Neely Phelan’s jewelry studio in her Little Rock home is overflowing with bits and baubles. There are spools of metal chains and piles of stones, pearls and beads. On her work desk lie scads of jewelry-making tools, vintage buckles and clips, rhinestones and animal bones. Several dress forms showcase finished designs, and on the walls are inspiration boards filled with photos, swatches, show announcements and more. All signs indicate that this is a place where beautiful things are imagined, designed, created.
Some of the most successful businesses are born out of hobbies, and such is the case with Neely Phelan Jewelry. A self-described “crafty” type, Memphis-born Phelan got her start when she saw a necklace that she loved in a magazine. “It was aquamarine,” she recalls. “I really wanted it, but I think it was like $5,000, if I remember correctly.” Unwilling to invest that much, Phelan decided to source the stones and make her own version of the necklace. It wasn’t long until someone bought it right off of her neck.
“And I thought, ok, I’ll make another one,” she says. “It kind of sparked my interest and I started making more things. I’d say it was probably more of a hobby then. I was making a little bit of money on the side.”
At the time, Phelan — who majored in marketing and advertising at Southern Methodist University — was living in Little Rock and working for ad agency Cat Media, but her jewelry making soon launched her into a position at Dillard’s as a product developer and designer.
“It was kind of one of those things,” she says. “My resume was sent to them. I came in and showed them my jewelry, and they hired me.”
At Dillard’s, Phelan worked with the product development team doing “all kinds of things,” including designing and buying jewelry for the Dillard’s private label.
Then, in 2005, Phelan and her husband, Patrick, found out they were expecting their first son, Noah, and she left the workforce to become a full-time mother. Once she got accustomed to motherhood, she began making jewelry again. Friends bought her creations, then one local store started carrying her pieces. In the meantime, she and Patrick had two more sons, Pierce, now 7, and Emerson, 5.
After all of her kids were out of toddlerhood, Phelan decided to crank things up a notch and turn her hobby into a real business.
Her biggest break came about two years ago, when she got invited to gift the celebrities at the Grammy’s.
“I thought to myself, ‘Ok, I’m either going to go big and do it really well this year and see, or just not do it.’ That kind of gave me the edge to take it to the next step,” she says.
Inspired by the past, Phelan says she likes to design pieces that have a history. She often combines vintage elements like Art Deco-style dress clips, buckles and beads with organic pieces like stone and buffalo bone. All of the pieces are handmade by Phelan, sometimes with a little help from her husband, and many are one-of-a-kind. The result is a collection of bold, statement-making pieces like none we’ve ever seen.
“I do follow trends,” she says, “but a lot of the stuff I do is not trendy. Some are investment pieces and statement pieces that you can have forever. The pieces that I find are pieces that someone has had for a long time. They’re just being repurposed in a different way.”
Currently, Phelan’s jewelry can be purchased at Companions Clothier, Belle & Blush, Tulips and Pout in Little Rock, as well as in various boutiques in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee and Canada. Her designs will be in Australia soon and can also be purchased on her website, NeelyPhelan.com.
Her jewelry has appeared on the cover of Pregnancy and Newborn magazine, and also on the pages of Redbook, InStyle, Nylon, People and many others.
As far as the future is concerned, Phelan has a fairly aggressive plan to get her jewelry into new markets, including Europe. She currently attends one jewelry show a year, in Dallas, but is gearing up to go to market in Las Vegas this fall. “It’s one of the biggest jewelry shows there is,” she says.
But as a one-woman operation and a mother of three “high-energy” boys, Phelan is focusing on pacing herself, taking baby steps and letting go of the reigns a bit.
Part of letting go meant recently hiring a sales rep for the southern U.S., and there’s more delegating on the horizon.
“Eventually, I’ll have to find a team to help me because I won’t be able to do it all,” she says. “But I’m also a control freak, so [letting go] is the hard part. Right now, I’m like, one day at a time.”
One fabulously accessoried day at a time.
Getting Creative with Neely
Who are some of your favorite Instagrammers to follow?
I love Instagram! It’s so inspiring. Some of my favorites:
@dosaygive (she is my sister!)
I could go on and on!
What kind of music do you like to listen to?
Usually while I am designing I listen to the Pandora Station Haim, but I love all sorts of music. I recently went to go see U2.
Are any famous people wearing your designs?
When Nicole Miller was here [to speak at Baptist Health’s Bolo Bash], she bought a piece from me.
Favorite national magazines?
I love to flip through magazines. I usually read InStyle and Nylon.
Who is your favorite clothing designer?
The iconic Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel.
How would you describe your personal style?
Relaxed and glamorous all at the same time. I like to play with the combination of glamorous and earthy elements. I think it is quite a modern way to wear jewelry.
Do you have a favorite material and/or pattern to wear?
I love mixing patterns. Currently, I am really into black and white stripes.
Current fashion trend you are loving?
Kimonos! They are a great layering piece. I am also into fringe! I just bought two pairs of fringe booties for the fall!