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Maya Brenner: A jewel of a career

From social work to jewelry design -- and from employee to her own boss -- Maya Brenner has taken the plunge and applied her intuition to her vocation. Click here to see an interactive gallery of her designs.  

By Lesley Creegan

(CNN) -- Tripping. Falling. Landing on your intuitive assets.

It's all part of shifting career gears. And it's a formula that has turned one New York City social worker into a successful, jewelry designer.

"I knew there was something else I wanted to do," says Maya Brenner, "but I didn't really want to admit it to myself."

But by trading her briefcase and sensible suits for a funkier wardrobe and nose ring, this designer in her 30s now makes her own schedule and is in charge of her own designs. Although one of the biggest pressures is in creating a new line of beautiful jewelry every season, Brenner says she'd do her job for free.

Five years ago, her life couldn't have been more different.

graphic Do you have a hobby you sometimes dream of turning into a full-time venture?

Every minute of every day. Hats off to Maya Brenner for braving it.
I'm not sure. I waffle back and forth on such ideas constantly.
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Working with drug-addicted teens at a Manhattan rehabilitation center initially made her feel fulfilled and accomplished. But a couple of years later, the demands and pressures of the job she once loved had her struggling against the feeling that she needed more.

Still, she couldn't bring herself to jump ship.

"I was like, 'No. This is the field I picked and this is what I'm going to do.'"

In a search for some relaxation, Brenner started a nightly ritual of beading. She was inspired by her creations, and that quickly led to gifts for her family and friends -- and a piece of jewelry to go with an evening outfit.

In an Upper West Side boutique in New York one day, a saleswoman noticed the homemade necklace Brenner was wearing and asked if she could see more of her work.

"I'm like, 'Yeah, yeah, you can see my line.' So I went home and frantically made 10 pieces, kind of variations of the necklace I had."

The store bought and sold her pieces and a business was born.

Baubles, bangles and beads

Although Brenner has no formal training in jewelry design, she says she has always been infatuated with it. Growing up in northern California, she'd spend weekends in Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue neighborhood, browsing street vendors' wares and spending her money on jewelry.

"I would buy tons of stuff and change it or shorten or lengthen it. Add a bead. I was always obsessed."

Here's an interactive look at several of Maya Brenner's designs.  

But she cautions that before you ditch your Palm Pilot and dash out to string your way to fortune, there are a couple of things you should know.

"A lot of people think it's simple," says veteran jewelry designer Roberta Chiarella. "People think they can buy a bunch of beads, string them together and have a business because they've sold to a couple of friends. Maya knows the pulse."

And that "pulse" -- Brenner's aesthetic sense for what was wanted "out there" among clients -- started pushing her toward a difficult choice: Last August, she left social work to become a full-time designer.

"My head wasn't in it," she says of the social work now. "I didn't think that was fair -- to stay and work with kids who really need you to be there. I'd be thinking about an order that I had to complete and I was really frazzled."

She now spends her days working out of the spacious Midtown Manhattan apartment she shares with her boyfriend, a television producer for Howard Stern.

Although Brenner stresses that she never has used celebrity clientele to sell her merchandise, it was a casual conversation on Stern's morning radio program that happened to catch the ear of the accessory manager for trendy New York department store Henri Bendel.

Brenner invited a group of friends -- and friends-of-friends -- to a holiday sample sale party at her apartment, some of whom were from the Stern show. The next morning, as the jewelry was discussed on the radio show, Bendel manager Samantha Conca contacted the show, trying to reach Brenner. A few audition-like "trunk shows" later, Henri Bendel started carrying her line.

While that twist of retail fate may have gotten Brenner going, it's her talent she relies on now to keep up with demands for inventory in more than 30 shops and department stores across the country.

"The business is making money, so I must be doing something right."

Self-employment didn't come naturally, Brenner says.

"I'm not business-minded at all. I keep my own financial records, which I'm so bad about."

She manages payroll for her free-lance staff of four, checks invoices, stocks her supplies and makes contacts with her sales reps and vendors. She does have an accountant to see her through tax time, but admits she'd love to have someone take over the books, so she could concentrate solely on her designs.

"My boyfriend lectures me all the time about becoming a better business woman and I'm trying, but the business is making money, so I must be doing something right."

And she does worry about the financial consequences of her career. "I still have my retirement account from my previous job and plan on letting it accrue for many years, but since leaving full-time work, I haven't contributed any additional funds. I get insecure about the financial aspects about this kind of work, but I wouldn't trade it for all the 401(k)s."



• Maya Brenner
• Henri Bendel

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