It was the New Mexico roots that fueled Karen Domenici's quest for her own wholesale jewelry business. But it was her first customer — Ralph Lauren — that kept her hooked for the past 16 years.
Domenici remembered that day in New York City when her sister was wearing one of her hand-made items which was seen by a Lauren confidant.
"My very first call was to Ralph Lauren and he was my first buyer. He was doing all Western wear for his fall line that year. It really was perfect," she said. The jewelry went in Madison Avenue Ralph Lauren store.
It was all downhill from there and now Domenici, who lives in Cedar Knolls off Telegraph Road in Alexandria, says her company, Southwestern Silver, now deals exclusively with 17 dealers in Virginia, Maryland and New York as well as the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
The tradition and artistic quality of the jewelry is her passion as well. She often travels to New Mexico to keep in contact with her 32 artists and maintain the personal contact with the New Mexico environment.
"When I got to New Mexico, I watched them put it together. You get to know the artist and his family. This keeps me in touch with the state. In New Mexico, everybody wears jewelry, even the men. It literally has been handed down from generation to generation, they have the benefit of their elders," she said.
"In New Mexico I'm called the 'Jobber' which is the middleman," Domenici said, whose goods are dominated by turquoise, and made by Native American tribes. The Navaho and Hopi are her main suppliers.
IN PAST YEARS, one of Domenici's retail sales events is the Marketplace which is at the Campagna Center in Old Town, Alexandria. It is coupled with the Scottish Walk, an annual event in Old Town. Jennifer Appleton is this year's co-chair of the Marketplace. She has fielded some calls from customers of Domenici.
"She has a very wide selection. She has a following, people know her," Appleton said.
Proceeds from the Marketplace go towards Head Start reading program, Campagna Kids, Right to Read and RSVP mentoring program with senior citizens.
"Proceeds from the Marketplace go directly back to the programs at the center," Appleton said.
DOMENICI STARTED in 1986 as a flight attendant for Pan Am and then Delta. During her off times, she would deal in jewelry and then when she traveled she would couple the trips with sales excursions. Her international clients would include Germany, Japan and Sweden. Flying for free made it profit. She majored in art history at Arizona State and got a masters degree at the University of Maryland. It was that move that got her to the Washington, D.C. area.
Domenici's daughters, Kristina, 10, and Isabella, 8, help her whenever possible. They attend Springfield Estates Elementary School as well. They learn about the jewelry as well as the Native American aspect of it.
"They come to New Mexico with me. I'm hoping they'll take it over," she said.
Domenici is confident turquoise will be big this year.
"It's in all the magazines, on all the shows. I saw a woman broadcasting from Afghanistan, she had big chunky turquoise necklace," she said.
Although Domenici does deal exclusively with dealers all year, she does one or two shows for the public as well. This year, she did a small show at Franconia Elementary School on Nov. 8 and annually, she has a show at the Christmas Marketplace in the Campagna Center in Old Town, Alexandria. This year's show is Dec. 4-6, coinciding with the Scottish Walk weekend.