Motherhood defined much of Janel Russell’s life, both personally and professionally. True to her tenacious and unyielding spirit, Janel turned adversity into opportunity early on as a young mother when she gave birth to her son Isaac. Janel channeled her love and maternal devotion, with a healthy dose of her innate creative energy and hard work, to design and manufacture what would soon become iconic Mother and Child jewelry.
Janel met challenges head on - unafraid and unabashed. According to many colleagues in the gem and jewelry industry, she often emerged victorious. From literally hundreds of legal challenges with companies over Mother and Child copyright infringement cases to reinventing herself after creating an enormously successful jewelry collection right out of vocational school, Janel worked tirelessly at her career.
“It wasn’t uncommon for Janel to put in 10-hour or more days and work weekends,” says Jake Fuhrman, president of Custom Goldsmithing, Inc., who shared an office and studio space with Janel for 23 years. “She was truly the most ambitious and tenacious person that I have ever worked with.”
Despite her can-do attitude and never-give-up spirit, some fights - no matter how determined the effort - simply can’t be won. That was the case on Friday, May 5, when Janel lost a short but well-fought battle with pancreatic cancer. Janel was handed her diagnosis last December and died six months later. She was 61.
Janel will be remembered, perhaps even memorialized, as the creator of the hugely popular Mother and Child jewelry design, collections of which continue to be worn by millions of mothers - over generations - since the design’s inception in 1981. Eighteen years later a complete jewelry line was created. It is estimated that year to year it continues to remain a very recognizable brand in jewelry with sales over $90 million in 30 years.
Janel’s original creative concept for her Mother and Child jewelry was literally born from the love for her son Isaac and her drive to provide and care for him utilizing her creativity and dogged determination. But she would later hand the torch of manufacturing and distributing Mother and Child jewelry over to large jewelry making concerns, allowing her to pursue other career ambitions.
Like many romantics, Janel fell in love at an early age and had an unplanned pregnancy during her late teens. Embracing life spiritually, emotionally and physically, Janel gave birth to Isaac, her one and only child, when she was 20. Pregnancies at this early stage of life are difficult enough, but for Janel there was the added challenge of having a “high-functionally, yet challenged” child, as Janel described her son’s condition to others.
Caring for Isaac’s many needs meant providing security and comfort. Those child-rearing essentials are achieved with hard work and, with luck, a clear career path. According to Jake, Janel had taken an aptitude test when she was young. The test results determined Janel should be a jeweler.
With that notion firmly planted in her creative heart, mind and spirit, she enrolled in related courses at the Minneapolis Vocational and Technical School. Joe Rucci, Janel’s husband at the time, owned a shoe and boot repair shop in the Twin Cities.
“Back then Janel set up a jeweler’s bench in the back of the shoe repair shop and created her jewelry and did basic repairs,” says Sara Commers, owner of Commers Custom Jewelers in Minneapolis and U.S. Central Regional Director of the Women’s Jewelry Association, as well as industry colleague and close personal friend of Janel. “That’s where it all started for her.”
From humble beginnings came great achievements. Eventually Janel secured a job at G. Allen Jewelers in Minneapolis where store owner Gary Bonstrum allowed her to work on her own designs after hours. It was in this shop where the Mother and Child design concept was born.
Janel caught an enormous wave of success and rode it hard like a fearless California surfer. Even though she could have easily hung up her jeweler’s apron early in her career, Janel decided to persevere. Mother and Child jewelry took many creative turns with different collections. From modest solid gold pendants and gem-set rings to Father and Child jewelry and money clips for men, Janel took her original design concept in many directions.
Janel worked with Minneapolis-based Kirchner Corporation. Under the direction of company president Dan Kirchner, Kirchner Corporation produced many of Janel’s Mother and Child jewelry items.
“Janel has said that she was inspired by the love she had for her young son and also by her father who encouraged her to develop her own work,” says Dan.
After giving Mother and Child its legs, Janel was ready for a new chapter in her life. In the mid 1990s she wanted to create unique, one-of-a-kind high-end jewelry for exclusive retail clients. That’s when she met Jake.
Thanks to a common contact from art school, Jake and Janel met in 1994. Jake was willing to let Janel share a studio and jewelry production space for six months. That turned into a year and then 23 years. The two collaborated on literally thousands of custom pieces for clients over two decades.
Stories behind these custom pieces are too numerous to tell, but Jake fondly remembers a Leo the zodiac lion pin the two worked on together for a Florida-based client. According to Sara, one of Janel’s signature styles in her jewelry designs was a generous use of precious metals to create a “chunky” look. That’s what this Florida client got with a large, hand-carved yellow gold lion head complete with peridot eyes and a diamond mane.
“It was a gorgeous piece that was very tasteful and elegant given its heft,” says Jake. “The only problem was we designed a heavy pin that would hold up nicely when worn on heavy clothing here in Minnesota - perhaps a coat lapel pin. But with the light flimsy clothing Floridians wear, this thing dropped right to her belt line the moment she put it on.”
The custom piece was returned and the creative twosome came up with a lighter more streamlined Leo star constellation diamond pin the customer absolutely loved. “They can’t all be winners first time out, but this was one of many, many custom jewelry stories from our 23 years of sharing a studio space.”
With Mother and Child moving along on its own steam and her custom jewelry business going well, Janel somehow found time to establish a founding and then leading role in the Women’s Jewelry Association-Twin Cities (WJA-TC). Sue Fritz, who was working at Jewelers Mutual in the company’s communications department at the time, met and worked closely with Janel in the formative days of WJA-TC.
“Janel was known as the ‘connector,’” says Sue. “Given all the people she’d come to know in this industry, and her willingness to help, she often connected people based on whatever need, such as an aspiring jewelry designer looking to get a start. That’s just the kind of person and professional she was.”
Sue recalls Janel attending the WJA-TC chapter organizational meeting back in June 2006. “She worked tirelessly to recruit members and sponsors for our events,” says Sue. One of Janel’s many qualities in her varied roles with WJA-TC was bringing in an ever-expanding circle of industry professionals, from gold refiners to retailers and everything in between.
In 2008, WJA-TC achieved full chapter status. Janel later earned WJA’s Shining Star Award for membership recruitment and financial leadership efforts and continued on the chapter Board as fund raising and membership chair. She was WJA-TC vice president from 2009-10, chapter president from 2011-2012 and continued her Board work while pursuing other WJA goals.
In 2014, she went nationwide with her WJA role as the Midwest Regional Director. As if that wasn’t enough, she also coordinated the chapter’s successful Designer Showcase events to promote regional jewelry designers to retailers in the area.
Founding and leadership roles in a prominent trade association were gratifying, but Janel was also a girl that liked to have fun. “Janel organized a successful golf tournament, which she enjoyed very much, but her favorite event was Jewelers Night Out,” says Sue. “Each year she always strived to make it more fun and unique.”
As part of her active role in WJA-TC, Janel also helped bring the showing of “Sharing the Rough” to the group’s Midwest members. Produced by Orin Mazzoni III, a graduate gemologist and filmmaker, the documentary film is a gemstone mine-to-market documentary from the miners’ perspective.
In the context of the movie, master gem cutter Roger Dery and his wife Ginger explore fair trade principles in the colored stone portion of the industry and how miners of gemstones in remote corners of the world - namely Africa - can be fairly compensated for their difficult and often dangerous work.
A frequent buyer of gem rough, Roger and Ginger make frequent trips to Africa to source rough and document their travels to mines and buying markets. Janel joined Roger in the summer of 2013 on what became known as the “chick trip.” Of the all-female travelling group Roger recalls Janel’s well-known outgoing and gregarious self, even in remote Africa.
“We split our time between mining areas of southern Kenya and then several villages in northern Tanzania,” says Roger. “As many will remember about Janel, she was filled with wonderment, she loved the animals, meeting the miners, and relished the experience of seeing things for herself.”
In addition to igniting a gem passion in Janel, Roger played an even more intimate role in Janel’s life by creating what would become her signature necklace. Of course Janel always wore her own Mother and Child ring, but she also wore her custom-made zircon necklace.
Known for her love of morganite in her client designs, during a trip to Africa with Roger, Janel purchased a large sherry colored piece of zircon rough in the Tanga Province of northeastern Tanzania. The unusual color of the rough, as well as its inherent and intrinsic value, was readily observed by Janel, according to Roger. But perhaps it was the locals’ name for the mining camp being “Happy Mother Camp” that literally and figuratively tipped the scales for this unusually colored zircon rough for Janel.
“The gem rough started as approximately 42 carats, and finished as a 14.94 carat square antique cushion,” says Roger. “While I’ve done hundreds of cushions, I chose to design a specific facet arrangement for Janel. It was a combination of techniques, using a ‘brilliant’ style crown, then incorporating a modified ‘Portuguese’ technique to the pavilion. She loved it!”
Ever the follower of her strong maternal nature, in early 2016 Janel’s gut instincts told her she should work with her son Isaac on being a better husband and domestic partner to his wife.
“Janel had some concerns that he needed a little help in this department,” says Sara. “She didn’t even know of the stage-four pancreatic cancer diagnosis then. At that time she simply felt the urge to do something to help Isaac and help him now.”
By October last year, she was experiencing intense abdominal pains. And, in December she was given terrible health news no one would want to hear. “In the closing months and even weeks - perhaps in her mind even days - she focused so much on her treatments and her health,” says Sara. “In spring this year she even went to Germany for some experimental procedures the Germans were doing.”
Sara was with Janel just days before her dear friend died. “Even in the final days she fought and couldn’t believe this was happening to her,” says Sara. “But she just kept at it to the end.”
The studio she shared with Jake is “like a time capsule,” says Sara. “It’s right where she left it when she passed.”
Even though Janel lived a short but very complete life by most measures, there’s still much unfinished business. “From the studio perspective, we are trying our best to inform all of Janel’s clients of her passing and letting them know that we will be continuing to serve them, as Janel has done so remarkably,” says Jake.