How Jewelry Maker Jill Donovan Turned a Hobby into a New Career

Donovan tried many activities and jobs before her life's quest to find her passion inspired a late-in-life career change. 

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- Posted on May 11, 2018

Jill Donovan

What would you attempt to do to find your life’s purpose?  

It’s a question lawyer-turned jewelry maker Jill Donovan has been asking for most of her life. At nine years old, Donovan made a commitment to pursue a new hobby every year, and jewelry designing was the latest pastime on her list seven years ago. That hobby became her successful jewelry company Rustic Cuff, which she launched out of the tiny guest bedroom in her Oklahoma home back in 2011. Since then, Rustic Cuff has become something of a phenomenon.

Turn on the TV and you might see people like Gayle King sporting her cuffs on the morning news. Join a Facebook group of 44,000 members, all of whom share an obsession with Donovan’s designs and life philosophy, and you’ll begin to understand why her bangles have such a cult following. The chunky beads, leather prints, and embroidered inspirational quotes aren’t the only thing drawing fans to Donovan’s jewelry line, it’s her story, and the message of hope she inspires, that’s really catching on.

In 2001, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wasn’t a good candidate for chemo. I took tamoxifen instead and gave my trouble to God—just as Dr. Peale suggested in his book, "Thought Conditioners". Since then I’ve remained cancer free. -Guideposts Magazine reader

The mother of two never intended for her small hobby to become her life’s passion. In fact, she’d made the commitment to try a new hobby every year as a child because her gymnastics coach made it clear to her that she didn’t have an Olympic-level future in the sport like she’d dreamed.

“I listened [to my coach], and I said, ‘Well, if I can't devote my life to gymnastics then I’m going to try a new hobby every year until I find my passion, my purpose,’” Donovan tells Guideposts.org.

At 10, she spent a year learning Russian. She spent another year playing the harmonica. Ice skating, painting lessons, and a variety of other hobbies soon followed.

At the same time, Donovan was pursuing her legal career. She thought defending the law might be her calling, but soon fell out of love with the courtroom. She tried teaching law at the University of Tulsa, but even that held little interest. She became a mom to daughters Ireland and August and though they kept her busy, Donovan still felt something might be missing from her life.

“I just kept thinking that there's got to be something that I can go to bed on a Sunday night and wake up on a Monday morning and be excited about,” Donovan explains.

One year, Donovan, who watched Oprah Winfrey’s talk show religiously when it was on the air, made it her hobby to try and get to a taping of the show. After plenty of fruitless attempts to score tickets to the show, she saw a call-out for guests to volunteer for an “etiquette-themed” episode. The producers were looking for re-gifters, and Donovan thought she fit the bill.

“I had grown up with parents who were big-time re-gifters, meaning, instead of going to the store to buy a birthday gift for your friend, you'd go to your mom's closet, to all the gifts she had received over the course or her life, and you would have to pick from that closet,” Donovan says.

Those experiences made for some funny stories – like the time she regifted a birthday present to her mother-in-law just one year after the mother-in-law had given the gift to her – that nabbed her a spot on the show. She thought it might be her big break, getting to meet Oprah and possibly try her hand at being on TV since broadcasting seemed to fit with her outgoing personality and love of talking to people.

Instead, Donovan was flown out to a taping in Chicago where she received some brutal criticism from the etiquette experts on the show. They called her regifting hobby “rude,” “tacky,” and suggested she donate her entire linen closet full of gifts to Goodwill.

“Your world just goes into slow motion when you're being humiliated, and that is how it felt at that moment,” Donovan recalls. “I know relative to what other people are going through in life it was minimal, but at that moment in my life it felt like the lowest valley that I had been through.”

The episode aired three times that year to an audience of millions.

“Every time I've watched it, it was worse than what I had remembered,” Donovan says. “I remember going home and emptying my whole re-gifting closet and I said, ‘If this is what doing hobbies or pursuing my purpose, if this is where it got me then I don't ever want to do another hobby again. And I would be okay never [finding] my purpose.’”

It took Donovan five years to make peace with the embarrassing ordeal.

“I was lying in bed and I just thought, ‘I'm going to let it go,’” she says. “And not only that but I'm going to start doing something again to awaken my soul.”

She had worked for American Airlines while putting herself through law school and had made a habit of buying cuffs in every country she visited as a memento of her travels. She thought crafting jewelry that she could gift to friends and family might be a fun way to tap back into her creative side. She taught herself to engrave quotes and names on the bracelets and over the course of a year, began restocking the shelves of her linen closet.

One day, she felt a calling to gift her creations to people she didn’t know.

“I didn’t really want to do that,” Donovan admits. “It's okay to give them to friends and family but when you walk up to a stranger and just go, ‘Here, I'd like to give you a bracelet I made,’ that's awkward.”

Still, she went into her closet, got a handful of cuffs, and decided to wear them in case she felt compelled to give one away. A crowded grocery store served as her first opportunity.

“I saw this girl, one of the cashiers, and that was the line I was supposed to be in,” Donovan recalls. “By the time I got to the front, I thought surely it will be an empty line. There were five people behind me and I thought, ‘Oh this is going to be painful, but I know I have to do it.’ I took off a bracelet and I said, ‘I know this is going to be awkward, but I just feel like I'm supposed to give this to you.’”

The cashier immediately started crying after receiving the bracelet. “Tears would not stop flowing and I said, ‘Are you okay?’ She said, ‘You'd have no way of knowing this, but yesterday I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I was in the doctor’s office I asked God to give me a sign of hope that everything's going to be okay.’ And I looked down and I had given her this pink one [the color of breast cancer awareness and support]. Which was bizarre because I had no idea. And she said, ‘Thank you for being that sign of hope.’”

The experience cemented Donovan’s decision to keep creating the cuffs.

Her company slowly grew to 160 employees over the next three years, with showrooms across the country and Donovan advertised her jewelry by writing to people she admired and gifting them a cuff with an inspirational message. She sent a bracelet to Gail King on a whim and a while later, saw her wearing the cuff on TV.

Not long after, Donovan got a letter in the mail. It was a copy of the March issue of O Magazine with a note from the creative director of the publication.

“It said, ‘Congratulations Jill. Rustic Cuff was chosen to be on the wrist of Oprah for her March issue,’” Donovan says. “It was the cuff that I had gifted to Gayle King that Oprah was now wearing. Whether or not Gayle re-gifted it to her, I don't know exactly, but that was the cuff and that was the full circle moment for me.”

Now, Donovan’s Rustic Cuff has something called a regifting club.

“Every month, people get two cuffs with an inspirational quote on it like, ‘One day at a time,’ or ‘Dream big dreams,’” she says. “They keep one and then the other one I ask them to carry it around their purse for that month and when they find the right person, to re-gift it to that person.”

The practice inspired her new book, The Kindness Effect, where Donovan recounts her journey to starting over and finding her life’s passion and encourages others to do the same. It’s why she asked her Facebook followers the question: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

It’s why she replied to the thousands of responses she got with encouraging words of wisdom, gifts of bracelets, and even ballroom dancing lessons for a little girl who dreamed of dancing competitively.

It’s all part of Donovan’s philosophy of reinvention. She still attempts a new hobby every year though she says she’s finally found her purpose and she hopes others might be encouraged to step out of their comfort zones after hearing her story.

“For me, none of it is wasted,” Donovan says of her life's experiences. “All these tools have helped me finally get to this chapter, this chapter of purpose.”

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