Everyday Icons: The Designer With A Cause

Want a kick in the pants? Read our inspired interview with jewelry designer Diana Warner!

Image Credit: Brian Offidini

Diana Warner is a 30-something artist and jewelry designer who launched a career directly inspired by her brother's battle with cancer. What she didn't realize along the way is how her experience would launch herself - and thousands of others - into a full, rich personal transformation. Read on to hear the story of sweet, dedicated and tenacious Diana Warner, today's Everyday Icon:

You have a background in art, but are now a successful jewelry designer in New York. Was there a specific moment you recall feeling led to pursue jewelry design, or has your path to DWNY been organic and winding?

I have been making jewelry and small objects my entire life. My great grandparents made miniatures and my grandmother collected jewelry. When I was a kid, playing at Gammy’s house (grandma) she would hand me large freezer bags of what seemed to be magical costume jewelry. On the floor of her den I would “set up jewelry stores” and take pieces apart and recreate new ones.

When I went to college, I trained in fine arts, oil painting and drawing. My ability in sculpture and ceramics class was lacking, but somehow I could still make beautifully sought after small pieces of jewelry. I made jewelry as a hobby in school until my professors found my bead box and stacks and stacks of Vogue, Town and Country and Harpers. They actually felt that my “hobby” was taking away from my painting.

I managed to put down the jewelry for a couple weeks and walk away from the fashion magazines, but then I could not escape it - the subject of my paintings became jewelry, fashion, shoes, the women in my fashion magazines.

Nervous to show my first round of these new paintings in the gallery critique, I hung them, sat down and waited for my professor to yell. Instead, artist Michael Brakke, began to clap. The sound of Michael’s large, worn hands clapping, gave me permission to exhale, I was not going to be kicked out of art school. Instead, he proclaimed “these paintings are the best you have ever done; these paintings look just like you.”

Post-graduation I picked back up the jewelry, and my first client was the Knoxville Museum of Art. Many of the staff had previously purchased my paintings, and now they could purchase what I called “my small quick paintings” - aka my jewelry.

You've been helping your brother fight his battle with leukemia for a few years now. What has been the most difficult part of this journey? What advice can you give to others dealing with health concerns and/or family illness?

My brother, Rob, was diagnosed with ALL at the age of 23. I remember exactly where I was standing when he called and asked me to help him get a hold of Mom and Dad. The hardest moment of my life was watching my brother sign his DNR prior to the start of his first hospitalization. The family lawyer came over with paper work. We all sat at the kitchen table and my heart broke into a million pieces. I remember being more afraid that day then the day of a car accident that my family was in that almost took the lives of so many. I think cancer is so scary; you feel powerless against it. Years earlier, when my family was in the accident, at least I knew how to help, I could bathe and feed someone, I could dress wounds. I could watch a healing process. I knew how to pray. With cancer, I was lost. Very often you won’t see cancer until it's really bad or too late. It is a disease that is mind boggling to watch to visual people like me. So with this cancer, I did the only thing I knew I could do - I attempted to support and encourage.

My brother had previously studied in Poland before earning his degree in architecture. There he had made very good friends and one of them was an Italian student named Annalise. When Rob had emailed her about his diagnoses, she emailed back something very simple: “Well, you better fight like the gladiator.”

So, what little money I had during the start of my new company (Diana Warner Studio), I had t-shirts printed with the help/donation of time and services from a sweet friend. With the help of staff, friends and supporters we packaged those shirts and sent them out all over the country with a simple request enclosed, “Wear your shirt, take a photo of you in your shirt in your favorite spot and send the photo back to my brother, Rob.”

My brother’s battle continued, and then reoccurred just a year and a half after he went into remission at the age of 26. By this time my company was located in NYC full time, and one day I answered the phone at my office and two southern (deep southern) voices were on the other end of the line. By now my brother’s fight against cancer was pretty well know via social media and the outpouring of support across the world from my clients was unbelievable. Two women called to tell me they had heard about Rob and wanted to encourage me. They said they were both cancer survivors and that he was going to be one too. I don’t know if I was crying or smiling honestly during this conversation but I know I was soaking up every single word. They went on to ask me if I would make them a necklace that said "F@#% CANCER and suggested that I make them for other people too.

I paused and asked “Can we say it in French?” I explained to them how angry my dirty mouth made my mother and grandmother and that if we said it in French it would still be “ladylike.”

Then the necklace came out, and the orders started coming in and so did the stories. People would come meet me and tearfully tell their stories, or they would come meet me and proudly show their scars. Women fighting cancer would write me and I would send them a necklace. Photos from chemo treatments would surface on the Internet and the woman or man would be holding their Le Cancer Fait Cher necklace up for the camera to see it. Through this project I discovered just how personal every single battle is. How different each story is.

On July 22nd, my brother is going to be turning 31. He has been cancer-free for over 3 years. In this time he attended Yale for his masters in architecture, traveled all over and landed a killer job in NYC. He told me this one-day: “I never thought I was going to die. I did not want to.” Instead we began to cry over what it felt like to watch mom and dad during this time. We cried, and cried and my chair broke…. we left the waitress a large tip for putting up with that, ha!

So my advice to another sibling or daughter or friend watching someone suffer is this:

Think positive thoughts.Do what you know how to do (I knew how to make t-shirts and jewelry) to support them. Laugh (make silly drawings of gladiators, or throw parties in hospitals to watch basketball, always steal ice cream when you can from the snack closet, and make sure you prank the nurses station from the bed phone when you feel up to it). Let their struggles be their own (no one should tell someone how they should deal with cancer, how they should seek treatment, how they should feel). Fear not (do your research, ask questions of the doctors, gather your supporters, answer encouraging phone calls from southern women!). Take care of yourself (get educated on the signs and causes of cancer, get early screenings done). Do not waste cancer. Learn, let it motivate you to change your life, let it motivate you to be more selfless, love more and take better care of yourself. Change your diet, workout daily and learn what causes certain cancers. Let it change you (and others) for the better.

You've mentioned that you want your jewelry to be a part of someone's story. Can you share more about this mission?

The best part of my job is being part of someone’s life. Through jewelry, I get to “be there.” I am in the room when they are getting chemo. I am there when they walk down the aisle or glance at their bridesmaids standing in support of them. I get to be there on anniversaries, graduations, and sometimes as gifts at funerals. I get to be a part of someone’s story that helps him or her express or the person giving it to them express something. This, for me, is what making art is all about, expression through the creation. I save all the cards I get from clients. I save the stories, I take the time to blog about them and highlight them and most often my inspiration for new designs comes from my interactions with clients, or parts of their personal story.

You, yourself, have gone through an incredible personal story of health transformation through weight loss and strength training. What has this transformation taught you about yourself and a human's spirit of resilience?

What many of my “newer” friends or clients don’t know is that at one point in my life I was 76 pounds overweight. The weight gain started after college when I was injured in a car accident in Africa. During that time I was also starting Diana Warner Studio, and shortly after that I was spending most mealtimes at a hospital with my brother. Taking care of others (family or employees or clients) consumed my life, and taking care of myself took a back seat. After my brother’s first diagnosis, I was also involved for nearly three years in a very abusive relationship, afraid and embarrassed to talk about it and get help. I stayed until I could not stay any longer. Within just a few months the first 35 pounds just fell off. Not living in fear anymore felt so light, and I was getting lighter daily.

Eventually my weight loss had really started to taper off. I was still overweight but right around the same time I discovered by the awesome BeachBody staff. They wanted me to do a “test group” for a program called 10 minute trainer, something they thought was perfect for my busy lifestyle.

What I learned during this test group was that I can do anything. Sixty days of discipline and dedication changed my body and it changed my life. I realized I was resilient just like the inspiring children in Africa I had worked with. I was resilient just like my super strong brother who fought cancer, I was resilient just like my clients who had inspired me. All the lies I had heard and believed for years about not being good enough were actually lies. I was good enough to be great. My transformation changed my life, and it changed my career. It taught me to dream big, visualize healthy and to aim for the total life I want, not just the career. It taught me to forgive myself for what I had let my body to become, and what I had let myself believe. In my 30s, I feel the strongest and smartest that I have ever felt.

What are the core values that anchor your days?

I am made perfectly the way that I am, chosen and free.

p.s. Do you feel inspired yet? Go do something great.