In this installment of Lesson from their Lives, an occasional series of interviews with iconic New Orleanians, Sharon Litwin talks with New Orleans artist and jeweler, Mignon Faget. To hear the interview at WWNO public radio, click here.
What makes an artist into an entrepreneur? Well, for one of the South’s great jewelry designers, it was the step from creating slightly funky but popular hippie-age clothing to the recognition that she could make a much better living designing and selling fine jewelry.
It’s almost a half century since Mignon Faget stepped out on her own opening a retail store in the Riverbend area of Carrollton that sold both her clothing and jewelry. Born into a French Creole Catholic family, Mignon, now in her 81st year, still lives in the house she grew up in along Bayou St. John. It was there that Mignon’s mother made the clothes that the pre-teen Mignon designed for the many after-parochial-school social activities she and her friends attended. “She was a saint,” Mignon says of her mother who put up with her daughter’s even-then exacting sense of design.
A graduate of Newcomb College, with an art degree and a concentration in sculpture, Mignon had early escaped the confines of her traditional Creole family by living in Paris for a year, studying with a group from her alma mater. She admits she didn’t go to many classes, preferring to hang out in cafes, visit museums and travel across Europe. “I was a different person after that year,” she recalls.
Knowing her father would not agree with her wish to stay in France and, worse, would cut off her allowance, Mignon decided to take the civil service exam and go to work at the American Embassy in Paris. “I took the exam and failed,” she says ruefully. “It was a little embarrassing. But there it was.”
So back home she came, to the still somewhat-isolated New Orleans of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. She met a young man from Maryland. He lived in the French Quarter, played banjo and frequented local jazz clubs. They married, had three children and Mignon continued designing, making and selling clothing.
When at Newcomb, Mignon had learned how to make molds and caste objects, so she knew she could make jewelry. Bewitched by the shapes of sea, particularly shells, she decided to create her first silver pieces; pendants hanging from leather strips.
“So I melted down some of my wedding presents, mostly bonbon dishes,” she says with a laugh at the recollection. “I was not the bonbon dish type. It was perfect, actually, since I put them to use. I never throw anything away.”
It was when her marriage failed that Mignon decided she needed to be more serious about selling both the clothes and the jewelry. “People were really interested in the jewelry and I would sell it as fast as I made it,” she says. “I had a hard time parting with those things. It was a sacrifice to sell them. But I had to. I had rent to pay.”
Then Mignon met up with Abbeville native Charlotte Norman who had moved back to New Orleans from New York. Charlotte took over the business side and Mignon stuck to designing. They ditched the clothing lines and she concentrated on the jewelry. With the help of friendly bankers, the business expanded into major retail stores and select shopping centers.
And the rest, as they say, is history.