Young Jewelry Designer Creates Art with Antiques

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Caitlin Whelan in her studio recently. — Photo by Sara Hall

Caitlin Whelan has always had a love for all things artistic, organic and antique.

She turned her passions into a business a few years ago when she started Little Relics, a Newport Beach based antique jewelry line of recycled, repurposed and hand-made pieces. All the pieces are one of a kind and are romantically and organically inspired.

She was just 15 when she started designing jewelry, created her business and started selling her work at home and trunk shows.

“I definitely inherited that love of old pieces and re-purposing things and the history that goes behind antiques (from my mom),” Whelan said.

Her mother, Donna, is an interior decorator and has been taking Caitlin to estate sales, flea markets, antique shops and anywhere else they can think to go, since she was little. They’d hunt for furniture for Donna and jewels, beads, pendants, lockets and other pieces for Caitlin.

“She’s been coming with me (on the hunt) since she was little,” Donna Whelan said.

The hunt is half the work, both mother and daughter agreed.

“It’s an art in itself,” the young designer said. “It’s really satisfying when you find that one (great) piece.”

She has a very keen eye, her mother said, and a real talent for designing jewelry.

She began with trunk and home shows every so often and it evolved and expanded with more and more shows until she opened up the studio on Mariners Mile in November. She’ll be introducing new summer white pieces on July 15.

Most of her designs are necklaces and bracelets, but she has also created a few earrings as well. The earrings are harder since she has to find matching pieces

She also does custom work, using customer’s own pieces of jewelry and creates a new, yet still unique, item.

“It’s antique with a modern flair,” Donna Whelan said.

The individual centerpieces that she finds are one-of-a-kind already, so she couldn’t reproduce an exact copy of one even if she wanted to.

What makes them even more unique, and turns them into a Caitlin Whelan one-of-a-kind, are the add-ons, like beads, bands, chains and other pendants, that she spends hours putting together.

“One of the biggest philosophies that I have is the whole concept of creating every piece as an original and as a one of a kind piece,” she said. “Other than a few of the lower-priced items, like the white shell bracelets, I don’t replicate anything. Ever.”

It has also been a bit difficult, her mother added, because she can’t mass produce items. It’s very laborious for her, she added, to create one of a kind pieces. She spends hours making each necklace or bracelet unique.

“That’s the beauty of the piece and the drawback,” Donna Whelan said.

Designing jewelry is a creative outlet for her, she said.

“Even if no one else cared, it’s really important to me to be creating something that’s original and one of a kind,” Caitlin Whelan said. “That’s part of the reason why it’s so fulfilling for me.”

It’s much more about creating something and having that finished work of art as opposed to making trendy jewelry, she said. This just happens to be the medium she uses.

“I’ve always been doing something creative,” she said.

Whelan wears surprisingly little jewelry herself. She’s not an everyday jewelry wearer, she said, it’s more for when she dresses up or special occasions. Her personal style is simple.

“It’s always hard to explain to people,” she said. “I can live without jewelry, I can’t live without having an artistic thing that I’m doing, a creative outlet.”

She does save a few pieces for herself, she said, a few favorites that she may never want to sell.

She has been selling more and more as her business grows. Little Relics has become more popular than ever and people really love her jewelry because of it’s uniqueness.

“I’ve really found that [using unique antique pieces] is successful,” she said. “People really gravitate toward that and love to have something that.. no one else has.”

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