It's not hard to find well-made jewelry that will last forever, and it's not hard to find jewelry that satisfies the urge for what’s hot right this second. But finding jewelry that can change up to the minute while also being timelessly beautiful is a bit trickier.
Annette Lasala Spillane, founder of ethical luxury brand The Artisan Row Accessories, or TARA, is setting out to change that. Spillane was packing for an international trip a few years ago when she realized that she had accumulated a Tupperware full of jewelry she no longer wanted. Turned off by the cheapness and disposability of her pieces, she started dreaming of jewelry that could adjust to her changing needs while also lasting a lifetime.
A set of interchangeable jewelry pieces that build on one another was the solution she imagined. TARA's range of products doesn't fall neatly into categories of "earrings," "necklaces" or "bracelets," because many elements can be removed from one category and added to another. Take the sculptural dangler off your earring, for example, and you can add it to your necklace or combine two or three pieces to make one big statement-making earpiece.
"Whenever I design something for TARA, there has to be an alternative view where people can use it in new ways," Spillane says. "But not in a cheesy way like when people make the 'multi-ways-to-wear' dress that only really looks good one way."
After the innovative idea first occurred to Spillane, she didn't have to wait long to put it into practice. A San Francisco resident who was born and raised in the Philippines, Spillane was on a trip back to her home country when her uncle gave her the opportunity to test out her idea. As the CEO of multi-awarded nonprofit TSKI, which supports small businesses and artisans in the Philippines, he encouraged her to do some product development for the organization.
"You've always had a heart for the poor, and you've always loved design," she recalls him saying. "Why not try this?"
At the time, the thought was intimidating to Spillane — she had spent the last 12 years of her life working as an accountant and had only recently quit her data-driven job.
"When I gave myself permission to walk away from my career and really be honest with myself," she says, "I was like, 'I actually want be in the world in a different way.'" The chance to support artisans in the Philippines gave her a glimpse of what that might look like, even if it seemed like a big career shift.
Soon, Spillane had identified a local designer whose work she was crazy about. Together with the artisans in the project, they were able to turn prototypes around quickly enough to showcase the designs at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), an economic forum attended by the likes of then-president Obama and other major world leaders. In the sea of locally made goods being showcased, TARA's unique buildability and structural design stood out. A host of warm responses proved that the concept was commercially viable, but it wasn't all positive.
"To be frank with you, I was very insecure about being a Filipino brand," she says. "Someone at APEC came up to me and was like, 'You're from the Philippines; you're not Italian. Why are you asking for the same amount of money as you would for Italian jewelry?'" It was then that Spillane decided to use TARA to combat the notion that luxury goods can only be produced in the West.
"Why is an Italian person supposed to get paid more for their work when a person from the Philippines is just as skilled and passionate?" she asked. "To me, luxury is about pieces that are made to last, with a lot of skill, out of the best materials. That should be agnostic of where it's made and who's making it."
Since then, Spillane has continued to use TARA as a way to champion the best of Filipino talent while building a brand that has universal appeal. Many of the label's campaigns have featured women beloved in the nation and throughout Southeast Asia, like British-Filipina influencer Kim Cam Jones and host of Filipino TV show "Etcetera" Mari Jasmine. While Spillane still spends most of her time in the U.S., she’s committed to doing what she can to see her birth country thrive.
"When I was leaving for the U.S., my dad said, 'It makes me really sad that there is brain drain. If everyone goes away from the Philippines to have this other life, we're not going to have any talent left here.' That stayed with me," she says.
More than anything, it's Spillane's instinct to do good that keeps her motivated to stick it out with TARA. The granddaughter of a Filipino politician, she grew up seeing members of her family mingling with and looking for ways to serve their impoverished neighbors. And the ethics of sourcing, which can have both a human rights and environmental impact, are never far from her mind. She's quick to admit that the brand has areas it could improve in: all the diamonds used are completely traceable, but the opals aren't. The gold is sourced in the Philippines, but Spillane dreams of a day when it's not only local but also 100 percent recycled.
"We're continuously working on it," she says, but explains that she'd rather buy gold from sources she can't trace than get it recycled from pawnshops that she knows are exploiting the poor to make a profit. "That's something I'm not going to compromise on," she asserts.
So where does Spillane hope to see her jewelry company five years from now? She wants to see it succeed, of course, but has no plans to turn it into the next LVMH acquisition.
"I'd rather it be a cult brand that women feel really passionate about," she says. If she can maintain the combination of inspiring mission, compelling design and innovative customization TARA is displaying right now, it may turn out to be just that.