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« Success Story: Donatella Arpaia: Attorney Turned Restaurateur | Main | Success Story: Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini: "I'm a Mum First, a Lawyer Second" »

Interview: Denise Couling: From Law to Jewelry Design

Denise_couling2Denise Couling followed in her father's footsteps by joining up with his firm after graduating law school. However, from an early age, Couling also enjoyed tinkering with jewelry.

After the birth of her second child, Couling began developing a system of interchangeable jewelry pieces that would go from dressy to work to casual. Friends, clients and other lawyers who saw her pieces started asking for them, and she started selling small batches; sometimes out of her conference room.

After reading Po Bronson's "What Should I Do With My Life?", and watching a taped episode of "Oprah" about a federal lawyer, Warren Brown, who had chucked his Washington legal career to open up a cake bakery (see Success Story), Couling decided to ease out of law and begin selling jewelry. From trunk sales, Couling has graduated to a website, 50-page catalog, and her own physical retail store location.

Click below for our interview with Denise (we hope Denise's story will inspire some of our readers out there to pursue their dreams much as Warren Brown's story inspired Denise).

JD Bliss (JDB):  You’ve been an attorney for more than 15 years, and maintain a successful real estate practice.  In the last several years you’ve jumpstarted a successful second career as an designer and entrepreneur in the jewelry industry.  Let’s take things in order and start with the law – how your interest started and how your practice developed.

Couling:  When I grew up here in Michigan my father was a lawyer, and although I thought about other careers, the life of a lawyer seemed both an interesting and a practical way to make a living.  My dad used to say that you can’t go wrong with a legal education.  I took his advice to heart and went to law school at the University of Michigan, where I got my J.D. degree in 1989.  I started in practice at the Ann Arbor office of a Detroit-based firm that’s one of the largest in the Midwest, at first doing corporate and M&A work, but then branching out into real estate transactions, which no one else in the office was doing.   Eventually I left the firm, practiced with my father for a period of time, then started my own practice.  I’m now based in Brighton, Michigan, a small suburb west of Detroit.  I’ve stayed in the area of real estate practice, primarily representing landlords.

JDB:  You’ve been a lawyer in a wide range of settings – big firm, family firm, sole practice.  What kind of satisfaction has your legal career given you?

Couling2Couling:  Certainly I liked the challenges and opportunities of a big firm.  But at the time I was there I was also seriously thinking about establishing my family.    My husband and I now have two sons and, even before they were born, I realized the firm took more of my personal time than I wanted to give.  At that time more than a decade ago there was no such thing as associates working part-time, so I made the conscious decision to practice in a smaller setting.  I’ve never regretted getting a law degree, but at the same time the law is really not something I ever felt to be my “true calling.”  Ultimately, the real significance of my practice was that it has enabled me to follow my true passion about jewelry.

JD Bliss:  It’s one thing to be passionate about jewelry but quite another to design and patent an entire jewelry line and to start your own business selling it.  How did that develop?

Couling:  Even as a teenager I enjoyed tinkering with jewelry, taking apart necklaces and other pieces, then reconfiguring them and putting them back together.  In school, I always had taken art courses, and I felt I knew how I could make jewelry pieces that would fit together better than what was on the market.   But while it was a source of personal enjoyment for me I never considered it to be a practical career.  Then, after my second son was born in 2000, my old interest in jewelry design redeveloped.  For years, I had been thinking about an idea for a system of tasteful interchangeable jewelry pieces that would go from dressy to work to casual.  I made up some prototypes and wore them myself.   I was literally making for myself the jewelry I wanted to wear.  Friends and even clients approached me about selling my jewelry and, at first, I thought surely somebody else was making something similar.  However, I searched on the Internet and looked through all kinds of jewelry catalogs, and nobody else seemed to be doing what I envisioned – especially not as any kind of consistent, upscale framework.  I ran samples of my work by some acquaintances involved in handling jewelry and watches for upscale jewelers and retailers and was surprised by how well received my concept was.    The idea started to take hold that I could make a business of it.

JDB:  And all this time you were still practicing law?

Couling:  Absolutely.  I’m not the kind of person who burns bridges, and just because I thought the jewelry idea might be intriguing I wasn’t about to give up my practice.  Besides, there seemed to be something a little too “Legally Blonde” about giving up the law for jewelry.  I rarely mentioned what I was doing with jewelry to my clients, and to this day I do little to emphasize it with them or to use it to market my practice.  So far as my clients are concerned, my goal for them is to deliver the same service as if I had no business other than the practice of law.  My jewelry business is known to some of my clients – who’ve become real supporters of it – but as a general rule the paths of the two businesses run in tandem but really don’t cross. 

JD Bliss:  How did you take your interest from what was essentially a hobby to an actual business?

Couling:  It occurred in several stages.  First, after satisfying myself that my interchangeable necklace clasp design seemed to be unique, I engaged a patent attorney to secure a U.S. patent.  At the same time, a jeweler for whom I was handling a real estate question referred me to a wonderful contact in the industry who helped me turn my designs into actual pieces of jewelry.  As I worked more with people in the industry, I was able to establish several production sources.   It took a year or two to reduce my law practice to a level where I could get the business going and have time for my family, but still contribute to our family income.  I started having trunk sales, and sometimes was able to sell several thousands of dollars worth of jewelry in a single showing.  A real turning point happened several years ago, when I was struggling with the notion of how far to take the jewelry business.  I had recorded one of Oprah Winfrey’s talk shows on Tivo, and when I watched it in the evening with my husband we saw Warren Brown, who talked about his passion for baking and his Cake Love bakery in Washington, DC.  Before then, it was scary for me to even drum up the nerve to admit what a seemingly wacky career move I was seriously considering.  The thought of maybe abandoning my law career – or even casting doubt on my reputation as a serious lawyer – in order to “make jewelry” sounded just about as “out there” as “baking cakes.”  But hearing Warren talk about his career choice and what it meant to him was a pivotal moment in my decision to see my jewelry line through from hobby to business reality. 

JDB:  And now you have both a brick-and-mortar and online business operations, correct?

Couling:  That’s essentially right.   We’ve launched a web site,, and published a nearly 50-page jewelry catalog.  Then in 2004 I found a retail space right here in Brighton, Missouri, that had been vacated by a mortgage firm.  I opened my shop, Just So!, that year, at first on a part-time basis.  The store is really evolving as a showcase for the catalog business – after all, this is a small Midwestern town, and even though it’s not far from some major cities the actual foot traffic is low.  I’ve worked in the shop along with several part-time assistants, and now we’re positioned to add full-time staff to look after the production, shipping and commission ends of the business.

JDB:  What do you see as the next steps for the jewelry business?

Couling:  I’m working to move toward being a sustainable long-term business.  We now have customers all over the country, and I’ve developed a business plan that involves authorized direct sales representatives in different regions.  It was a real validation earlier this year when Halstead Bead, one of the country’s leading jewelry wholesalers, held its first ever Business Development Grant competition for new companies in the industry, and Just So! was selected as a Top Five finalist out of more than 100 applicants nationwide.   The recognition from that will be a major plus for us as we work to expand.

JDB:  You’ve continued to maintain your law practice as you’ve grown.  Have you been able to apply your legal training to help you run your business?

Couling:  Actually, I value my legal training more than ever, now that I’m applying it to something I enjoy so much.  I incorporated the business myself, and handled the transaction when I bought the shop.  Now I regularly work on contracts and distribution agreements.  Not a week goes by that I don’t use my law skills in some way. 

JDB:  You’ve been uniquely successful at finding personal and business success.  What has been most satisfying to you about the process?

Couling:  First, I’m thankful that I have a husband who's supportive of what I’ve done.  There’s no question that I’ve followed my passion into the jewelry business, and that my first objective was to make things that I liked and that worked the way I thought they should.  But I also did a lot of work to make sure that I would be selling a quality product that met my own standards and that people really wanted, before deciding to make this a business rather than a hobby.  The business has been a great source of personal satisfaction and enjoyment, but what has been amazingly satisfying to me is what this business brings to other people’s lives.  I never really appreciated how people give jewelry as a gift to loved ones, as a celebration of some of life’s best moments – like an anniversary or a graduation.  It’s a profound emotional connection to be a part of so many lives, even as I’ve found more happiness in my own.  I can’t imagine anything that would make for a more meaningful career.

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