Alicia Keys and the barber's daughter

The famous singer is behind a Toronto jewellery maker’s fairy-tale success story

Alicia Keys and the barber's daughterGisèle Theriault’s life reads like a fairy tale: a barber’s daughter from Cape Breton takes a talismanic necklace of gold and rubies to a glittering ball attended by superstars and a former U.S. president. There’s even a fairy godmother—Alicia Keys. Theriault was operating a modest solo business out of her Toronto home, handcrafting silver jewellery engraved with inspirational messages, when she met Keys backstage at a concert last year. The pop diva took the jeweller under her wing, and since then Oprah Winfrey has been wearing her work. Theriault now has five employees and shares a New York publicist with Keys and the late Michael Jackson. This month Keys launched an enterprise called AK Worldwide, making her protege’s jewellery line its pilot project. And last week at the Black Ball—a star-studded Manhattan gala to raise money for children with AIDS—Theriault saw a necklace that she created auctioned off for US$40,000. She had hoped it would go for more, but had a big consolation. The buyer was Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry.

A few days before the Black Ball, Theriault sat in the sun-splashed kitchen of her home—a three-storey semi that doubles as the headquarters for her company, the Barber’s Daughter—and served a slice of vegan pumpkin pie and flowering tea. As a jasmine bloom opened like a sea anemone in a glass teapot, she confessed that, after working until 4:30 a.m. to finish the necklace for the ball, she had a dream that it sold for $100,000. “I govern myself by dreams,” she says, and her subconscious appraisal wasn’t so far-fetched. For last year’s Black Ball, she made a silver necklace that sold for US$25,000. This one is far more lavish, and made of 18-karat gold.

It’s an exquisite piece. Seven rows of ribbon chain flow over the collarbone in an Egyptian style, joined by a clasp that’s a gold tablet engraved with a message signed by Theriault: “Our deepest wealth lives within the heart. To truly live it is to give it.” The tablet opens to reveal a hidden compartment with an inscription authored by Alicia Keys: “Always shine your light on the world.” But the revelation comes when the wearer turns around. Falling from the nape of the neck to the small of the back is a swing ladder of fine gold rope, with three inscribed rungs and two strands of rubies. Grazing the spine like a pigtail, it cries out for a backless dress. The design, says Theriault, is a yoga-inspired touch to remind the wearer to walk tall.

For the Black Ball, she also created silver dog tags engraved with a line from Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” They were given to VIP guests, including Bill Clinton, Sir Richard Branson, Chris Martin, and Jessica Alba. Theriault likes to stress that her work “is not about the bling.” She identifies with a growing movement called Sacred Commerce—also the title of two recent books about synchronizing spiritual and material wealth. Calling herself part of “a new army of light workers,” she has a sense of mission that puts a spiritual spin on the power of positive thinking. She once made an unsolicited gift for Leonard Cohen—a cracked silver ring engraved with his lyrics: “There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Next, she says, “I’m going to pursue Joni Mitchell.”

The youngest of eight children raised by Acadian parents in a Cape Breton village, Theriault traces her core philosophy back to a childhood trauma. Like many a fairy tale, hers is wrapped around a horror story. She was hit by a drunk driver when she was 10 and was not expected to live. She still recalls having an out-of-body experience in the hospital: “When I let go, there was no gravity and no colour. Everything was light and bright. It was total compassion. When you have that experience, you can’t take anything for granted. Everything is a gift.”

Twice divorced with three children, aged 18 to 31, Theriault has been making jewellery since 1990. She’s also worked as a calligrapher, designed everything from lamps to yoga studios, and served as an image consultant for bands—which is how she and Keys crossed paths. “Her pieces resonated so much with me,” Keys told Maclean’s. “As a lyricist I love the words that are written on them. Every piece has the touch of love in it.” This Halloween weekend, the barber’s daughter will celebrate her 50th birthday at another ball, a private masquerade party in Toronto. But at this rate there seems to be no danger that her Cinderella ride will turn into a pumpkin any time soon.

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