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Alumni Stories: Sonya Ooten Frisina '89

Jewelry Making for Hilary Duff (And The Rest of Us)

by Rebekah Rombom '08

As a young girl, Sonya Frisina ’89 learned Native American beading and weaving techniques from her great-grandmother on the Colville Confederated Tribes reservation in northern Washington.  There, she made her first pieces of jewelry.

Today, living farther south in California, Frisina is the successful purveyor of a jewelry line she operates under her maiden name, Sonya Ooten.

Frisina’s baubles have adorned the necks and earlobes of celebrities like Cameron Diaz, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Hilary Duff, and have been featured on television shows including Beverly Hills 90210 and Friends.  In November 2005, Frisina opened her first stand-alone shop, Sonya Ooten Gem Bar, in the Larchmont Village section of Los Angeles.  There she sells pieces that feature her signature crocheted patterns as well as other necklaces and earrings adorned with pearls and gemstones.

With her name sprinkled across the pages of top fashion magazines and her jewelry appearing in display cases across the country, it would be almost impossible to guess that directly following her graduation from Dartmouth, Frisina followed quite a meandering path to her current career.

As an undergraduate, Frisina majored in history, but also studied art history and discovered the College’s jewelry studio her sophomore year.

“I do remember it was closed my freshman year, that was when they refurbished it.  I was just waiting, waiting, waiting for it to open, and then I was just there all the time,” Frisina says. “I just loved it.”

While she originally thought she would go to law school, Frisina’s interest in art inspired her to move to Santa Fe after graduation, in hopes of finding work at a gallery.  Instead, she studied with a master jeweler there and then began to work in the costume departments for some major films.  Eventually, she began to make her own jewelry and sell it to retailers.

The major turning point for the Sonya Ooten collection, though, came when Frisina secured an account from Barneys New York.  The high-end department store, with outposts in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and other major cities, featured an elegant Sonya Ooten pendant necklace on the cover of one of its catalogues.

“It makes the difference,” Frisina says of her Barneys account, “because other retailers go to Barneys to see what Barneys has.  It’s just a very aspirational sort of store. It’s a big deal, but you have to make sure that you’re ready to produce.”

To keep up with wholesale and retail orders, Frisina employs one other craftsperson full-time to manufacture the jewelry along with her, and another to help with crocheting.  Frisina knows her craft well, but working with delicate gold and affixing gemstones to her pieces can be time consuming.

“I can do all that stuff, I just don’t really have time to do it,” she says.  “There’s just so many more aspects to being a jewelry designer if you’re not an artisan designer, if you’re actually trying to sell in the marketplace.”

To deal with non-creative details, Frisina counts on her husband, also a Dartmouth graduate, and other employees who manage shipping and orders.

In her store, Frisina provides customers with a large variety of styles to choose from, and shoppers can even help create their own ornaments by choosing specific stones and settings.  Since larger retailers only buy a small percentage of her offerings, Frisina has been looking forward to opening her own storefront.

“I’d been thinking about it for a while,” she says. “I just wanted to have a place to put everything that I do.”

Even with all of her successes, Frisina is still learning about the industry, looking to possibly break into the fine jewelry market and doing all of her public relations and market research in-house.

“I think I’ve gotten quite a lot of press just doing it on my own,” Frisina says, citing her experience with an outside public relations firm as a waste of money.  “We’re doing it ourselves; we’re excited about the jewelry, we know the jewelry, we can send it out quickly.”

While she still sometimes feels the stress of her relatively unpredictable career in the arts, Frisina enjoys being able to create her own schedule.

“My most favorite part is the freedom, just the time freedom, because I have two small children,” she says.  “That I can do whatever I want to do when I want to do it and when it’s important.”

Last Updated: 6/21/12