To some, a piece of jewellery is just a piece of jewellery. A static item that represents fashion sensibility, style or status. Yet to others, the underlying story behind a favourite piece of jewellery may actually be more valuable than the value of the item itself.
I love New Orleans and have visited there twice. I’m amazed at the energy, life and vibrancy of the place. Unless you experience it for yourself, it’s impossible to understand its magic – magic that makes you fall in love with it over and over again.
In October 2011, my husband and I took a much anticipated trip to NOLA and one afternoon found ourselves in the French Market. The market is a well-known eclectic spot where vendors sell food, food items, clothing and jewellery and other items. I was wandering around when I was struck by a table filled with vibrant colours. The table was full of fun, funky and unique jewellery made by NOLA native Russell Gore. I fell in love with several of the pieces and started talking to Russell. Turns out he was raised in the not so nice part of NOLA called the projects (St. Thomas housing development). His colourful jewellery, dubbed “Made in the Ghetto”, is a stark contrast to the harsh reality faced by others who had a similar upbringing.
(Photo courtesy of Richard Critz Photography https://prints.rwcfoto.com/)
Russell was wearing a huge gold medallion around his neck which he made out of his wife’s gold after she died in his arms during Hurricane Katrina. His life was filled with hardship and tragedy, and could have gone a different route had he not chosen art and photography as a way out of a seemingly desperate situation.
What struck me most about Russell (over and above his incredible talent) was his kindness, compassion and energy for everything and everyone. He had faced such tragedy, yet didn’t seem hardened by it all. There was energy and optimism in his voice.
After talking for a while, I mentioned that I had just been to the music store to buy CD’s by NOLA legend Kermit Ruffins. He told us he knew Kermit, and invited us to attend a local bar called Bullets where Kermit was performing that night. We smiled and said we would try to make it, not knowing anything about this place or part of town where it was located.
Bullets is a hole in the wall sports bar in the 7th ward area in New Orleans (Treme area). The neighbourhood looks tough and some of the clientele equally so. In spite of the “off the beaten path” location, the reviews were excellent and we decided to take a chance. We took a cab to the bar yet even the cab driver got lost. After driving around for what seemed like the longest 20 minutes of my life, we eventually found our way and made it to Bullets. The place had an amazing vibe and quite a mix of demographic. From biker jackets to well-dressed senior couples, anyone was welcome there and no one seemed to care who you were – or where you were from.
Kermit showed up and the place went wild. Russell walked in and everyone knew him. Turns out that if you know Russell and if he likes you, you’re treated with grace and respect. And so we were.
We had a blast. Strangers would raise their glass and everyone was dancing on the floor. Russell was total class, and even chased down Kermit so I could have a picture with him. For those who don’t know, Kermit Ruffins is to NOLA what Bruce Springsteen is to New Jersey.
We talked to the owner of the bar who was a total sweetheart. He told us the story of how he lived through Hurricane Katrina and lost several friends in the process. In great detail, he described the water levels and bodies floating down the streets. One could not help but get teary eyed. Bullets was one of the anchors during the storm and somehow he was able to feed many of the locals. In these parts, he’s known as a hero. He knew and respected everyone, and they did the same. To me, he represented the strength, optimism and resilience shown by many in the New Orleans area.
I still wear the jewellery I bought from Russell. A colourful guitar decorative piece – and eclectic piece I like to think symbolizes life and hope amidst the despair of the projects. To this day, I get more compliments and inquiries on his jewellery than any other pieces I own.
I always wondered what became of Russell and hoped for the best. While researching his story, I came across a recent clip of him on CNN. He was interviewed for a 10th Anniversary story of Katrina and seems to be doing well.
When someone compliments me on his jewellery, it’s also a compliment to Russell. So the next time you see an interesting piece of jewellery on someone, take a moment to ask them about it. Because sometimes an object as small and seemingly insignificant as a piece of jewellery can represent a story far more intriguing and inspirational than you can ever imagine.