In the beginning, Katrina Kelly assumed she'd go into fashion. Turns out, "I was horrible at sewing," the Houston designer says. It would never work, so she turned her attention to another medium: metal. "I think because I always had a science background, the alloys meshed with me," she says. She got a degree in metalsmithing and began making fine jewelry instead of clothes.
"I like the intrinsic symbolism," she says. Fittingly, years later, she'd go on to study iconography for her master's in art history—today, she's a part-time professor of that subject at Lone Star College. Before that, though, Kelly was the one studying, first in Florence where she was the only American in an intensive, full-time jewelry course with an Italian metalsmith.
She also spent time in Turkey, where she'd befriended a prominent jewelry family—"they're like the Tiffany's of Istanbul," she says—after working in their Dallas Galleria store through college. "Basically I was just around these designs, and that totally influenced me," Kelly says. "I get a lot of inspiration from the Italian and the Turkish and their really intricate metalwork, which is beautiful to look at. It's exquisite."
Back in the States, Kelly "served time" as a bench jeweler—"dirty and gritty jobs," she says, like overnight gigs soldering tiny stars onto giant Texas belt buckles. It taught her a lot about manufacturing, including that she didn't want to do it for her own pieces. "I wanted to do a higher-end line, and I wanted to be the creative director," she says.
When she'd saved up enough to fund her first collection, she leaned into couture. But by the time she finished in 2008, the market was tough on independent jewelers—people wanted name-brand stuff, like David Yurman, almost exclusively—and on top of that, she wasn't happy. She didn't even wear her own jewelry. "It didn't resonate with my soul," she says. In time, she pulled out of every luxury store she'd gotten in on consignment. "I was like, I'm never doing this again. Let me renegotiate what I like."
And so it was back to school—for the art history master's—where she did just that, studying the ancients and finding renewed inspiration in the highly technical, highly beautiful old-world metalwork she'd first come to love as a jewelry apprentice.
It was a story of the magi that sparked her now trademark idea. "'Magi' is technically a mistranslation of 'magic.' They were these people from all over the world—Saudi Arabia, Persia, Egypt—and they're really like priests," Kelly says. "I started studying the connection to wisdom, how we used to associate alchemy with wisdom, not how we think of it today like Harry Potter.
"I was studying how wisdom relates to architecture and space and light," she continues. "And I came up with this idea of Wisdom Wands—simple as that."
The early wands were simple little pendants, packaged with a "quote of wisdom" Kelly initially feared too cheesy. "But people kept coming back, like, 'I want another wand,'" she says. "That became my best-seller."
Today's Wisdom Wands—Kelly trademarked the term—are more varied, some studded with precious stones and others molded in celestial shapes. They're a modernized, less sterile take on an ancient concept. "They come back like residuals, and I reappropriate them and change them," Kelly says. "Some are simple, some are abstract, some are cultural, some are spiritual."
More recently, Kelly has found an unexpected ally in the quest to popularize her pieces: Hollywood. "I was just lucky enough through the years to gradually meet costume designers and stylists, and they started using them," she says. Her designs have now appeared on characters in widely watched shows like USA's White Collar (Kelly: "I had no idea Tiffani Thiessen had such a cult following!") and HBO's Silicon Valley. "I have a star necklace that's on there often," she says of the latter. "So often now that I forget to look. They do keep wearing them."
A self-described women's advocate, Kelly relishes the fact that her jewelry is mainly worn by "really strong, kick-ass women." Take, for example, Neve Campbell in the 2018 action film Skyscraper, where the actor plays a military surgeon and all-around heroic badass. "There's a scene where she's wearing my necklace and someone's trying to kill her with a gun and she gets out of it," Kelly says. "That was probably my favorite moment. In my imagination I'm like, that Wisdom Wand saved her life."
The Wisdom Wands' properties are admittedly less dramatic off-screen, but a similar logic still applies to everyday wear. "When you touch that, you're getting billions of years of energy and wisdom from the Earth," Kelly says. "That's what I need more than anything: good judgment and wisdom. I'm like, hello, wand, please help me right now. It's personal. I like this collection."
Bolstered by the conviction that everything is cyclical, Kelly is constantly reinventing new designs, adding new elements—like ethically sourced opals, most recently—and elevating her pieces. And yes, she does design other jewelry, like dainty charm necklaces and stackable gold rings. But if you only know Katrina Kelly for Wisdom Wands, she's okay with that.
"A lady said to me one time, 'You don't want to be a one-trick pony,'" Kelly says. "And I was like, 'yeah, actually, I do.'"
Tootsie's hosts Katrina Kelly Fine Jewelry for a trunk show and designer appearance on Wednesday, September 25 and Thursday, September 26; a portion of proceeds benefit Crime Stoppers of Houston.