just because I’m an African-American woman, but I would like my work to go down in history, somehow.”
In the end, lives and career of these two alumnae could be an advertisement for Pratt’s “hand made” philosophy.
The Magazine of PRATT Institute Spring 2002