Design for Life — Sarah Byrnes follows her heart

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Goldsmith and jewelry designer Sarah Byrnes, who in April moved her business to Granby after more than three decades in Simsbury, has created hundreds of unique designs for her extensive customer base. Photo by Nicole Muller

Hard work and determination have led goldsmith and jewelry designer Sarah Byrnes to realizing a dream: to make her living by weaving original gold, silver and gemstone designs into other people’s lives.

A Newington native, Byrnes took a jewelry class in high school and never looked back. “I have always loved art, making pottery and other three-dimensional stuff,” Byrnes says. “After that class, I started making jewelry in my bedroom. For graduation, I asked my parents for silver wire and a torch. Silver was at an all-time high, so that was a generous gift.”

That expense, however, hardly matched the gift the Byrnes’ daughter was poised to nurture. Young Sarah marched into the future pursuing her dream with unwavering purpose.

“The last job application I filled out was for a formal five-year apprenticeship with custom jewelry designer Bill Selig, who still has his Simsbury store,” says Byrnes. Under Selig’s tutelage, Byrnes learned the art of manipulating gold and silver, along with customer-service and store-management skills.

After completing her apprenticeship, Byrnes did custom work and repairs for other jewelers, saving every penny she could toward opening her own shop. In 1990, eight years after graduating from Newington High School, Byrnes rented her first space at Simsburytown Shops on Hopmeadow Street. “I spent seven years in the basement,” Byrnes says, adding that when the opportunity arose and she could afford higher rent, she moved to the middle, and finally to the front of the building. “At the beginning, I thought I was going to teach, do a little retail, a little repair. I had one cabinet, made of Duffy’s wood—and teaching stations.”

Duffy? “When I started, my friend Duffy McGee gave me the red oak wood from trees on his homestead, and Peter St. Pierre, a local carpenter, used it to build my first [jewelry display] cabinet. I was broke, so I paid off my debt by cleaning for them and polishing Duffy’s motorcycle.”

The fledgling business did not work out exactly as Byrnes had expected. “After some months I got so busy doing custom design that I was a little overwhelmed,” she says. “Lisa Kulig, who still works with me, was one of my first students. My design business took off much more quickly than I ever dreamed it would.”

A memory from those early years still makes Byrnes smile. “One of my friends brought her three-year-old daughter in on her birthday, and I made her a little necklace on the spot by twisting some silver wire into a heart and putting it on a chain,” Byrnes recalls. “She was so tickled!”

Money was tight for some time, but Byrnes worked hard, and 33 years later, she couldn’t be happier—or busier.

“Mine is a bootstrap story,” she says. “Carl [Brown, Byrnes’ husband] and I saved our change for years to buy the food for our [1996] wedding that we had in a friend’s back yard. Items on our gift list required shopping at Home Depot because we were building a house.”

While Brown was busy with hammer and nails, Byrnes strengthened her business with a strong foundation in custom design. “People come in with something meaningful that they inherited with beautiful stones, and I reinvent it for them,” she says. The stones in a large heirloom brooch might end up in a ring, earrings, bracelet or pendant. After chatting with the client about size and style, Byrnes draws an array of designs, and the client selects from those.

“A friend and her sister are coming from California and Old Saybrook to sit down and decide what to do with the family jewelry they inherited,” she says. “People come to me who have just lost a parent or a spouse, and they don’t know the value of a piece or what they can do with it. For me, helping people is part of the cycle of life.”

A few years ago, Byrnes and Brown began house hunting in Granby, where she was determined to move her business when her lease in Simsbury expired. “I love Simsbury people like family,” she says. “But rent had gone up so high that we decided it was more practical for us to have our own building, and we both like Granby.”

Last year after the couple purchased property on Hartford Avenue in Granby Center, Brown went to work renovating the ca. 1928 house. In April, Byrnes opened her shop on the first floor, accessible via a lovely garden pathway. A longtime friend will soon move into the second-floor apartment.

“We were in a commercial venture, and now we’re in a different, comfortable setting,” Byrnes says. “I love coming to work here. It feels like home.”

The 17-minute drive from her and Brown’s residence in Barkhamsted has become one of hope and expectation for Byrnes, her new location the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that she has worked so hard to capture.