Photo credit: kapuPatel Photography
Woman in Diplomacy MaryLou Spang Shares How the Pandemic Has Impacted Her Business — And How She’s Staying Positive
This month, we continue our Women in Diplomacy series celebrating Citizen Diplomat MaryLou Spang, Owner and Creative Director for Spangles Custom Jewelry Designs. A native Philadelphian and Temple alumna, MaryLou and her husband Bill, a Citizen Diplomacy board member, have volunteered for over 30 years, meeting international students and professionals from all over the world. I hope you enjoy these highlights of our most recent conversation:
Siobhán: MaryLou, what was your first hosting experience? What inspired you to be a Citizen Diplomat?
MaryLou: Our first experience took place in the mid-1980s. My husband, Bill, and I had the honor of hosting the mayor of Florence and a few of his staff members at Ristorante La Buca in Philadelphia. The event was held in honor of the Sister Cities program.
Around the same time, Bill took a one-year assignment in Washington, D.C. at the Federal Reserve. I took advantage of this opportunity to spend every other weekend in Washington where I could interact with U.S. and foreign officials. When Bill returned to Philadelphia the following year, he joined the board of the International Visitors Council, the predecessor to Citizen Diplomacy International, and we both became Citizen Diplomats.
Siobhán: From that first encounter, you've hosted groups for dinner and greeted delegations at First Thursdays and special events. What do you get from these experiences?
MaryLou: Over the years, each Citizen Diplomacy event has provided me the opportunity to engage with visitors from other countries and absorb different cultures and points of view. These experiences stoked our desire for international travel. Over the years, we have traveled throughout North America, the Caribbean, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and the South Pacific.
Siobhán: I have heard that you travel extensively in search of interesting gemstones and beads. Do you have a favorite ‘find’ story? As an avid traveler, how does your travel inspire your designs?
MaryLou: One of the first things I do when I visit a new location is to scout out the local jewelry stores and bead shops. I am in awe of the creativity of the local artisans. For example, I have been inspired by the amber on display in Gdansk, Poland; the Tahitian pearls in Bora, Bora; and the red and pink coral in Sorrento, Italy. One of the most interesting finds was a small family-owned bead shop in Montreal, Quebec, Canada where I purchased a number of vintage findings from the 1950s and 60s.
Siobhán: Shown below are just a sampling of some of the Love Knot necklaces that you have created. (Click on an image below for more information.) Sometimes designs are created using the patterns and techniques that reflect what the designer is experiencing in society. How did you start your business and why did you decide to use the love knot design right now?
MaryLou: Back in 2005, I turned my hobby of jewelry design into a business. In my previous life, I worked as an executive in the healthcare communications industry. I began stringing beads on wire. However, I had a thirst for learning other jewelry making skills. I wanted to challenge myself and began taking in person courses on various jewelry design techniques such as wrapping wire, creating chain mail jewelry, bead weaving, bead embroidery, fusing Dichroic glass components, and Kumihimo to name just a few. Kumihimo is now one of my favorites. It is a centuries-old Japanese braiding technique. “Kumi himo” is Japanese for ‘gathering threads’. I am currently focused on the love knot design because I feel it is aspirational at a time when there is so much turmoil and dissension in our country.
The Kumihimo Love Knot necklaces that appear above are created with hundreds of tiny
colorful glass seed beads. All necklaces feature a sturdy magnetic clasp that is extremely easy to fasten and unfasten.
Siobhán: Before the pandemic, you were selling your work by working one-on-one with clients to create custom designs as well as through private home and corporate shows. Looking forward, how do you see your sales opportunities changing?
MaryLou: That’s correct. I design out of my home studio where I personally create each and every piece. In addition to creating custom designs for clients, I also have on display over 200 items available for immediate sale. When COVID hit, it was impossible to meet with clients one-on-one, so I used the down time to expand my collection.
Since I still cannot meet clients, I ask them to first explore my website for ideas. We arrange an appointment time and through the magic of video conferencing, I am able to interact with them. I can show my sample pieces and discuss their color and style preferences. By ordering now, they can have a one-of-a-kind piece for themselves or ready to give to a loved one in plenty of time before the holidays. Once people are again comfortable meeting in person, I look forward to scheduling in-person appointments.
Siobhán: This year, Spangles Custom Jewelry Designs has joined Citizen Diplomacy’s Corporate Partners Program which is making our virtual international exchange programs available to the public for free. I understand that you are actively involved as a Friend of the YWCA Princeton. Both Citizen Diplomacy International and the YWCA Princeton are committed to promoting a respect for diversity, the elimination of racism and the empowerment of women. Is there a takeaway idea that you would like to share with our community?
MaryLou: I believe that as individuals we should all strive when we can to do something to make a positive difference. Trying to remain optimistic is key, both in business and in our personal lives. Therefore, my mission is to design jewelry that makes the wearer feel better about herself. It is so gratifying to see women wearing my jewelry both in person and on social media.
For jewelry designer, MaryLou Spang the pandemic means finding ways to connect one-on-one with those you love and reflecting on all your past travels for inspiration because you never know what might stimulate your imagination.
Our international visitors give us the gifts of knowledge and a global perspective, these gifts grow inside us forever. Thanks to outstanding Citizen Diplomats, like MaryLou and Bill Spang, we are able to keep you connecting one-on-one with new friends all over the world.
We’re all going through this together — not just Philadelphians or Americans, but the world. I look forward to staying connected to you all.
Stay safe and take care,
P.S. You can explore Spangles Custom Jewelry Designs to see MaryLou's Kumihimo Love Knot necklace as well as some of her other designs. You can also contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for available inventory and pricing.