A girl’s first piece of jewelry is something so special that she never forgets it. A pressure-filled situation, no doubt, for the person bestowing the gift but in New Orleans and for those in-the-know, a piece of jewelry by Mignon Faget is a fool-proof gift due to the timeless style embodied in all of her collections.

Faget designed her first collection, titled “Sea,” in 1970. Using the most simple and beautiful of natural forms, it remains 38 years later one of her most popular lines. “I was never really interested in shells from a collector’s point of view – what [they believe] is rare,” Faget says. “I think my favorite form is the linden snail, that beautiful spiral.”

Her subsequent collections – about 50 – are currently in production or on hold. With names such as “Scarab,” “Opus,” “Zea” and “Banana Leaf,” Faget’s designs reflect her dual interests in nature and architecture, and her interpretations – sometimes literal, others more abstract – showcase her natural curiosity, born of growing up a physician’s daughter. Conversations around the dinner table revolved around medicine (her sister and brothers became dentists, which “is pretty close to being jeweler in some senses,” Faget says).

A fifth generation Louisianian (on both sides of her family), from her father’s side she’s descended from the French who came to New Orleans via Saint-Domingue (now Hati) after the slave insurrection in the 1790s, shortly after the French Revolution. (The Faget name has been carried on since then.) Her mother’s family emigrated from France directly to Louisiana, first living in St. Martinville.

What started out as a sideline to her fashion business has now become a successful jewelry and home design company with about 100 employees and four freestanding stores (three in New Orleans, one in Baton Rouge).

Yet even after designing so many collections, Faget, like all good designers, remains subtly subversive, as evidenced by her “Art in Bloom” set design at the New Orleans Museum of Art this past April. (Faget immortalized – so to speak – Tiffany, George Rodrigue’s late, famous “Blue dog,” by setting up a Tiffany – yes, that Tiffany – blue casket with accompanying biscuits. The message? Up to you to figure out.)

Utilizing a classic icon to poke fun at (or honor, perhaps) another classic icon – what else could one expect from a designer whose collections have stood the test of time – remaining classic, themselves, yet never clichéd.

Born: New Orleans
Grew up: New Orleans
Education: Graduate of Newcomb College, Bachelor of Fine Arts, concentrating in sculpture
Resides: Bayou St. John. (In the house in which she grew up.)
Family: Three children: daughter Jacqueline Humphries; sons William Humphries and John Humphries, and three grandchildren: Camille, Jack and Max.
Favorite book: I am a devotee of Vladimir Nabokov.
Favorite movie: Wizard of Oz, The Conformist, The Piano and I love Sideways.
Favorite TV show: I love anything on Masterpiece Theatre and Frontline.
Favorite food: Lobster roll. And I always eat fish or shellfish in simple presentations.
Favorite restaurant: Chez Benoit in Paris. Locally I like John Besh’s restaurants and Lilette.
Favorite music: I have diverse interests: Gregorian chants and Bach, and closer to home I like music by James Booker, Snooks Eaglin, Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet.
Favorite vacation spots: Maine and South Carolina (the Low Country) Hobbies: Exploring nature, walking in the woods and on the beach

How has your family history – that of doctors – informed your designs?
I am a self-styled researcher. I like to figure out how things work … how nature works. Art and science are closely linked and I think the most imaginative and creative scientists are also artists.

What is your advice to novice jewelry designers hoping to get into the business?
Start out doing what you are interested in terms of your inspirations. Even though my jewelry is diverse, the identity is like a David Yurman with his knots. It’s all me; if you know my work, you can tell it’s my work.

Reflecting your personality is important. I really design with myself in mind – I don’t do things I don’t like to wear myself. And the scale – I like, for instance, cuff bracelets. I like to do bracelets because it gives you a larger scale to work with. But I’m not the kind of person that designs a piece that looks like it should be hanging on the wall – I want it to be in scale with the body.

I like to think of jewelry as a lot of parts and pieces [that can be mixed]. I came out of an era in the 1950s when everything was matching handbags and shoes. It was during the late ’60s, early ’70s – with its “anything goes” spirit – when I started.
Tell me about your first store. It was a building on Dublin Street, next to the one I had as a store for many years. It was where I originally sold my clothing designs and [it] was my workshop. The jewelry became a way to make little sculptures and I had no idea what to charge for my first pieces.

How has your business changed through the years?
Well, when I started it was [with] a very small staff and only one gallery. My studio was on the main floor behind the gallery so saw my clients and collectors every day. This was very good, because I got to know how people responded to the work. It’s not reading a report from a computer.

Since the storm I’ve been market driven – not in everything but certainly in my Louisiana collection because that’s what everyone had to have. I was lucky to already have a fleur-de-lis collection that I had designed years earlier – glasses, linens and a large jewelry collection. After the storm I never thought people would be buying jewelry when they need everything else. But it’s what they needed to feel good.

What inspires you?
Nature and architecture. I like to do collections that interest me intellectually. [For example,] I found out the names of the architectural details at the Patrick F. Taylor Library for the “Romanesque Return” collection. [Another example,] is the “Zea” collection. It was created during a time I was going to the Yucatan a lot. I got linked up with a group with the biology department at Tulane, and during that time I happened to attended a lecture by a botanist whose specialty was corn and I learned all of these things about corn. So, I started doing the collection based on corn. All the little kernels became big units, and the second phase of the collection was based on cornhusks. I then gave the pieces Mayan names based on colors.

How long does it – on the average – take to create a collection?
About three to six months – a small collection, four months. Sometimes one year, such as the “Romanesque Return” collection, which has about 75 pieces. It was done as a commission project for Phyllis Taylor and her husband, the late Patrick Taylor.

How many designs do you “throw out” until you get to the one you like?
Probably two out of three.

I don’t think I could work with anyone else because my whole way of designing is … people ask if I do sketches but I like to work directly with materials. Sometimes I get an idea and make a sketch, showing what I want the piece to do. The people who work with me, such as Dorian Bonamo, are so well trained that they know what I want. Dorian knows what I’m talking about.

My first piece of Mignon was a ring from what I call the “Bone” collection, which you don’t produce anymore. Why do some collections remain in production, while others are put on hold?

It’s too much to deal with in terms of carrying the inventory – especially with rings [since] one design requires a size 4 1/2 up to a size 12. The economy doesn’t always work out. But I’ll rotate and bring some collections back. In fact, I’m very interested in [rotating back] the bone collection.

What is your favorite piece from your collections?
One piece of jewelry I love is the double pecan slide. The chain runs through it and runs around twice, so you can make it long or short.

What jewelry would I see on you every day?
I wear these two stud rings [from a collection] as guards to my mother’s diamond engagement ring.

What other jewelry designers do you admire?
When I started out, Elsa Peretti was making her mark – I like her early work. I really like what [architect] Frank Gehry has created.

What’s next?
It’s a secret! I will say that it’s going to be nature-based. I am currently creating one-of-a-kind pieces for Mother’s Day and I am working on ideas on how to celebrate my 40th anniversary in 2010. 

True confession: I collect bones.