Statement Pieces

October 2019 View more

By Annemarie Mannion

Naperville resident Deb Collander wanted to wear the pearl choker and earrings she inherited from the mother, but the style of the pieces just didn’t speak to her. After years of not wearing the jewelry, she took them to Sophia Forero Design (, a Naperville-based jewelry studio. Forero used the pearls and incorporated other stones and materials to create a new suite of earrings, plus a necklace, ring, and bracelet that were more in Collander’s style.

“It’s beautiful, and I feel beautiful wearing it,” says Collander, who appreciates how Forero incorporates unique items—recycled from old jewelry or found during her travels to such far-flung places as a Paris flea market or a Native American art show in the Southwest—into her jewelry designs.

Forero, who grew up in Naperville, didn’t always plan on becoming a jewelry designer. She majored in political science in college and got a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Chicago. She made her first necklace in graduate school and her interest in jewelry making grew when she received a book from a friend that delved into the meanings of jewelry and adornment.

“Jewelry is a language,” she says. “It’s a symbol saying who we are, without saying anything at all.”

While serving in Hungary in the Peace Corps she began collecting Czech glass, amber, and other beads.

“I had jars of beads and I started making pieces for people,” says Forero, whose expertise as a designer grew over the years.

“My line has evolved and I’m using many more gemstones with other unusual elements,” she says.

Her Wanderlust collection (“Because not all who wander are lost”), for instance, incorporates micromosaics from Italy, sterling silver feathers from Navajo and Zuni cultures, and Murano glass combined with a variety of other stones and gems, including malachite, turquoise, peridot, and pearls.

“I’m never not looking for materials,” Forero says. “I find materials in the darnedest places.”

Whether incorporating a pocket watch, an antique coin, or religious medal into her collections, all of her creations tell a story.

“My pieces sell best when there is an understanding of who I am,
what the stories are behind the pieces, and the love that goes into them,” she says.

“The elements in jewelry are just amazing,” adds Collander. “The way she adds antique pieces from her travels is unique. Most of her pieces are one of a kind.”

One of Forero’s specialties is creating mosaics with colorful beads that may also feature diamonds or other precious stones that she forms into rings, pendants, or earrings.

Earlier in her career, Forero won a contest hosted by Marshall Field’s to select a designer whose pieces would be featured in its stores.

“That was a time when department stores cultivated new artists. They’d take new artists under their wings and help them develop their brand,” she says of her early years.

Today, the vast majority of Forero’s sales are direct to customers via her website, or from her studio where she enjoys working with customers, like Collander, to create custom pieces.

“We kind of work together to make the pieces,” explains Collander. “She made the jewelry for each of my son’s weddings.” She wore jewelry featuring amber and smoky topaz for one son’s wedding, black stones for another son’s wedding, and rubies and other pink and purple stones for her third son’s wedding.

Forero has a loyal following of customers, whom she has dubbed “Sophanistas.” Purchasing a piece of jewelry isn’t necessary to become part of the group.

“Anyone can be a Sophanista. They just have to ascribe to the idea of feeling beautiful,” Forero says.

The pieces that Collander had made from her mother’s pearl jewelry continue to give her joy. She knew it was time to recycle them when the necklace broke while Collander was visiting Forero to decide what could be remade from the jewelry.

“That was my mother telling me, ‘It’s time you did something with this jewelry,’ ” says Collander, with a laugh.

Just as Collander loves the jewelry made from her mother’s pieces, Forero loves seeing other customers fall in love with the jewelry and how they feel when wearing it.

“If my jewelry can make you feel confident or beautiful, then my work is done,” Forero says.