When her son died tragically at 17, Elizabeth channeled her grief into ELLA Designs, making and selling beautiful jewelry pieces, with 50% of the profits going to bipolar research.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in Oak Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. I have a twin sister, Eve, who lives in Highland Park, IL and a younger sister, Joanne, who lives in Vancouver, Canada. I am married to Brian Guz, a urologist, and we live in Franklin, Michigan.
I attended the University of Michigan, where I received a BA in psychology in 1983, then continued on to graduate with an MBA in 1985 from the Ross Business school, also at the University of Michigan. I met my husband, Brian, in high school, but we didn’t start dating until we were both in college together. We married after graduate school (he went to medical school) and moved to Cleveland, where he did his Urology residency at the Cleveland Clinic for five years.
I got a job as a Product Manager at American Greetings, working on many product lines including calendars, candles, and seasonal products. It was a great job. After Brian finished his residency, we moved back home to Detroit. We had just had our first child, David, and I opted not to work; I wanted to stay at home and raise my kids. I had Michael and Lauren a few years later and was a full-time mom. We lived in an apartment in Southfield for the first year after we returned, then bought a house in Huntington Woods, where we lived for six years, and then moved to Franklin where we still live today.
I was very busy for many years with my kids. When they were all in school, I took some classes in interior design and did some private work for a while. When my middle son, Michael, was entering adolescence, he became very anxious and depressed. He had always had those tendencies, but they became worse over time. It was an extremely difficult and heartbreaking time for us; the next few years were spent trying to do what we could to help Michael. At the end of his junior year in high school, in June 2009, Michael died of a drug overdose. He was 17. We were devastated.
How did you cope with this tragedy?
Dealing with Michael’s death was extremely difficult. We are extremely close and the thing we had feared most had happened. We went to grief therapy individually and a few times as a family. We talked about Michael a lot and I made sure that my kids knew that we have to continue living and thrive because that’s what Michael would have wanted for us.
After Michael died, I found out about the Prechter Bipolar Research Fund at the University of Michigan Depression Center. They were doing groundbreaking research in the field of bipolar disorder, which we believe Michael had. I started the Michael Guz Memorial Fund, which was a part of the Prechter Bipolar Research Fund. I also met with Wally Prechter, who started the fund in memory of her husband Heinz, an automotive executive (he invented the sunroof) who took his own life about 15 years ago after suffering from bipolar disorder. I became friends with Wally and helped out with some fundraising events. I also joined the Advisory Board of the Prechter Fund and started to help raise awareness about the disease.
Around that time, Judith Burdick, my daughter’s grief therapist after Michael died, was making a documentary called Transforming Loss and she asked if I would be in her film. The film focuses on seven people from Michigan who dealt with the untimely deaths of family members, how they coped and were “transformed” through their loss. It is a very inspirational movie. It was also the first time I spoke candidly and openly about Michael and his suffering. It was a very difficult time for me, but also helped my grieving process. I found that many people opened up to me to share their own stories and the stories of loved ones who suffered or are suffering from similar problems.
I still wanted to do more to raise awareness and money for bipolar research. My youngest child, Lauren, was going to college soon and I needed to decide what I wanted to do with my time. I play tennis and other racket sports, work out, and play bridge and canasta, but I knew that wouldn’t be enough.
What is your next act?
I started ELLA Designs Jewelry in 2013 when I was 53. My daughter Lauren, who was a senior in high school, helped me initially before she went to college (University of Michigan) the following year. ELLA Designs donates 50% of all profits to the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund. Our motto is “Help Find a Cure for Bipolar Disorder, One Link at a Time.”
I find interesting pendants or chains and put them together in my own design. Sometimes I take chains and other pieces to make earrings, or mix different chains and beads, adding a pendant to make a necklace. Other times I try to have different ways that a piece can be worn: Some of the necklaces can be worn at different lengths, wrapped and doubled, and even worn as a bracelet. Some of the pieces have magnetic connectors, which are easy to put on. Many of the magnetic bracelets can also be attached together to make chokers or longer necklaces.
Many of the pendants have meanings—scarab beetle, Buddha, crystal, etc.—so I made small written cards that explain the meaning behind the piece; I include them in the gift bag. For example, the scarab beetle means rebirth. People like to buy things that have a meaning behind them and it helps to have a little card that explains it. I have had a lot of success with my crystal necklaces and Buddhas, and I am making new things all the time and finding new items that people like. Last year, I started making leather bracelets with magnetic clasps that have sold very well and appeal to many people.
I get ideas from everywhere. Sometimes I see something in a magazine or just play with the chains and pendants in my work area and try different looks. I work upstairs in our house, where the kids’ bedrooms are, and we have a loft area where there is a TV. No one is home anymore, so I have a lot of room to myself to make a mess and experiment.
Making the jewelry is very relaxing for me. I tend to work on the jewelry in the late afternoon. It’s that time of the day that there is not a lot to do and I love going upstairs, putting on the TV, and making jewelry. If my husband has a meeting and doesn’t come home for dinner, it can be hours before I realize what time it is. I love it!
I also make many of my own jewelry displays. I buy lumber, have it cut, get steel rods, and build stands that work well with my jewelry.
We sell through holiday boutiques, luncheon events, and private home or office parties, as well as online. The website shows many of the pieces and also gives information about the Prechter Fund. Since the inception of ELLA Designs 4½ years ago, we have donated $148,000 to the fund from ELLA Designs. I believe that people have also made their own donations after hearing about the fund. I am honored to be a part of that and to bring much-needed awareness about this devastating illness. I just set up an endowment fund to help fund the stem cell research in honor of Michael’s would-be 25th birthday on March 27, 2017, and we went to see the lab and the amazing stem cell research they are doing to help find treatments and cures for bipolar disorder.
In September 2015, I received the 2015 Woman of Vision award from the National Council of Jewish Women. This award honors “a woman who contributes her knowledge, resources, and skills for the betterment of the community.” I was the first recipient of the award. This year, I presented the award to the second award winner. Jenna Bush was the guest speaker at the event; I met her and gave her some jewelry, which she wore that day and took home with her.
My business keeps me busy and provides a great way for me to support a cause which I am passionate about. I feel a special connection to my son, Michael, by doing this and feel that it has also been an amazing way to connect with people on a personal level whom I would never have before. Strangers feel comfortable talking to me about their own struggles, and those of their loved ones, who are suffering from mental illness; I listen and try to give them hope and resources.
I am often contacted by people who have passed my name on to others who need help or somewhere to turn when they are dealing with bipolar illness. I also have handouts available about the Prechter Bipolar Research Fund when I sell the jewelry and give it to people who want information. My business cards also include information about the fund and have contact information for people who want to donate or find more about it.
I am also on the Board of Directors of Kadima, a non-profit mental health agency that provides residential and support services for children and adults with mental illness in Oakland County (Michigan).
Why jewelry? How did you get started?
I wasn’t very artistic growing up, but I loved art and my favorite courses in college were Art History. Over the years, I would make little necklaces or necklace holders for my sunglasses. When my kids had school projects, I LOVED it. I would really work hard on them and sometimes I even let them help me. Haha…
One day, I went to a store where a jewelry designer was promoting her jewelry. It was beautiful. I went home and thought about what she was doing and thought I could do that too. I thought it would be fun if I made my own pieces to sell and donated a large portion of the profits to bipolar research. I started taking apart some of my own jewelry that I no longer wore and recreated them by putting them with different chains and making unique combinations. It was relaxing and therapeutic.
My daughter Lauren helped me at the beginning since she was still a senior in high school. We named the company ELLA Designs using the first two letters of our first names: ELizabeth and LAuren.
I began buying chains and attending jewelry shows. I would even find interesting pieces when I traveled. After spending some time making my first ”collection,” we had an open house at our home, where we invited a lot of friends. It was very successful. I started making more pieces, mainly necklaces and bracelets, and selling them at local holiday boutiques, events, and private open houses in people’s homes or offices. The jewelry was very well received and people loved that 50% of all the profits go toward funding vital research for bipolar disorder.
I have tried to have a wide range of price points so everyone can afford something. Most of the earrings are $35 and the necklaces and bracelet range from $40 to around $400, with an average price range of $100-$200. Most of the jewelry is made from base metals, but I do have some diamond pieces as well. I like to have a range of things that will appeal to all ages and budgets.
While people really like the jewelry, there is a lot of competition in the field. A big part of my success is because I donate so much of the profits to a cause that affects so many people. It is amazing to me how many people who are looking at the jewelry at an event or open house stop to tell me about their own struggles, or those of a loved one who suffers from mental illness. They want to support the cause and when they find a piece they love, it has more meaning to them because they know it is supporting something great and I think they feel my passion for what I am doing.
This has been a very life changing and interesting journey for me. I am a private person and never thought I would end up being in the public eye. When Michael died, I knew I had to be strong for my family, but I also knew I wanted to make a difference for other people who struggle with bipolar disorder. I guess things happen for a reason. I plan to continue growing ELLA Designs and raising awareness about bipolar disorder and the research, which is being done to help people live productive lives.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My family and friends were extremely supportive of the business and the charity behind it. They have bought a lot of my jewelry for themselves and given pieces as gifts. Many have had open houses at their homes or offices and I get a lot of referrals from people I know. Sari Cicurel is a publicist and has helped me get a lot of press (firstname.lastname@example.org). I knew Sari through mutual friends and she offered her help after I began my jewelry business. A few years ago, I never even knew what a publicist did! She has been an amazing support, helping me book shows and get press attention. I have met so many great people through this and I have made many new and great friends that I would never have met if I didn’t start this business. It has been an amazing and life-changing experience.
I have a fantastic husband, Brian, and great kids who have been extremely supportive and they are proud of me. Now that my kids are older—David just graduated medical school this May 2017 and will be starting his residency in anesthesia; Lauren just graduated this April from University of Michigan—I have a lot more time to work on my own business. I think this was the perfect time for me. I don’t think I could have done it when they were young and in the house. I was too busy being a mom. My husband and I do eat a lot of pizza these days because I don’t cook as much as I used to. Brian’s been a great support throughout this journey and he likes pizza, so it works out.
What challenges did you encounter?
The biggest challenge is that because each piece is unique, and made by me, it can be difficult to keep the pieces displayed online up to date and in stock. I can usually recreate a piece, but sometimes there are slight variations.
Another challenge is taking photos of the jewelry for the website. I am not a good photographer and often struggle with that area. Because I would rather give more money to the charity, I take the pictures myself rather than hiring a photographer. I do the best I can.
I always need people to help me sell at events. Setting up, selling, and packing things up again is hard work and time-consuming. I have been very lucky to find a great person, Lisa Clayton, who has been helping me for almost 4 years. I didn’t know her at all but met her when she was helping someone else sell at an event. Others have also offered their help. My son Michael’s best friend helps out when she can. They were very close and I have gotten to know her in a way that I never did before. She often talks about Michael and I have learned things about him through her. It has been a gift.
My website can be a challenge as well. That is definitely not my strength but I am learning and have help with that. I have an MBA from Michigan so I understand the business side, but the technology part is harder for me.
I am also working on improving my social media presence to reach a wider audience. That is becoming a new focus and challenge. I met a great graphic and web designer, Jessica Rosengard, who helps me with that side of the business. She updates and maintains my website and helps promote me on Facebook and Instagram. She has also become someone I can call anytime with a website or computer issue. We are trying to find new ways to promote the business and make people know about ELLA Designs and the cause it is supporting.
I do have an accountant who helps me once in a while with Quickbooks, but most of that I do myself. It is very important to have people that you can rely on to help, especially in the areas where I am not as knowledgeable. It is my business, but I can’t do everything myself and I have found it is vital to have people around me that can help me when I need it.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I feel that I have grown as a person and gained a new perspective on life. I don’t “sweat the small stuff” anymore and try to appreciate what I have. I am also a lot stronger than I thought, having dealt with one of the most heartbreaking challenges, losing a child, and coming through it the best I could. I also hope it has shown my other two children, David and Lauren, that you can survive difficult situations. Life is not easy and there are a lot of bumps in the road, but you have control of how you handle them.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Don’t be afraid to try something new. It may not work out, but you will never regret trying. You WILL regret not trying. Find something you feel passionate about and make it happen.
If you’re interested in launching a jewelry business, start slowly. I did not invest a lot of money into jewelry and supplies until I had sold some pieces. I never went into debt. I was not comfortable with that and, by starting out slow, I was never in a risky financial position. It made it much easier and less scary.
What resources do you recommend to others with a family member struggling with mental illness, including bipolar disease?
University of Michigan Depression Center
National Network of Depression Centers
The Balanced Mind Foundation
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
International Bipolar Foundation
Michigan Mental Health Commission
Mental Health America
Canadian Mental Health Association
National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Institute of Mental Health
America’s Mental Health Channel
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
BP Magazine – Hope and Harmony for People with Bipolar
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance online home for wellness
Partnership for Workplace Mental Health – A Program of the American Psychiatric Foundation
United States Department of Veterans Affairs
What’s next for you and ELLA Designs?
Since ELLA Designs is still relatively new and growing, I am hoping to keep increasing my customer base and exposure. I am currently selling in 3 stores in Detroit and 2 in Chicago and hoping to increase that number. I’m also doing open houses in the Detroit area, and sometimes in Cleveland and Chicago. I hope to continue to grow the business and keep making a contribution toward helping increase awareness about the disease of bipolar disorder while raising much needing funding to continue research—and eventually, find a cure for this devastating disease.
Contact Elizabeth Guz at email@example.com