Chicago's Hidden Gem: Discovering Ellie Thompson

Allison Duncan

From left to right: John Walcher, Ellie Thompson, Ashley Chan at SOiree CHICago 2011 at Ellie Thompson + Co. || Photo by Steve Starr

Mayor Richard M. Daley launched the Fashion Council Chicago initiative in April of 2006 as a way to establish Chicago as a fashion destination, and it has been a driving force in the city’s fashion scene ever since. Local designer Ellie Thompson has been involved in the Council’s Fashion Focus Week the past few years, participating in shopping events, designer launches, and promotions. This year, Thompson paired with designer Thierry Roger for Soiree Chicago, a shopping event at her studio overlooking Millennium Park.

“We are a great match,” says Thompson. “His clothing is classic with a twist, and my jewelry is similar: classic silhouettes with interesting details that make it special. Putting my jewelry on models wearing his clothing makes a great impact.” Thompson felt the event was a great success, showing Chicago’s commitment to supporting local designers and boutiques.

Thompson chose to work in Chicago after completing a graduate program at the Gemological Institute of America. Searching for a new place to live, she came to Chicago with no money and no contacts, just a love for the city. After meeting with the Chicago-based head of alumni from the Gemological Institute, she was offered a job, which led to Thompson opening her own business only two years later.

“The most difficult part about being a new designer is getting the word out in the media and finding new customers,” says Thompson. “Never underestimate your social capital. Once I had a handful of new clients, the referrals from them built my business. The challenge is getting critical mass, and it takes time and patience.” Now, twenty years later, Thompson is a household name in the Chicago fashion scene.

In 2009, Thompson was selected by The Field Museum to produce two necklaces to be featured in the Grainger Hall of Gems, which is a permanent collection in the museum. She has also won several design competitions throughout the past few years; however, Thompson feels that having a thriving business in Chicago is the greatest accomplishment of all.

Thompson is known for taking inspiration from Chicago itself. Her American Metaphor collection was inspired by Midwest prairie flowers, and her collection of stacking rings is based on the Neoclassical architecture of Chicago. “I am truly a Chicago designer,” Thompson says.

Another major source of inspiration for Thompson are her clients, as she also does custom work. Her work created for clients is reflective of their style, rather than her own. Her clients range in age from working women around age 20 to women in their 70s. Thompson describes them as very successful women who have their own careers and are self-assured. They want jewelry to work as part of their style and to work well from day to evening. Thompson believes her jewelry can be worn with jeans and a t-shirt, but also with a suit or a dress for work.

“I most enjoy designing rings because the parameters are set and specific,” says Thompson. “Having parameters to dictate your choices is often very helpful for a designer.” Thompson believes a great ring is important, as it is something you can personally enjoy everyday, unlike earrings or a necklace, for which you need a mirror to see.

“Personally, my most treasured piece of jewelry is my engagement ring from my husband,” says Thompson. “I did not design it, so I am sure he felt a lot of pressure to create a ring. It’s a wonderful piece of art, both unusual and sculptural, made of 18k gold and diamonds. We’ve been married 19 years.”

Thompson goes on to explain that she enjoys creating all types of jewelry from the hinges on cuff bracelets to making a pendant someone will wear close to his/her heart. Each type, she says, brings its own challenges, promises, and opportunities.

“In terms of wearing jewelry, you have to go with your own style and be aware of visual communication,” says Thompson. “The choices you make about what you wear send strong subliminal messages. In general, I’d say wear a great statement piece, and the rest should be quieter.”

Thompson’s collections are full of statement pieces, and she releases new collections every year or so. Thompson expands on each collection as time goes by, and in the future she plans to stay in her gallery overlooking Millennium Park, to continue to work with clients, and to keep doing what she does best.

Although she explains that the design industry is not an easy industry to work in, she believes that if you persevere and are really passionate about what you do, all the pieces will fall into place. “You, too, can be an overnight success after twenty years,” Thompson jokes.

When Thompson started as a designer in Chicago, the jewelry industry was not thought of as a part of the fashion industry. Even today, most jewelers do not view themselves as part of that community. She has embraced the fashion industry as a way to differentiate herself from other jewelers. It is a visionary route that has paid off handsomely for Thompson.

Thompson leaves us with a few words of wisdom, “As a business owner it is important to figure out what is an opportunity and what is a distraction. Try to follow your opportunities, take advantage of them, and to not get bogged down by the distractions.” Rest assured, Thompson’s opportunities will only continue to grow in the future.

You can see Thompson’s work at her gallery, located at 8 S. Michigan.