Scraps to Saks: How Hendler turned rubbish into gems

Published:  January 15, 2014
Bonnie Abbott

How a graphic designer came to be designing jewellery for 1980s series Dynasty, and launch an international craze for jewels made from aero-nautical grade plastic, lucite.

At the very beginning of Judith Hendler’s career, she worked as a graphic designer. 

“I had no formal training. It was on-the-job experience, more like, ‘Do you think you can do this?’ It was odds and ends, things that had to be hand-drawn as there were no computers! But from that I became the assistant to the art director and, eventually, I became the art director.

It was a wonderful training ground for me. I had the opportunity to learn all about type and type setting, as letterpress was still in use, and anything that had to do with printing – from plate making to running the press.”

Her career continued to develop into art direction. 

“I was encouraged to interview for the job at Neutrogena Corporation and wound up being the first art director for the young and rapidly expanding company.”

It was then that she discovered Lucite – lighter than glass but perfectly clear, highly scratch resistant and freely mouldable. It allowed her to create the jewellery she wanted to sell at art shows. 

“I had no jewellery-making experience, but I never had any experience in any of the areas that I worked in!”

Scrap lucite. Photo: Judith Hendler


The jewellery workshop. Photo: Judith Hender

As her work history attests, this lack of knowledge wasn’t a barrier, and Hendler began experimenting. 

“It was just another interesting and unusual material to explore. Because I had no background in this area, I was not bound by conventional dos and don’ts.”

She started at the bottom, with scrap and inspiration.

“I worked with reclaimed cross-link acrylic used in the aerospace industry. It is an absolutely crystal clear, very hard, very durable material that refracts light beautifully. By the time it was mine, it was third generation scrap. Then, an evening stroll in Beverly Hills, seeing Nolan Miller’s clothing designs in the window of Saks Fifth Avenue, supplied the inspiration. The clothes were wonderfully architectural, but the jewellery was insignificant and mundane. It just absolutely did not fit the clothes.”

It wasn’t long before her creations were noticed, in an extraordinary turn of events.

“By incredible coincidence, after I designed my first piece, Nolan Miller found me in a fabric store, looking for material to make a jewellery bag.”

Nolan Miller was an Emmy-winning costume and jewellery designer, famous for his work on a variety of 1980s television shows. He is reputed to be responsible for the strong-shouldered power suits of the time.

“Mr Miller became very supportive of me and purchased jewellery not only for Joan Collins on Dynasty, but for many of the other shows that he designed for at the time.”

A reflection of this influence and her history, the jewellery was as structured and strict as it was bold and original.

“I think that the designs of any designer are the sum total of who and what he or she is at that time. Certainly my designs reflect how I see the world and what is important to me.”

This originality became her trademark that has continued throughout the rest of her career.

“It’s doing something that hasn’t been done before and perhaps can’t be done again. It has been over 30 years since I did my first pieces and they still stand on their own. They have their own unique voice and expression.”

What would this unique voice say, if it could talk?

“It would say, ‘Put me on, I will change your life. You will have experiences you never thought possible; I will make you stand out in a crowd; announce your daring tastes and your envious sense of style. I will make you proud and significant. You will be special!’”

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