Bored while touring with jazz-legend husband Ramsey Lewis in the 1990s, Jan Lewis killed time by hand-painting wooden bangles. She had no idea that she’d someday be determining which of her bangles might look best on Jennifer Lawrence or Jessica Chastain. But that’s exactly what happened last fall, when she was invited to include her lightweight, stackable pieces in the “Everybody Wins at the Oscars” gift bag — a cornucopia of goodies delivered to the most prestigious nominees the morning after the ceremony.
“It’s surreal,” says Lewis, who was the only Chicago designer included (participation requires a fee and wares are donated as gifts). “I started selecting bangles for each nominee, and I saw the names: Robert DeNiro, Amy Adams, Sally Field. I thought, ‘Oh my god. All these people will be seeing my stuff and hopefully wearing it.’ It kind of freaked me out.”
For Lewis, the opportunity was particularly meaningful — and worth the investment — because she only launched Jan Lewis Designs last summer. “It’s so new on the scene,” she says of the collection of bangle bracelets painted with colorful dot patterns. Though she began drawing as a child and later studied at the School of the Art Institute, she spent much of her adult life supporting her husband’s career. After she painted the initial pieces, she was told they were too intricate to mass-produce — so she stuffed them in a closet for nearly 20 years before a friend suggested she visit India to explore the idea of fair-trade artisans replicating the designs.
So in 2011, Ramsey accompanied Jan on her tour: The pair spent two weeks in India, visiting fair-trade production facilities, meeting with the artists and analyzing their versions of her work. “They were terrific,” she says. And appropriately so: Lewis, who has a degree in anthropology, claims that the bangles were inspired by the cultures she’d studied — including India. “I feel a real connection to India now.”
When picking bangles for each of the nominees, Lewis had to forge a similar connection. “It was a gut instinct more than anything else,” she explains. “For instance, I love Jennifer Lawrence — I saw ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ twice — and I feel that she’s a little more sporty, so I tried to find pieces that matched that style.” To determine what to send Steven Spielberg, she imagined what the famed director might give to wife Kate Capshaw.
The process was thrilling for Lewis. “It was something I’d always dreamed of,” she says. And though she can’t attend the ceremony, she’s just fine with sending her jewelry as representation. “My bangles get to go for me,” she laughs.
Check out Lewis’ bangles ($80-100) at her upcoming trunk shows at Bloomingdales (900 N. Michigan, Bloomingdales.com) on March 1-3 and 16-17. Or, visit Chiaroscuro (835 N. Michigan, Chiaroart.com) and Material Possessions (704 N. Wabash and 954 Green Bay, Winnetka, Materialpossessions.com).