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As a little girl growing up in Webster Groves in the 1970s, Theresa Wangia was captivated by her mother’s collection of Native American jewelry. “I just loved it, the colors, the shapes, the etchings,” Wangia says. “I remember saying, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to make jewelry like this.’”

She went on to pursue a career in fashion, working as a model while living abroad in Europe. “I’ve always loved fashion, and really, the creative side of it, I had grown to love more throughout the years,” Wangia says. “I worked as a stylist on shoots, made jewelry for shoots and had been leaning toward the accessory side, the details of the shot.” She did an apprenticeship with a London-based jewelry designer who showed her how to work with stones from all over the world and taught her metalsmithing and basic jewelry-making techniques.

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Her creative pursuits would eventually become Beltshazzar Jewels, a nod to the Biblical name that was given to Daniel during his prophesy. “Daniel is my [maiden] name,” Wangia says.

“I’ve always loved art, and I’ve always been creative,” she adds. “I love to express myself, I love to dance – anything that has freestyle to it. You see in my work, I take very different textures and marry them together to create organic, one-of-a-kind pieces.”

This marriage of textures and materials includes weaving leather with brass to create a bold chain for a statement pendant, such as a large circular green agate gemstone or tusk-shaped Moroccan lapis lazuli, or a section of antler wrapped in brass wire. Beltshazzar Jewels bracelets and cuffs are similarly bold, mixing hand-forged metals, leathers, horn, precious stones and bone. Handcrafted earrings are uniquely presented, with several sets sold in mismatched pairs, one perhaps in leather tassels and the other with a druzy stone. “I know it’s a little more popular now,” Wangia says of the mismatched earrings, “but I’ve been doing that for years. Even when I was 14, I’d have one piercing in one ear and two in the other – asymmetrical always adds a little bit of edge.”

Wangia’s creative process follows a path that’s structured yet undefined. “I like to start off with a mood board; I’ll put together different color palettes and different textures, tear sheets from magazines, whatever moves me, the colors, the textures,” she says. “I’ll start there. I’ll make little vignettes of materials, and along the way, during that process, I’ll have breakthroughs while I’m doing it. That’s why I love the creative process so much, those breakthroughs really take my creativity to places I really couldn’t sketch or lay out. But having all that there, and doing it hands-on, something really beautiful comes out of it every time.

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“I source materials from Kenya, because my husband is Kenyan, so we get a lot of the bone, the horn and various other minerals and stones – the more earthy items – we get produced in Kenya. Eventually, it would be nice to have some things made there.”

Wangia credits the unique, blended-materials aesthetic of her line both to her varied cultural experiences living and traveling abroad and to her own family background. Wangia’s Caucasian mother and African-American father met at their graduation from Webster Groves High School. Wangia was born a month before the 1967 Supreme Court ruling (Loving v. Virginia) that legalized interracial marriage and, in consequence, was given her mother’s surname – Daniel.

“I come from a mixed-race family, so I was drawn to a lot of different cultures – everything: the way they live, the food they eat, the way they dress, the music they make,” she says. “I love folk music and world music. I took that all in. Growing up in the ’70s also shaped me; my parents were music lovers, and I have their entire vinyl collection – folk, funk, soul, classic rock. All of that shaped me as a person.”

By happenstance, Wangia also later discovered that leatherwork was historically a family trade. “I started doing ancestry research and found my family tree online on my German side, met my cousin who put it together and found out that my great-great-grandfather on my mom’s side did indeed make several pairs of Buffalo Bill’s boots,” she says, referring to William Frederick Cody, an American scout, bison hunter and showman renowned as one of the most colorful figures of the Old West. “I visited the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Wyoming, [and] met with the archive department, and they took me to the vault and showed me several personal belongings of William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, as well as his infamous tall riding boots … I was holding a pair my great-great-grandfather, who emigrated from Germany, made. Buffalo Bill had my family under contract, making boots for him for many, many years. I was already working with leather when I found that out.”

But her discoveries of the similarities between Wangia and her great-great-grandfather didn’t stop there, she continues, citing her deeply rooted love for the arts. “My great-great-grandfather had a cobbler shop,” Wangia says. “He also made boots for Jesse James, played the fiddle and wrote a book of poems. There are three historical books written about my family from this little town on the border, Seneca, Missouri – there is art all over that side of the family from Germany.”

The Beltshazzar Jewels collection is available for purchase online and at local boutiques The Heirloom Room, Byrd Designer Consignment Boutique, The Vault, Urban Matter, The Spotted Pig and The Designing Block. Beltshazzar Jewels also has a presence in specialty shops in Chicago, Los Angeles and London. Prices range from $40 to $450, and all pieces are handmade by Wangia.

Through her company, Wangia hopes to encourage others to notice the beauty around them. “Because I traveled so much in my life and I’ve seen so many different beautiful places, people and things, what I want people to do is see the world through my work – encourage people to travel, to see the beauty around us,” she concludes.

“I try to put that into my work – that sort of daring, inquisitive, fun way of looking at life.”

Beltshazzar Jewels, 314-761-1812, beltshazzarjewels.com

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Denise is a contributing writer at Ladue News. She is a Chicago native, wife to Vince, mama to two and Chicago magazine dining team alum. She hopes to one day live in a world where semicolons are used responsibly.

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