Baltimore entrepreneur and jewelry artist Mary DeMarco has been creating and selling her incredibly popular work since the 1980s. Here’s her story.
A visit to Italy spurred Mary DeMarco and her husband William Wolfe to name their fledgling jewelry business “LaContessa.” They started selling their handmade nature-inspired jewelry and giftware wholesale in 1986, and the business immediately took off. Locating their studio in the working class Baltimore neighborhood of Hampden, they were pioneers in the revitalization of that area which today has an eclectic offering of funky restaurants and independent retailers offering merchandise with fun and kitschy themes.
An explosion of business put LaContessa products in the jewelry cases of many major retailers. At one time, they had at least twenty sales reps selling their line to stores throughout the country. They decided to open their own retail store in 1993, and “LaTerra” was born. Ahead of their time, they focused on earth-friendly and recycled merchandise. Organic cotton clothing and other green products were sold alongside LaContessa’s collections.
Employees were hired, many from the Hampden neighborhood, and several of them are still with LaContessa today. Mary states that they made a great investment by purchasing the building that housed their store and studio. But several major changes were about to happen.
When launching LaContessa, Mary and William had taken financing from a business partner, a move which turned out to be a disaster. After a crisis situation, they ended up having to buy him out to get their business back on track. It was a valuable but expensive life lesson. Mary recommends that other artists who may consider getting involved with business partners proceed with caution and get good legal advice.
As the economy and shopping frenzies slowed, LaContessa’s workforce has shrunken, not a little bit, but “a lotta bit,” according to Mary. They have only a few sales representatives left, and the studio staff has stabilized as a smaller group.
But other opportunities have opened up. The LaContessa website show their entire collection, with a shopping cart, which has produced consistent and growing business from both retail and wholesale buyers. They moved their studio to a new location. Their new retail store called La Terra Gift Gallery is moving in, with a grand opening coming in April. LaContessa exhibits at the Buyers Market (link) and other wholesale shows to continue to meet potential customers and grow their business.
Over the years, their product line has improved. Designing, sculpting and casting is done in the studio, and their collections show a mature, timeless quality which is a draw to fans who love owning more than one piece. They sell jewelry, tabletop items, pens, Judaica and other gift items.
Mary’s experience is a story of survival through good times and bad, and adjusting to the market and economic changes. She’s excited about the future and continuing to thrive in the handmade marketplace.