Spenderella & Her Singing Stones

Montecito is blessed with a number of excellent jewelers: A.H. Gaspar (969-6362), Bryant & Sons, Ltd. (565-4411), Silverhorn (969-0442), and Daniel Gibbings (565-1284). But, just in case you haven’t found precisely what you want from the above establishments, another option before Christmas or that anniversary-birthday passes, would be to call interior-decorator-turned-jewelry-designer Corinna Gordon at 963-9909.

Corinna has a mellifluous English accent that, unlike that of, say, Madonna, is real, unpretentious, and pleasing to the ear. She was born in the Lake District of England, northwest of London and just south of the Scottish border. “It was cold and wet and rainy there,” Corinna says in a very proper English accent during an interview at her condo. “Which is why I’m here,” she adds with a laugh that is every bit as pleasant, infectious, and genuine, as her accent.

Corinna has been making jewelry for more than 30 years. At first, she simply made things for herself, then for girlfriends as presents and gifts, and “suddenly people would say, ‘I’d like one.’” More recently, she studied silversmithing at Adult Ed and “took to it like a duck to water.”

In 1997, she combined her expertise in beading and design with her newfound talent as a silver- and goldsmith and heightened sense of aesthetic and founded Spenderella (it’s what she called herself whenever she went shopping).

Her jewelry pieces feature a variety of stones, jewels, and gems: diamonds, denim lapis, cayanite, jasper, Montana agate, fossilized dinosaur bone, opals, Labradorite, Obsidian, raw garnets, raw sapphires from Madagascar (“the color of a bruise”), amethysts, blue goldstone, antique amber, aquamarine, rubies, coral, black onyx, jade, pink tormeline, rutilated quartz, emeralds, cherry quartz, Tanzanite, topaz, pearls, tanzanite sapphires… The list is extensive. Every article is handmade by Corinna, who not only designs each piece, but also saws, solders, and polishes them.

“If you have a rich color with any color,” she advises, “it just sings to you and it makes the stones sing.”

A Spenderella amber and amethyst necklace was the recent winner in a Jewelers’ competition for Cover Girl’s Fall Ad Campaign; the publishers flew Corinna to New York City to be filmed presenting it to the winner of “America’s Next Top Model.” She has made 15 additional necklaces, to be given away in a Sweepstakes Promotion in the magazines and in store at Saks.

An Heir and a Spare

The following is an account of how a young girl from the Lake District became first a noted interior decorator and then head of an internationally renowned jewelry collection.

When Corinna was 4, her mother left in the middle of the night. “One day, she just wasn’t there,” Corinna says, adding that “we didn’t think to ask [where she had gone] because we didn’t see her all the time. We had nannies and governesses and lived in a separate wing of the house.” One day her father said, “‘Oh, by the way, if you’re wondering where your mother is, she went to London and won’t be coming back. She didn’t like living in the country.’ It never occurred to them,” Corinna observes, “to worry about the children.” Corinna expresses some regret that her mother “didn’t even say good-bye,” but concludes they “really weren’t fit to be parents.” Her father later married a woman Corinna calls “my wicked step-monster.”

Corinna attended boarding school beginning at age 7, explaining that, “In my day, it was quite a normal thing for wealthy parents to do. I really do think,” she adds thoughtfully, “that a lot of those upper class parents had children because they needed ‘an heir and a spare’ and I was the girl in the middle.” The system of ‘primogenitor’ required the estate be passed on to the oldest son. “God forbid something would happen to the oldest son,” she says, noting resignedly that, “in any case, [the inheritance] wouldn’t go to the daughter; it would go to the next oldest son, the spare.”

Corinna did well in school nevertheless: “I was athletic, artistic, and good at drawing and painting and so it was decided I would go to university in Florence.” In Italy, she stayed in a castle outside Chianti and did ‘life drawing’ from mostly nude figures. “They’d sometimes pull in an old man from one of the bars to do portraiture,” she recalls, laughing.

When that educational sojourn ended, it was back to London “to do the debutante season.”

A Long & Winding Road

It was called the debutante season, but as Corinna explains, it was really “a marriage market.” The entire season was created, she suspects, “to make sure your daughters only met eligible young men of a certain social class and would be married off and go to breed in the country.

“In the spring, the girls that are picked, approved, by a sort of jury – one of those jurors was the social editor of Tatler – would get together for tea parties to get to know each other and for the mothers to get to know each other. In the summer, it was cocktail parties where we’d get to know the boys. In the fall, each family would host a big ball in their stately home and all the people in the debutante season would go. We used to call the men ‘Debs’ Delights’ – a lot of Hoorah Henrys.”

One of those “Debs’ Delights” was Julian Fellowes, and their friendship has endured since they were teenagers. (Fellowes won an Oscar for “Gosford Park,” and was here in Montecito during last year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival.)

Corinna says she was “not spoiled” and was never told that she was going to have any money. “We were very privileged,” she stresses, “but we weren’t spoiled. We were given one gift from our parents at Christmas. We weren’t given a car at the age of sixteen. We were given five shillings for pocket money, like any normal kid. We were given gowns and some money during debutante season, but we were all level-headed sensible girls.”

During debutante season, Corinna not only attended balls, but also stayed in the homes where events were being held, or at their friends’ homes nearby. “We stayed in some of the most incredible estates with extraordinary art,” she recalls. “It was a real privilege and opportunity to see them,” she says, speculating that the exposure gave her “an eye when it came to doing interior design. I think,” she says, “my ability to translate into creating rooms for my clients came from that.”

Academy For Young Ladies

Once the marriage market ended, Corinna was sent off to Miss Thompson’s Academy for Young Ladies in Edinburgh, Scotland “to learn shorthand and typing; something to fall back on.”

She was “miserable” at Miss Thompson’s Academy in her small room “with linoleum on the floor, a naked light bulb, and a heater I had to put shilling coins in for heat.”

She left after six months of what was supposed to have been a yearlong course. Despite that, her stepmother advised her that she couldn’t come back home, that she had to ‘go down to London and find work.’

“And that was that,” Corinna says with a smile and a shrug.

From Big Sur to Montecito

By the age of 22, Corinna had met (in southern France) and married a Polish-American film producer credited with having discovered Roman Polanski; Essam Khashoggi was best man at the wedding. Her husband had two sons older than she and a 4-year-old that she raised, and that she is still close to – Adam Bardach.

In the early 1980s, Corinna visited Southern California for the first time at the invitation of Barbra Streisand, whom she had met on the set of “Yentl” in London. “I loved it,” Corinna recalls. “Blue skies, wide streets, and I got to turn right on red. I thought this was paradise.” A month later, at a lunch for actor Roger Moore in Hollywood, she met Larry Dale Gordon, a 51-year-old bachelor, whose photos of The Marlboro Man are perhaps his best known. The two were married a year later in Big Sur, where, after buying a house overlooking the coast, they lived for 10 years.

It might have looked idyllic, but living in Big Sur had its drawbacks. “The old pioneer families that went back to the land grants wouldn’t talk to anybody if they hadn’t lived in the area for at least twenty-five years,” Corinna says. She did, however, make friends with a group of artists who’d paint or draw nude models from nearby Esalen.

In 1994, Corinna underwent breast-cancer surgery followed by a year of chemotherapy and radiation. After surgery, she decided she “didn’t want to sit in Big Sur and watch my life go by.” As an interior decorator, she had done Ann and Kirk Douglas’s home in Los Angeles and had met their son Peter; whenever he or Essam had a party, Larry and Corinna would drive down from Big Sur and began to find Montecito interesting. “So we thought,” she continues, “well, you know, maybe Montecito.”

In Montecito, Corinna did the interior of a Tuscan villa on Cowles Road and renovated and decorated a stone carriage house on Ashley Road she and Larry purchased for themselves. She then spent nearly four years planning, designing, and buying English antiques for a local couple’s home, “until it was sold to Oprah Winfrey,” Corinna recounts ruefully, “who had her own designer.”

Afterwards, Corinna decided it wasn’t good to get that involved in someone else’s dream. “It was pretty devastating,” she says, and the incident caused her to question whether she wanted to continue investing emotionally that much in the design business.

She now designs and creates jewelry full-time and expects to continue doing so “until I’m ninety years old.”

Corinna, who has been on the board of directors of the Breast Cancer Resource Center in Santa Barbara since its inception eight years ago, no longer lives in Montecito. She and Larry sold their home on Ashley Road and have moved into a 1,600-square-foot condominium just off lower State Street.

One can make an appointment to examine the Spenderella line in a private showroom by calling 963-9909 or go to the website: www.spenderella.com. Many pieces are on display at Saks Fifth Avenue on State Street in Santa Barbara under the name Corinna Gordon Jewelry.