Reinventing in San Miguel

How One Jobless American Turned Things Around in Mexico

by Arthur Hoffman
reinventing in San Miguel
In San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Cheryl focused on using her marketing savvy to create a product she could sell
Photograph: International Living

When Cheryl Finnegan lost her job, she considered putting up a fight. She could stay in San Francisco—maybe get back into another firm with another position in corporate marketing. Or she could do something else with her life.

At the age of 39, in the middle of a divorce and with a generous severance package from her former employer, Levi Strauss, Cheryl did just that. She went to Paris at first and spent time enjoying the city and culture. After a few months, she returned to the Americas and to the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Cheryl had heard people talk about San Miguel, and it lived up to its reputation. The town enchanted her, with its beautiful colonial architecture, bohemian vibe, temperate weather, and large community of artists.

As her severance dwindled, Cheryl focused on using her marketing savvy to create a product she could sell. She hit on woven plastic bags, manufactured to her design by inmates of a local prison. The bags were sold in trendy California stores that Cheryl knew from her marketing days.

Each bag had a ring attached that could be used as a key chain. And while the bags sold well, some stores asked if they could have key chains separate from the bags. What marketer would say no?

So Cheryl designed special key chains that incorporated religious iconography she saw around her in San Miguel, such as the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s most popular religious and cultural image. Handmade by local artisans, the key chains sold like proverbial hot cakes, and Cheryl knew she was onto something.

Importantly, Cheryl—who studied business at Loyola University in Chicago—never designed or actually made jewelry herself. She had no training, formal or otherwise, in art or jewelry design. But she “always had a sixth sense about style and design,” she says.

An early mark of Cheryl’s jewelry was that each piece had a story based on her research of religious symbols and her sense of humor. For example, a piece that features Adam and Eve and the apple has a hang tag that says, “They always look better than they taste.”

Story lines gave the pieces a personality and sense of fun. As Cheryl notes, “Who else was doing cool key chains? Tiffany—and they’re not fun.” She insists on fun, and it shows. For example, “We do crazy things, like buy expensive Swarovski crystals, smash them and embed them in resin. Nobody does that, but it’s the only way to get the look I wanted.”

The climate of fun at Virgins, Saints and Angels—the corporate name that came to Cheryl one day—turns deadly serious when quality is involved.

Other companies, she notes, advertise “hand-made” pieces. “What they really mean is hand-polished,” she says. “Our pieces really are completely hand-made by 60 wonderful San Miguel artisans. For example, our belt buckles start as a flat piece of metal. It takes four weeks of intricate handwork by many people to create the finished buckle.”

Evidently customers have noticed, because they enthusiastically pay more than $60 for key chains, $200 for earrings and $400 for belt buckles in the exclusive shops that sell Virgins, Saints and Angels in the United States and 12 other countries. Cheryl’s enthusiastic customers include fashion-leading celebrities like David Beckham, Miley Cyrus, John Galliano, Lindsay Lohan, Madonna, and Maria Shriver.

Not only does Virgins, Saints and Angels have a celebrity following, its designs have attracted the attention of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. This is a nonprofit trade association of North American designers of fashion and accessories, with an exclusive group of about 370 designers who must be voted into membership.

But Cheryl also credits San Miguel de Allende for her success. “The religious symbolism gave me inspiration,” she says. Also, the artisans “are excellent, wonderful to work with, and they know how to think outside the box. Anything you can draw, they can make. Without them, I really don’t know if you could do this.”

And the low cost of living helps, Cheryl says. “Here, I can live very well on $1,500 a month. You cannot do that in the States.”

First Published January 23, 2012

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