The area around the High Line—a 1.45-mile-long historic elevated rail structure that runs through 20 blocks of West Chelsea in New York—was home to many jewelers when an organization called Friends of the High Line began its initiative to convert the abandoned freight train track into what it calls a “linear public place.” Donna Distefano Thomas was one of them.
Donna Distefano Ltd. has been based in Chelsea since 1997. It’s a far cry from Thomas’s beginning as jeweler, when, she says, “At age 10 I opened my first ‘studio,’ in my mom’s garage.” Though her rent may have skyrocketed since she moved out of that garage, Thomas’s imagination has remained audacious.
Thomas finds inspiration in old-world techniques and her Italian ancestry. “I am very inspired by my European heritage,” she says. “In fact, I studied at the University of Urbino for a time and also with a few Italian designers who guided me in the ways of classical goldsmithing.”
The experience and technique that Thomas brought back to the States earned her the coveted position of senior craftsman with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the Met, Thomas created reproductions of jewelry pieces of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Italians before striking out on her own. After a five-year stint in SoHo, Donna Distefano Ltd. made the move to Chelsea, where Thomas continues to explore her Italian roots through her 22k gold Portrait of a Lady collection.
The collection has been on display at the Chelsea studio and gallery since the summer of 2007. Photographer Charles Thomas, celebrity makeup artist Leonid Ruzayev, and hairstylist Jackie Cardona helped Thomas capture the essence of the Renaissance through photography. “They were able to add just the right touch, emphasizing the beauty of the period,” she says. The model was K-Ville star Milena Govich. “She really took on the persona of a Medici in a Bronzino,” Thomas says. “Extremely beautiful and looking very content wearing the jewelry.”
Although Thomas has spent her career reinventing the past, she is by no means stuck in it. She’s high on the High Line. “I think that the High Line will only help this already bustling neighborhood, the same way that galleries did when they sprang up,” she says. “Just in terms of foot traffic, I’m sure that everyone will see a lot more people looking to discover what is around here. Hopefully, they’ll be pleasantly surprised.”