Rocksteady: Be Buddha’s Erin Leary on the Art of Consistency

Written by Amanda Harth

Photography by Felton Kizer

I met Erin at Navy Pier about four summers ago. There was a fashion show taking place on a yacht one evening and EVERYONE in Chicago’s fashion clicks showed up. Due to the overwhelming turnout the organization that hosted the affair was not able to accommodate everyone, so they left the dock without most of the RSVPs (they like got up from check-in while people were still walking up and got on the boat. Didn’t make an announcement, just got up and walked onto the boat LOL.) It turned into a mini networking session with everyone that was left behind. I was talking to friends and ended up chatting with this designer when she noticed my earrings.

She said “Oh my God! You’re wearing my earrings!”

“Oh you’re the designer of Bebuddha?! What’s your name?”

“Erin! It’s so nice to meet you!”

The earrings were a gift out of a swag bag from one of Anastasia Chatzka’s fashion show. They were small matted black skulls with a gold spike at the top of the skull. They we’re the type of earrings you put on when you want to give your look a bit more edge.

We took a picture and chatted more about her brand and what she’s been working on for that year. As the head designer of Be Buddha Jewelry Erin Leary has done a great job of staying on the scene and on the minds of jewelry lovers. With her new collection releasing this month we talked with Erin about her creative process and the challenges of being a hustler in Chicago’s fashion scene.

AH: How long have you been designing jewelry?

EL: Oh God it seems like forever!  About 12 year ago (I was a sophomore in college), I started making and designing jewelry for myself.  My volition to create jewelry was due in part to the fact that I wanted things (necklaces, earrings, bracelets, etc) that I could not find in stores.  The other part was that I was a broke college kid with caviar taste on a canned tuna budget, if you know what I mean.

I was wandering through the streets of Madison and discovered a bead store that reeked of patchouli, incense, and body odor.  That is where is where it all began. Pretty soon, friends and family started asking me to make them jewelry too.


AH: Where do you source your materials?

EL: In the early days, I bought from local bead stores in Madison or Chicago.  As I started to travel, when I was 20 years old, I picked up stones, findings, and other random oddities from wherever I found myself.  This really excited me because when I brought them back my customers were so interested in the story and origin of the stones.

I’ve had friends pick up stones for me from Greece, Hong Kong, and China but for the most part I have wholesales vendors that I work with that are located all over the world.

AH: What does your creative process consist of, when you’re designing a new piece or collection?

EL: I am not a classically trained metalsmith or designer so I have a pretty unorthodox design process.  I never sketch or draw anything, I don’t use any CAD programs- I go straight to creating. I usually have already designed and made the piece in my head but when I actually create it, details may change.  If I run into trouble on a design, I sort of just work with or around it or start over. I typically create a sample of a piece where I work out all the design kinks before I go into production.

AH: What was the first piece you ever designed?

EL: I can’t remember my first piece, it was probably hideous though!  I did go back to when I first got instagram and attached a pic of something I made in 2013- oddly enough that bracelet is still  in my BaseCollection and is a best seller!

AH: What was your inspiration for your summer collection?

EL: I definitely can’t take credit for this one.  I was trying to think of something to make my brother’s girlfriend for Christmas.  She has great style, but I never know what to get her because she is very minimalistic and if you know me, you know I am the opposite!  I asked my brother what kind of things she might like and he mentioned they had some plants in their apartment and she liked the monstera leaf.  So, I decided to make her a pair of monstera leaf earrings. Haha- talk about creativity! Both of us posted them to instagram and got great feedback so I decided to add them to my BaseCollection.

AH: In Chicago, what's the best part about being a accessories designer?

EL: Hm, this is a hard question!  It’s very easy to look at Chicago and lament about the lack of the “fashion industry”.  We are not known as a fashion capital which can be hard when trying to launch a brand that is fashion forward.  Chicago may not be on the cutting edge but there are lots of indie designers/ entrepreneurs (jewelry, fashion, etc) here doing their thing and crushin it- the boys over at 2048.c, my girl Alison at avrocomy, and you guys here at Runway, to name a few.  My favorite part of being a designer here is connecting with these fellow hustlers and being inspired to keep on the grind.

AH: When you chose to become a designer who were some of the brands you wanted to model your company after (if any)?

EL: I have always prided myself and my brand on being different so I didn’t necessarily look to other brands.  I did however look to other designers- mostly clothing and apparel (I am a fashion junkie). Alexander McQueen was and continues to a huge influence for me.  He was making stuff that no one had ever seen before every season! I want to do that for jewelry and accessories.

AH: As an independent designer what has been some of the greatest lessons you’ve learned?

EL: Too many to list here- ha!  I think one of the biggest lessons I learned the hard way was not to say yes to everything.  In the early days, I would say yes to every event, every collab, and I would give free jewelry to anyone with an instagram. It took me a while to realize that not only do most of these things not make sense from the branding and messaging stand point but they also don’t pay off.  Now, I am much more selective with my time and where I put my energy.

AH: What’s next for you Erin?

EL: Well, I had a little hiatus from BeBuddha this past year because I started a new full time job.  This year I am re-focusing my efforts on the company and hopefully bringing it to a new level!


Amanda Harth