U.S. jewelry designer remakes herself in Mexican exile

McClatchy NewspapersMay 23, 2011 

Virgins Saints & Angels' buyers often choose a layered look with multiple necklaces.

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — The bad stuff sometimes comes in waves. The company axes you. The divorce happens. Life loses its charm.

What to do?

If you are Cheryl Finnegan, you take your savings and move to a quaint artists' community in Mexico. You wash away anxiety with yoga, then follow a hidden passion to design jewelry. You take inspiration from Mexico's patron saint. The jewelry becomes hot. Your company grows wildly. Names such as Britney Spears, Madonna and Maria Shriver discover your creations.

You buy multiple homes. An eccentric artist enters your life. You find love again.

That's what happened to Finnegan, a redheaded Irish-American from near Peoria, Ill., whose rise in the design world has left even her own head spinning. Her recent life embodies the axiom that if you receive a blow — or several — get up and try again. Sometimes things get better. Remain open to inspiration.

Finnegan, 49, is the founder and creative spark behind Virgins Saints & Angels (VSA), a boutique jewelry house that operates out of a colonial building on a cobblestone street in the central Mexico expat community of San Miguel de Allende.

Her intricate artisan jewelry is characterized by folk-art protective images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Sacred Heart, St. Benedict and goddesses with deep spiritual essences. Her work is instantly recognizable for its ornate design.

Asked to describe it, Finnegan paused: "What I like to say is, 'It's Celtic meets Gothic meets Mexico.'"

The list of celebrities and sports stars who wear Virgins Saints & Angels belt buckles, rings, necklaces and pendants is endless. Age and race are no boundaries.

"Miley Cyrus wears my things, and Maria Shriver wears my things," she said, referring to the 18-year-old singer and the 55-year-old author and estranged wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger. So do Madonna, Kelly Osbourne, Eva Longoria, Beyonce, Paris Hilton, singer Tim McGraw and soccer star David Beckham.

"Do you remember that guy Dennis Rodman?" she asked, referring to the former NBA star. "He came into a trunk show with about five of his girlfriends, and they mobbed me."

Finnegan now sells in 240 outlets around the United States, usually in boutiques and couture jewelry stores. They are stores such as Swag, a Dallas venue that specializes in edgy designer jewelry.

"She uses a lot of spiritual images in her pieces, and people love that," said owner Lisa Alfieri. "People collect her jewelry. They don't just buy one piece."

Alfieri said Virgins Saints & Angels had become "a phenomenon," and that Finnegan's jewelry has "gone off the charts" in sales.

Among the 8,000 to 10,000 expats, mostly Americans, who make up about a tenth of San Miguel de Allende's population, Finnegan might seem someone unlikely to attain huge success. After all, she admits that her Spanish ability is poor.

But Finnegan's uncanny sense of branding and the innate force behind spiritual images helped to propel her to the forefront of jewelry design.

It all began with an "Eat Pray Love" moment back in 1999. She was living in San Francisco, married to an automobile industry executive on the fast track. They'd met at Loyola University in Chicago and she'd followed him to the West Coast. Finnegan had a great job herself, traveling widely to spot trends for Levi Strauss & Co. They led a life of affluence, black tie events and fancy dinners.

"We had box seats at the opera," she recalled over tea. "We were very into the social scene."

But her marriage had lost its spark, and when a new president arrived at Levi's and closed her department, she hit a crossroads.

"There was something missing," she said. "One day, I sat there and thought, 'What is my passion? What is going on in my life?' "

She added: "I was on the edge of the cliff. I knew I had to jump and I was scared."

At age 39, she came to San Miguel de Allende, met some hippie friends, hung out in hot springs, met the father of her 6-year-old daughter, Tallulah, and traveled far and wide. Her creative spirit, spurred by Mexico, bubbled up.

"I was an artist at heart but I didn't know that," she said, adding that she found inspiration from such features as the wrought-iron balconies of Mexico City, images of the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe and the finery of rural people entering churches. Saints enchanted her. So did the wild colors of Mexican street markets, including the plastic bags of shoppers.

She tried her hand at specialty plastic bags for the U.S. market.

"Here I was — the gringa loca — and I picked out all these special colors," she said. She had five designs and chose the brand name Zarzamora, the alliterative Spanish word for blackberry. Her bags closed with a key chain made of resin, usually in funky colors such as chartreuse and Mexican rose.

"When I started getting more requests for my key chains, I thought, hmmm, this is kind of interesting," she said. "The keychain became a belt buckle — the Virgin surrounded by Swarovski crystals."

The crystal-studded belt buckles became hot. Britney Spears was spotted with one on her honeymoon in Montecito, Calif., in 2004, and paparazzi splashed photos everywhere. Finn, as she calls herself, had begun her wild ride.

She changed the name of her company.

"People said, 'Oh, it should be Virgins Saints & Demons.' I said, 'No, it's all about good,' " Finnegan said.

Her business boomed, and today it has 12 full-time employees and six contractors, all women, some single mothers, spread between Mexico and the United States.

"I am a women-led and -run company," she said.

Her jewelry contains surprising combinations of metal, paper, glass, resin and Swarovski crystals. Most pieces have a sacred heart logo and a tag with a whimsical saying. And most of the products bear a spiritual motif.

Debbie Baldini, a former colleague at Levi Strauss who now is the president of Cambria Cove, an online retailer of specialty gifts, said the spiritual images and symbols of the jewelry really clicked with customers. Somehow Finnegan's own spirit seemed to come through her creations.

"Her jewelry is a reflection of her and her life and the beauty that she has found down in Mexico," Baldini said.

Three years ago, British fashion designer John Galliano paid her an extraordinary tribute.

"He wore my belt buckle down the runway in his Paris show. My sales rep called to tell me and we were both crying. It was huge for me to have a fashion designer wear one of my pieces on the biggest day of his life."

Finnegan has clearly summoned the power of goddesses within.

"We're riding the waves with the big guys and they're just now looking over to see us," she said.

CHERYL FINNEGAN PROFILE

Name: Cheryl Finnegan, founder, Virgins Saints & Angels.

Age: 49.

Childhood home: Chillicothe, Ill.

Education: Loyola University, Chicago. Studied marketing.

Family: One daughter, 6-year-old Tallulah. Recently married Mexican artist Jaime Shelley Tovar.

Prior work history: Image consultant, Levi Strauss, San Francisco.

Clients: According to VSA, celebrities spotted wearing Finnegan's designs include Miley Cyrus, Maria Shriver, Kelly Osbourne, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, the Kardashian sisters, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Lourdes & Madonna, Steven Tyler, David Beckham, The Rock, Danica McKellar, Nicole Miller, Eva Longoria, Usher, John Galliano, Mickey Rourke, Reba McEntire and Beyonce.

Honors: Recently was inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Quote: "I am a women-led and -run company."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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