BY SARAH KINGSBURY
Dania’s jewelry and felted bags are sold in Iowa City, Des Moines, and other galleries across the country.
For Fairfield jewelry and textile artist Dania De Bortoli, creating things of beauty is as inevitable as breathing. Case in point: the whimsical chandelier hanging over the staircase in her home. Feeling inspired one day, Dania took a circular toy display purchased to make a mobile for her son, a box of chandelier crystals gathering dust in a corner, and some old crystal pendants and beading experiments lying in a drawer and turned them into a hanging sculpture that delights everyone who visits her home.
The impulse to combine disparate items into a beautiful new whole has always driven Dania. As a young teenager given the use of clay and a kiln, she made ceramic jewelry. In high school she made crystal pendants to sell to an Iowa City gift shop. She also tried her hand at making beaded earrings and polymer clay jewelry.
“Whatever I had access to, I made something out of it,” she says. In recent years Dania has refined and expanded her range of materials and styles. Today, after a ten-year detour into the business world, Dania’s award-winning jewelry and delightful felted bags are sold in galleries nationwide. In April she was featured on a segment of the HGTV show That’s Clever, a program that showcases outstanding artisans throughout the country.
The return as an adult to making jewelry was the unexpected result of becoming a mother. After earning a Master’s degree in business administration and working in the business and computer-software world, Dania found herself looking for new ways to earn money while staying home with her infant son, Aleric. She began traveling with him to auctions to buy antiques for resale online and in stores.
Gradually, she specialized in buying and selling antique jewelry. In every lot she purchased there was always some broken jewelry, so Dania began making her own creations from the different bits and pieces. As her son grew older, it became more challenging to travel with him to auctions, so Dania began buying large quantities of vintage jewelry components directly from antique dealers and part manufacturers. What had started as a hobby soon became a career as Dania utilized her business and computer to skills to market her work to galleries and on her self-designed website.
The jewelry styles of the past are a source of great inspiration to Dania. “I am enamored by so many different eras,” she says. “My favorite periods are Renaissance, Victorian, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco.” She loves Art Nouveau in particular because of the way the designers of the time combined the primitive, like tortoiseshell, bone, and carved glass, with more refined materials, like semi-precious stones and gold. “Anything could be used to create a piece,” she says. “The financial value was secondary to the aesthetic value of the materials.”
Dania’s work embodies this philosophy in the combinations of glass with unusual natural stone, freshwater pearls, and vintage brass or aged copper. The resulting piece is often striking and exotic. She calls this mélange of design elements and materials from the past Vintage Fusion, and she has created many pieces in this style.
However, it is unlikely that Dania will ever confine herself to one style of jewelry. “I have a wide range of interests from sleek to ornate, and my designs reflect that,” she says. She also makes simpler pieces with clean understated lines and hints of vintage that she calls “Urban Revival,” and more primitive, strong, and edgy pieces she calls “Urban Industrial.” And some pieces defy all attempts at definition. Dania has only one requirement for her work: “My jewelry always has to be beautiful.”
Dania’s unique fusion of textiles and jewelry started in a fairly happenstance manner. It was winter, and she couldn’t find a large warm scarf to keep the Iowa weather at bay. So she decided to learn how to knit. The ease and portability of knitting and the creative possibilities soon made it a favorite activity. “Every new project was an adventure in texture and color,” she enthuses.
When she learned how to felt purses from a good friend and talented artist, she was hooked. “I would knit with a fury, producing purse after purse, trying new things and experimenting.” The results were whimsical purses with names like Aurora’s Fling, Poison Toadstool, and Arachne. One day for fun she started dressing her purses with some of her necklaces. Inspired, she began designing closures for the felted purses from her jewels.
It was this unusual pairing of different elements that landed her a spot on the Home & Garden show That’s Clever. The show had already aired segments on felting purses and segments on jewelry but never on the combination of the two. The piece on Dania was filmed in the Iowa City home of Terri and Benjamin Chait, owners of Chait Galleries Downtown, during a grueling 10 hours. Dania was filled with admiration for the endurance of the crew, who went right on to film the next featured artisan, and gratitude for the generosity of the Chaits in allowing their home to be used. “They are always so supportive of the artists they represent,” she says.
These days Dania is busy making pieces for galleries and boutiques all over the country, and filling orders from her website. She also manages to find time to teach knitting classes specializing in color and design experimentation, both in Fairfield and Iowa City. It is likely that jewelry will continue to be her main focus, but given Dania’s habit of finding inspiration everywhere, her work will surely continue to evolve in exciting and unexpected ways.
To see more examples of Dania’s work or to find out more about her knitting classes visit her website at designsbydania.com.