Probably like many of her colleagues at Brandeis University, Whitney Stern foresaw a career in human services. But when this student of sociology, politics and Latin American studies spent her junior year abroad in Chile, that started to change.
“I was living in Chile and traveling into Peru,” says Stern, 29. “I got inspired by indigenous women who live and work in different areas of public health…and a lot of them were artisans on the side.”
Stern met women crafting on the street, making jewelry out of natural materials.
“I started off doing organic seed and coconut husks,” she says of her early jewelry designs before moving into metals, glass and stone.
After college, Whitney continued her social services path, working at a public hospital in Boston giving free legal services. She worked on her jewelry on the side to escape the stress of the job. And she started turning heads.
“People started commissioning me on the side,” she says.
So in late 2005, Whitney headed back to South America to start developing the idea of a jewelry business. But she didn’t want to abandon her commitment to helping others.
“How can I pair up my passion for social services and women and jewelry?” she asked herself. She’s been developing the answer to this question since she launched Whitney Stern Jewelry Design in 2007, and she’s not done yet.
Whitney produces about half of the products she creates, most of which are custom designs for individual clients. When it comes to the items that go to boutiques and mid-sized stores she sends a sample down to her partners at Baliq, a fair-trade organization in Peru, which reproduces the design with local, sustainable materials. Other pieces are created by jewelry workers and metalsmiths here in Seattle. Whitney spends her time traveling back and forth to Peru, and most recently to New York, where her line was accepted by Henri Bendel.
But why stop there? Whitney envisions creating a nonprofit that would integrate jewelry, women’s and children’s health and wellness, with collaboration with her partners in Peru.
“How that’s going to look? I have to be honest, I’m still figuring that out,” she says. But, she adds, “Long term? One hundred percent.” She sees it as a way “to give back to the people who have given to me and taught me.”
The combination of art, health and women’s issues is not one-dimensional or random. Before coming into jewelry design, Whitney taught yoga, and she was a doula, too. When she’s not traveling you can find her teaching six classes a week at Urban Yoga Spa in Westlake.
“It’s definitely intense to do this type of work,” she says.
How does she balance it? “Self-care. And friendship,” she says. “Intense doesn’t mean bad.”
She did have to give up the doula work, though, which she practiced for three years in North and South America.
“I was certain that I wanted to be a midwife,” says Whitney. “I love service work.”
However, the tough life of an on-call birth assistant proved to be personally unsustainable.
“I also wanted more of a structured business that would let me have access to my long term goals,” she says.
Whitney sees caring for women, art and body work as seamless.
“It kind of all relates in my mind,” she explains. “Art and wellness and health and activism and outreach. It’s kind of like the integrated approach.”
Whitney, who grew up in Seattle, lives on Capitol Hill with her Argentinean husband of two years, Leandro Fernandez. She jokes that they could have changed their name to Sternandez — but “I was already branded!”
Leandro, who was raised Catholic, helps Whitney carry out Jewish traditions. Stern was involved in Hillel, where she taught yoga, and together they often hold Shabbat dinners with friends.
“We have a multicultural Spanish-speaking home,” she says.
Whitney considers her values of sustainability, ethical business practices and social justice exemplary of her Judaism, and she notes that her jewelry business actually connects her strongly to her Jewish roots. Her great-grandfather, after whom she was named, was a jeweler in New York after he came over from Latvia.
“It comes full circle,” she says. “Before Jews were successful they were laborers, especially in the jewelry field…. So I feel a sense of wanting to give back, not just to my family but to the world.”