Lisa greets me warmly when I arrive at her home in Downey. Her ponytail shows off a babyface with dimples and a photo of her grandmother presides over rows of her colorful jewelry that’s worn by celebs like Gwen Stefani and Erykah Badu.
Intricate silver skulls smile at me with heart-shaped eyes and eyelashes. They’re flanked by colorful beads, twisting into earrings or heavy statement necklaces, colors and images popular during the Dia de los Muertos holiday, also known as The Day of the Dead. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died.
The jewelry line is Ilaments, a blend of her daughter’s name Ila, which means one who takes on challenges & the word elements. It’s sold online, at shows and boutiques as far away as Tokyo.
Lisa launched her line in 1997 after working for two successful jewelry designers (Dana Kellin and Wasabi). She was inspired to strike out on her own after creating Day of the Dead pieces for another designer who liked it so much, she created a line inspired by them.
“I thought, there’s something I’m not seeing here. It was validation that what I was doing wasn’t just a craft or hobby. It gave me the courage to become a full-time designer and start my own business.”
Lisa grew up in the East Adams District near USC and started making her own jewelry at the tender age of seven. She still has a soft spot for East LA and a group that embraced and celebrated her creativity.
“East LA is where I blossomed. In 1997 I found a non-profit organization called Self Help Graphics, which promotes Chicano art and artists. I got an internship there through The Getty Museum and that’s what led me down this path.”
Her collection is inspired by her cultural background, history and family stories, but she never anticipated her Dia Los Muertos line would be one of her biggest collections.
“I’ve made all types of jewelry, experimented with pearls. I do believe jewelry is an extension of one’s self, and with everything I create, I’m being true to myself and who I am. I’m 4th generation Mexican and Native American. I look for things that reflect me.”
The words muerte (death) and vida (life) are written on the foreheads of her famous skulls, a reminder that life is precious and while death is a reality, we must respect and remember our dead. It’s part of her inspiration, as well as her Native American roots.
“I often incorporate a misplaced bead into my pieces. It’s a Native American tradition to symbolize our imperfections. It stands for our humanity and that we’re not perfect like our creator.”
In a perfect world, her grandmother would be alive and not just in a picture frame, but in an inevitable part of the life cycle, her abuelita passed away two years ago. When you peer into the photo of Carmen Rocha smiling over a tray of margaritas, it’s clear Lisa inherited that faceful of sunshine.
It’s a photo recognized by many Angelenos as an El Cholo advertisement. Carmen moved to Los Angeles in the fifties and worked at the original El Cholo on Western Avenue starting in 1959 and for nearly the next 40 years.
She served a special treat favored by stars like Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, a dish of fried tortilla chips, layered with cheese and jalapeño peppers warmed in the oven. She had learned the dish in San Antonio, where she worked for a man named Ignacio.
One day, when Carmen wasn’t at work, someone requested her famous dish. Her boss called her at home.
“What is it you’ve been serving to everyone?” Her grandmother described how the dish was cooked, but her boss needed a name. When Carmen didn’t have an answer, she gave credit to her former boss, using his nickname.
While the recipe may not have been her own, she made the simple dish famous across the country.
These Vida Muerte Skull Earrings by Ilaments were featured in this month’s InStyle Magazine.
Lisa has advice to encourage other artists.
“As an entrepreneur and jewelry designer, I’ve learned I can do anything I put my mind to. Lots of times people have wanted me to conform, but my advice is to stay true to who you are. Don’t change.”
Shop Lisa’s designs here: http://www.ilaments.com
Follow Lisa on twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ilaments