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Twisting Words – and Other Things into New Creations

Susan Brown finds jewelry in games, Chinese decorations and pop culture ephemera

Susan Brown helped play Cupid this year. One of her customers, Paul Phillips, asked if she could make a necklace that spelled out, “Marry Me.”

That was no problem for the woman who has been making necklaces and bracelets using Scrabble tiles for the last year or so. Brown, known as Sass to friends and customers, put together a necklace and sold it to her customer. It worked—Phillips’s intended fiancée said yes.

Most of Brown’s requests are a little more typical, if requests for Scrabble necklaces are typical. So far, Brown hasn’t seen anybody else in this area selling jewelry made with Scrabble tiles. She also designs jewelry using playing cards and other game pieces, as well as Asian charms and artifacts.

Lois Gay is a Scrabble aficionado who has purchased several pieces from Brown. “I’m excited about these ‘Scrabble gems.’ Such a perfect gift for so many in our group.”

Brown has always been an entrepreneur at heart. She actually tried to market dog fur at a young age, but quickly realized that wasn’t a money maker. She moved on to making and selling bead jewelry, and even sold earrings during Grateful Dead concerts.

The earrings sat for many years until she brought them out to sell at her condo association’s yard sale.

“In addition to the usual junk, I got the idea to put out some earrings that I’d made back in college. By the end of the day, I’d sold almost all of them and was raking in compliments from my neighbors and from total strangers,” said Brown.

IT GOT HER HOOKED. She soon started experimenting with different pieces for her jewelry.

She especially liked Chinese artifacts and started collecting pieces printed with Chinese words and phrases. The addition of the game pieces was somewhat by accident.

One day last year, she and a friend were digging through the items on sale at a local yard sale when they found games that Brown remembered from her childhood: Scrabble, dominos, checkers, Monopoly, Life.

“I remembered that what I loved best about the games were their pieces, how they looked and how they felt in my hand,” she said. “Personalized name necklaces and Mah Jong bracelets were very popular at the time and I thought, ‘What if I started making game piece jewelry?’”

It got started with Scrabble tiles, but Brown expanded her range to include dominos, Mah Jong tiles and miniature playing cards.

After a couple years of making jewelry on the side, Brown finally decided to quit her full-time job as the editor of an education association’s newsletter. Last year, she launched her business, Sass Brown Designs.

SINCE THEN, HER JEWELRY has been sold at craft shows, home parties, and most recently at a local Chinese New Year celebration sponsored by the D.C. chapter of Families with Children from China. Many of Brown’s clients are adoptive parents of Asian children, thanks to a suggestion by friend and former co-worker, Nancy O’Brien, who had adopted children from China.

“Before she left her job, we asked her to bring in some of her jewelry. I loved the jewelry made with pieces from a Chinese chess set, and I thought that people like me would have the same interests,” said O’Brien. “We’re always looking for subtle ways to include Chinese culture in our day to day lives.”

That suggestion got Brown looking into Chinese-themed jewelry, O’Brien said. “Once she started digging, it was amazing what she found. The pieces are beautiful.”

Since then, O’Brien has purchased several pieces. “I’ve given Sass Brown Designs jewelry to friends who are in the planning or waiting stages of adoption and as gifts to our ‘adoptive family’ – those families that traveled with us to China and whose children were in the orphanage” with her daughter.

O’Brien went so far as to sponsor a home party for Brown, inviting many parents who had adopted Chinese children. The results pleased the artist.

“I was a bit skeptical at first that these women would be interested in my jewelry,” Brown said. “I was afraid they would think I was capitalizing on their children’s heritage just to make money.”

But the home party proved her wrong. O’Brien’s friends all bought something, “and I left with a stack of custom orders to fill. Frankly, I feel honored by how the group has embraced me,” Brown said.

Karen Beardsley has also purchased some pieces from Brown and said, “Susan was more than willing to make any adjustments to the length of the necklace to suit my taste. The bracelet has been added to my own ‘everyday’ collection—the pieces of jewelry I automatically put on as I go out the door.”