When she’s not designing spectacular jewels, you can probably find Erica Courtney plunging into the depths of a gemstone mine
The first time Erica Courtney descended into the ground to visit a gem mine, she figured it would be no big deal. “I thought, I know how you mine: You go down in the little train, and you’re sitting the whole way down, and everything is super-cute and super-friendly—like in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, right?”
Wrong. “So, we get in what we now call the death trap,” recalls Courtney, sitting in the relative comfort of her Los Angeles office and showroom, “which is like a can—a giant can with [steel pegs] on the floor. You’re balancing to try to hold yourself up because you’re going pretty much straight down. You’ve got to hold yourself like that while you’re wearing these boots that probably don’t fit because they were made for a large man.” She continues: “And then you get out and walk the rest of the way down. Unless they tell you to rappel.”
As you go down, the temperature goes up. “It’s getting hotter and hotter and hotter, and you should be in shape if you’re going—which, thank God, I was—but not in shape enough, because I was shaking by the time I got out. It was super hard. And I had eaten an Erica breakfast,” by which she means she had an egg and a piece of toast.
Courtney knows better now. These days, she visits a few mines a year all over the world—Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Australia, Colombia, Turkey, various countries in Africa. Every time, she prepares by eating a hearty breakfast. “I’m absolutely, completely hooked” on visiting mines, she says. “I’m drawn to sparkly things, and the whole place is sparkling.”
She’s not alone. Courtney’s sparkling creations have attracted legions of followers for her one-of-a-kind, multicolored, intricate diamond-studded earrings and fantasy-stoking rings that sell for as much as $200,000 apiece.
The mine visits can put such high prices in perspective. “When you’re wondering why jewelry costs so much money, I’m here to tell you why,” Courtney says. “It’s a lot harder than you think, and it costs a lot of money to mine for gems. They could be mining for three years and not find one single, solitary thing. The good stuff is very rare. I mean, that’s the part that puts it in perspective—understanding how hard they work.” When she’s down in a mine, she gets a firsthand, intimate look at the process. “It’s not done by machine, it’s done by two hands, by that man and that lady.”
Toi et Moi ring with 3.12 cts. t.w. Mexican fire opal and 1.12 cts. t.w. diamonds in 18k yellow gold, $10,000; Eva earrings with 7.43 cts. t.w. colorless topaz and 0.59 ct. t.w. diamonds in platinum, $8,500 (huggies sold separately); Regent ring with 5.59 ct. orangey-pink tourmaline and 0.86 ct. t.w. diamonds in 18k yellow gold, $17,200; Erica Courtney; 323-938-2373; ericacourtney.com
A (Literally) Shady Past
Today, she may be a jet-setting, high-priced designer whose jewels adorn such celebrities as Jessica Alba and Sandra Bullock, but Courtney’s past is, shall we say, more checkered. And it reveals an entrepreneurial instinct that not only helped her establish a thriving jewelry business but also got her through some hard times.
It all started with a broken necklace, some ingenuity, and a rather insistent mother. At 19 years old, living in Dallas, Courtney found herself in possession of a damaged Swarovski crystal chain. Feeling inspired, she glued the pieces onto a pair of sunglasses. “My mom thought they were so cute,” Courtney recalls. “She and I walked out of the house and somebody said, ‘Oh, I love your sunglasses,’ and my mom told her, ‘My daughter’s a jewelry designer. You should buy them from her.’ I was like, ‘Mom, what are you talking about?’ ”
She was talking about the fact that her daughter was creative and could use a few bucks—not to mention a career. But Courtney had no idea how to go about such a thing. Naturally, her mother gave her instructions: “Figure it out.”
So Courtney went to Dallas Jewelry Mart, where she snatched up a pile of sunglasses. The guy she bought them from asked her to sell her work at an upcoming show, where she wound up with a job managing a showroom. “Three months later, I was a jewelry designer.”
Eva ring with 3.07 ct. Paraiba, 0.1 ct. t.w. demantoid garnets, and 0.43 ct. t.w. diamonds in 18k yellow gold, $60,000; Amazon pendant with 100.49 ct. peridot, 5.96 cts. t.w. purple garnet, and 2.33 cts. t.w. diamonds in 18k gold, $230,000 (chain sold separately)
Good thing, because she was already on the lam from the FBI. You see, Erica Courtney is an assumed name (inspired by All My Children’s Erica Kane) for Tasha Ingram. Back in Louisiana, Ingram had a son, Josh, with a man who had a bit of a temper, to put it mildly. They divorced and, because of her ex-husband’s local connections, Ingram feared he would win full custody. So she took her 4-year-old son and skipped town.
In the eight or so years that followed, Erica and Josh lived in many different places, all while she was establishing a successful jewelry business. She used her wiles to open bank accounts without a Social Security number. But her past caught up with her in 1992, while she was in New York City for a jewelry show. There, the feds came knocking on her hotel room door. Courtney wound up back in Louisiana, serving two years of parole. “Everybody’s been through something,” Courtney says, thoughtfully. “But it just makes us better, right?”
Things are, indeed, better these days. The instincts that helped her survive all those years definitely served her in establishing an enduring business in the heart of the entertainment industry. (The assumed name stuck.) Today Courtney is single. Her son, Josh Cappo, builds and customizes motorcycles that are often featured in such publications as Hot Bike magazine, as his proud mother reports. He lives nearby, so she gets to have plenty of quality time baking with her 6-year-old granddaughter. “She is my heart and soul,” Courtney says.
Genie earrings with 7.12 cts. t.w. mint garnet and 5.24 cts. t.w. diamonds in 18k yellow gold, $60,000 (huggies sold separately); Medusa pendant with a 9.28 ct. sapphire and 1.6 cts. t.w. diamonds in 18k yellow gold, $50,000; Treasure ring with a 14.45 ct. blue chalcedony and 0.98 ct. t.w. diamonds in platinum, $18,000
Changing the Conversation
Courtney’s background has certainly shaped her point of view on the jewelry industry, which she sees as lacking respect for female designers and customers—ironic, considering that women are the backbone of the industry. “You’d be surprised how many stores I go in and [employees] interrupt my scheduled sale right here with ‘Well, I’ll call your husband.’ And I’m like, Dude, do not walk up to my case anymore, do not. I don’t care if it’s your customer. Unless you can zip it and stop saying the H-word. You know—you’re the salesperson, you should be saying, ‘You should buy this, and let your husband get you that big diamond you wanted.’ That’s what I tell them.”
And it works for her. Courtney’s customers love all the little extras that adorn her designs. “Sometimes the setting is as important as the gemstone. I want it to be a conversation piece.” With Courtney’s designs, you can look at them from every angle and find, say, precious topaz and an Afghan tourmaline that’s bright orange. “That’s its natural color! They’re all natural.” And very dramatic.
Top: Diana ring with a 5.34 ct. spinel and 5.35 cts. t.w. custom-cut diamonds in 18k yellow gold; $200,000
Insets: Courtney in Vietnam holding a piece of spinel rough; climbing down a mountain in a Vietnamese jungle