Leigh Elena Navarro sold her first piece of jewelry at about age 8, and she can’t forget the thrill she felt when someone took her handmade beaded earrings home.
“I was just a kid, but I got such a rush,” she said and laughed. “It was so fun for me to see someone light up when they picked up a piece I had made. That was my favorite.”
Navarro, 35, would later grow familiar with that feeling. The Austin-based jewelry designer and creative director of Leighelena now owns three retail stores, including a recently opened shop on Guadalupe Street near the University of Texas campus, and her Leighelena brand jewelry sells in more than 1,000 boutiques across the country. Her signature Jigsaw Cuff has been especially popular and has brought her national attention since it was spotted on celebrities such as Barbara Walters and Hoda Kotb.
Navarro grew up in a household where creativity was not only valued but encouraged. She remembers hanging out at her mother Susan Navarro’s art shows in El Paso and going to craft stores alongside her to pick out beads.
Susan Navarro at the time created Southwestern-style woven wall hangings but later began dabbling in jewelry enameling. Her young daughter would watch her work on new jewelry creations, and like most children, Susan Navarro says, her daughter wanted to try making jewelry, too.
Because the enameling process involves working with powdered glass and a kiln that can reach temperatures of about 1,600 degrees, Susan Navarro did most of the work. She did allow her daughter to be creative and encouraged her to develop her own style: “Soon I started noticing that she was putting interesting color combinations together that were totally different from my aesthetic.”
Today, mother and daughter still work together. From Susan Navarro’s Austin-based studio, she helps her daughter with some of the enameling for Leighelena jewelry.
“It’s a bit of an unusual circumstance,” Susan Navarro said. “But all mothers would want to be able to do something like this with their adult children.” Sharing her creative spirit with her daughter and working with her on Leighelena creations, she said, “is one of the joys of my life.”
Their personal aesthetic remains as different as it was when they were younger. Leigh Navarro now tends to be drawn to unique shapes while her mother prefers clean lines. For the Leighelena brand, they create a cohesive and sophisticated look.
Leigh Navarro made jewelry off and on for years before dedicating herself full-time to the Leighelena line in 2008. She worked in fashion in Los Angeles and New York, where she developed the retail and wholesaling skills that she now applies to her own fashion brand.
When she relocated to her native Texas, she held a full-time sales job in Austin while still working on her jewelry. She got her big break when her Leighelena jewelry began selling at several Whole Foods Market stores for about a year. She later gained other big wholesale accounts in markets like New York and Dallas.
Leighelena products, which range from $35 to $550, feature exotic leathers with items such as enamel cuffs and belts with the brand’s signature jigsaw buckle. This fall, Leighelena will release a new collection of pendants, rings and earrings that Leigh Navarro describes as “luxurious but affordable.”
Leighelena’s flagship store on South Congress Avenue opened in 2011. “I always felt like I could have my own line, but never felt like I would own retail stores,” she said. Leigh Navarro and her business partner James Sochat decided to take the risk, but she said they were both terrified and excited. “It was a really huge step for us,” she said.
Within two years, Leighelena opened two more stores — at the Pearl Brewery in San Antonio, and the third location on the Drag opened in March. Walking down the Leighelena’s store aisles, shoppers find not only her jewelry but a curated array of chuckle-inducing gifts like funny notepads and silly books that give the store a uniquely casual Austin vibe. “We don’t take anything too seriously in this store,” she said. “I want people to have fun.”
Austin locations include:
1714 S. Congress Ave. and
2532 Guadalupe St.