Jewelry designer Nina Berenato has spent a lifetime in preparation to become one of Austin’s most beloved makers. By employing her impressive (and mostly self-taught) skills, tapping a seemingly endless well of inspiration and displaying an insightful and compassionate approach to her community, she’s proving she’s the real jewel.
By Chantal Rice, Photos by Annie Ray, Hair and Makeup by Carin Gonzales
Throughout the long course of time, the connection between women and power has been laced with mysticism, struggle and no little amount of portent. Ancient Romans might make a ritual offering to Fortuna, the goddess of fortune, in hopes of a lucky harvest. Ancient Greeks invoked the goddess Nemesis when longing for divine retribution. In Norse mythology, the Valkyries, the handmaidens of Odin, held immense persuasion over which warriors would be slain in battle. And the foundation of the indigenous Kogi people’s way of life stems from a belief in the creator figure known as The Great Mother. But in 2019 in Austin, Texas, women seeking to emancipate themselves from society’s holds and arm themselves with hand- forged, otherworldly, formidable talismans turn to Nina Berenato.
FORGING THE PATH
Berenato is a maker in the true sense of the word. In her mere three decades on this earth, she has designed and created countless pieces of wearable art, wielding various implements with practiced precision, lionhearted zeal and a startling amount of grace. But despite her designs being influenced by the terrestrial and ethereal planes, the cosmic and the folkloric, her true muse is her customer.
“At the end of the day, I am a maker at my core and I just want to be in there getting dirty making my things. … But the most important thing is for every woman to be able to wear these pieces and feel comfortable,” says Berenato, who began her career in jewelry modestly when apprenticing under a jewelry designer in Brooklyn, N.Y., picking up shaping techniques and construction methods in a slapdash and sometimes chaotic sort of on-the-job training. “Every time I’m creating, it still goes back to what’s visually appealing to me, what in history or in nature is really sparking my interest—that’s kind of where my design eye comes from—but now I’m doing it with way more of a purpose. … We’re telling this brand story and, for me, there’s a heroine in the story, and it’s our customer. It’s not me.”
Much of that purpose evolved out of Berenato’s connection with Austin women in particular. After deciding to move from New York, she turned to market research to determine her career’s next sphere, applying two criteria. She discovered Austin was the city with the most economic growth and the fewest jewelry stores. So, she set her sights on the capital city, setting up a pop-up shop in the unlikely mall setting of Barton Creek Square just in time for the holiday season. But after she experienced a series of disheartening circumstances, a New York friend suggested Berenato connect with another friend, burgeoning public-relations wiz Cara Caulkins. In 2015, while both women were working to launch their own brands, the two became fast friends, with Caulkins even offering up her spare bedroom so Berenato could check out of the Airbnb she’d been inhabiting for a month. (The pair could sometimes be found literally selling Berenato’s jewelry off their own bodies to admirers on the street.) Before long, Berenato purchased and decked out a vintage Airstream trailer and parked it at a more suitable location: Barton Springs Road.
“In terms of starting to create these designs that are specifically used to empower women, that never happened until I got to Austin,” Berenato says, reminiscing about customers visiting her Airstream shop and regaling her with stories about wanting to treat themselves to her jewelry after landing a new job or overcoming various life challenges. “Someone would say, ‘If I’m going into a meeting with all men, I put this ear cuff on because it makes me feel so powerful,’ and I was shocked. It made me feel like I had this power with the jewelry to give something back, and that kind of developed into the jewelry line being more of something of service to the women than just being something I wanted to make. … Austin women have been what launched me into where I am now. I owe the women of Austin everything. Really, I’m thankful for them every day and I’m driven to keep creating for them.”
From Caulkins’ perspective, there was never a doubt Berenato would become successful in Austin.
“One of the things that is so impressive about Nina is her passion for all that she does, especially her business,” Caulkins says. “It literally defines her and she doesn’t stray away from her mission or her direction for her business, no matter what anyone says. I think that is when I knew early on that she would be successful in whatever she puts her mind to. She is determined and passionate.”
PROVING HER METTLE
Born and raised in St. Louis, Berenato always thought she’d become a fashion designer, calling her journey into jewelry a “complete weirdo, falling-into-it situation,” particularly considering she rarely wears jewelry herself. And like many aspects of her life, her calling toward a fashion vocation was driven by her experiences as a child. Self-identifying as “super artsy,” “weird” and a “late bloomer,” Berenato grew up with divorced parents and was mostly raised by her mother, a religious and frugal woman who Berenato says didn’t wish to spend money on such things as sports equipment or trendy clothing. So, the coming-of-age girl spent much time in the library, as well as committing herself to all sorts of crafty enterprises, collecting bugs and developing a secret language between herself and her imaginary friend, Mr. Nobody. By the time she reached high school, attending an academically rigorous girls’ Catholic school in a wealthy neighborhood, she became determined to stand out not by fitting in and wearing what other girls wore on no- uniform days, but by creating her own handsewn fashions.
“I couldn’t go to J.C. Penney and get something like Abercrombie & Fitch,” she admits. “Everyone would know. So, I had to go to the other side of the spectrum with something completely off the wall that was totally my own.”
It was such self-sufficient craftiness that would serve her well later in life, though her enthusiasm eventually turned from fashion to jewelry.
Also instilling a strong sense of self in the young Berenato was her relationship with her father. Though she saw him only every other weekend, an arrangement she confesses likely led to her idolizing him, he inspired in her a passion for entrepreneurship and a never-give-up attitude—hallmarks she says have contributed to making her the successful businesswoman she is today. A serial entrepreneur, the elder Berenato would often take his daughter on sales calls and delight her with maxims such as “Never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.” And in a somewhat prophetic undertaking, he even went so far as to name one of his first businesses Berenato and Daughter, foreshadowing his child’s adventures into entrepreneurship. She was a year old at the time.
But more so than his business savvy, Berenato surely inherited her father’s zeal for life and ability to bounce back, no matter the circumstances.
“My dad is like an insane salesperson. He can sell anything, and he’s the most persevering person. You cannot get him down. He lost half his leg in a motorcycle accident and was instantly back up and starting another business. He just does not stop,” she says. “If you have the two of us together, our personalities are identical. We fall down and we get up. Something like losing all your money’s not a big deal, you know? You can move on and you can create something else. … He just never gave up, which I think has always just kind of stuck with me.”
That ability to persevere, regardless of the situation, has manifested itself in Berenato’s adult life in seemingly superhero attributes. While she admits she does feel fear on occasion, she rarely, if ever, falls victim to the anxieties and worries plaguing many a modern woman.
“I have an extremely high tolerance for pain and I don’t really have anxiety,” she admits. “The stuff that should really upset me or [things] like this could be the end of your business, they don’t.”
While Berenato’s father’s influence impacted her at a young age, it wasn’t until more recently she rekindled a relationship with her mother, a relationship she says is the most prized in her life. Never close with her mother’s husband, Berenato says a wedge was driven between herself and her mother once her stepfather became ill. For some 15 years, Berenato’s mother was his primary caretaker, a dedication that kept Berenato and her mother apart.
“She was kind of trapped in that situation and I really was upset by that. So, when he passed away, it really just opened my mom up to being able to have a relationship with me,” Berenato says. “When I was younger, I saw her caretaking nature and how shy she was and how selfless she was as a turnoff. I was like, ‘Why are you being like this? Why don’t you stand up for yourself? Why don’t you care about yourself more?’ It really made me mad. Then, when I became older, I realized what kind of strength that kind of sacrifice actually takes and it made me really cherish and honor her a lot more than I had before.”
Indeed, Berenato’s recent jewelry collection titled Mother is an homage to her mom. And in a similar way that her father fostered a sense of determination in her, her mother unknowingly ingrained in her strong caregiving characteristics.
CRAFTING HER COMMUNITY
In order to witness Berenato’s benevolence and tenderheartedness, one needs do no more than spend an afternoon at her shop, located in The Domain. There, she happily puts everyone—her customers, her wholesale clients, her fellow makers and definitely her employees—first. In fact, she often takes pains to carve out time and even money for those she’s never met. That’s how she devised a plan to create the Making It Together grant.
Well-versed in the challenges facing female entrepreneurs, particularly makers, and having never received any of the many grants she’s applied for herself, she decided to effect some change for her adored female-makers community.
“We just kind of thought if we can’t get a grant, maybe we could give a grant,” Berenato says with her trademark and infectious good nature.
So, she designed the Making It Together necklace, with $50 from the sale of each piece dedicated to the grant fund. Once she raises $5,000, a grant will go to an American-made, female-owned business. Once that grant is awarded, she’ll start the fundraising process again.
“I’m going to be specifically looking for people that would look like bad bets for funding, which I think most makers are because if you’re out there seeking capital and you’re a woman that makes pottery, nobody is investing in you. Nobody. You’re going to have a hard time getting your aunt to invest in you,” Berenato says. “So, we thought we’d try to make it happen on our end.”
In addition to launching the grant endeavor, Berenato’s altruistic tendencies play out in nearly every aspect of her life. She admits to being on a path to bettering herself and her personal relationships—and notes it’s important for her to make time for her boyfriend and his family, and for her dog, Sunshine, who she says is “the light of my life,” as well as to carve out time for herself to reflect and ensure she takes her precious daily walks and meets regularly with her therapist—but even Berenato’s journey to becoming her best self hinges on how she can improve the lives of others.
“I want to be the person that you can count on, that is going to give you really genuine, good advice, that really cares, that is selfless and generous,” she says. “I really love to be a caretaker and I love to be of service to other people. That’s what makes me happy.”
It’s not uncommon for women in Berenato’s community to have experienced this firsthand.
“Sometimes when you meet women that ‘support other women,’ you can almost immediately tell that they aren’t fully being honest, but Nina truly does want to uplift any and every woman around her,” says Meghan Sekone-Fraser, a friend and amateur kickboxer Berenato sponsors. “She doesn’t bother filtering herself and she speaks her mind. So, when she says that she loves something, she truly means it, and you can also depend on her to call you on you not being your best. That quality is super underrated and why I know that everything she says and does comes from the heart. There is no ulterior motive, and that honesty in a friend is such a gift.”
Berenato can be found at her shop every single day. Whether she’s designing and producing her jewelry pieces, chatting casually with customers in her signature hospitable manner, teaching an array of jewelry-making classes for visitors and pricing classes for makers, checking in with some of her best friends (aka her employees) or creating a space for other makers to sell their wares in her shop, Berenato is relentless in her selflessness.
She says the most challenging part of her career involves ensuring her all-female team of employees is happy and healthy.
“I think I’m most proud of the environment I’ve created for the girls that work here,” she says. “They can thrive in a place where they can feel comfortable to talk about their periods or their postpartum or whatever. … Like, literally, they can talk about whatever, and there’s no shame here and they’re getting paid a fair wage and they have a place where they can grow. And even if they grow out of here, I’m happy for them.”
That dedication is definitely felt by her employees.
“At every twist and turn, Nina is mentoring and helping us grow professionally and personally,” says Lillian Hutchinson, who has worked for Berenato for the past two years. “And through each fail and success, she is always in your corner, cheering you on, getting you to the next step in your career. … Just being around Nina can spark some drive in yourself, and before you know it, you will be going after your dreams.”
Likewise, Berenato’s affection for and commitment to the makers community buoys her daily. “I love the work of other artists and I love to support other artists as much as I possibly can,” she says. “Where I first see us really growing is in this support system and creating a creative space. So, even though I don’t think I’ll ever open up a second store, I could see myself opening up other locations that revolve around teaching and creating a place for female makers to learn and grow and thrive in a really affordable way.”
In the meantime, she hopes to help further the careers of other women makers by offering her pricing class online, showcasing their work in her shop, supporting them on social media or simply shouting accolades about them from the rooftops.
“I think the most important thing in life is finding your real true purpose and going after that,” Berenato says. “I think my true purpose is lifting other people up and bringing people up with me and using jewelry to do that or using myself and my words or my store. But that’s what I think I’m meant to do. I think that’s the meaning of life, and to just keep letting that evolve. Once you’ve done it in one way, find another way to do your purpose.”
A FEW OF NINA BERENATO’S FAVORITE THINGS
Architecture. “When I started the line in Brooklyn, I was super inspired by street style and modern architecture.”
Mythology and folklore. “I’m a huge mythology nerd! I grew up reading all the stories for bedtime stories and I loved it. The heroines and the goddesses are my favorite thing.”
Stained glass. “I’ve always wanted to learn how to make it. That’s on my side platter of dream projects.”
Antiquities. “I love to see any type of antiquities. If I travel, I want to go to the museums and check out all the ancient Greek and Roman stuff.”
Kites, turtles, butterflies, flowers. “I’m extremely sentimental, so anything that reverts me back to my childhood, I love.”
Stickers. “I’m someone that needs the smallest things to be happy, like stickers. I love stickers. … And I think stickers on things make everything more cheerful.”
Learning. “I love to learn anything in any way I can. I’ll usually listen to an audiobook, usually about business in some way. I’m constantly listening to podcasts and e-books and all that stuff.”
Making jewelry. “It’s really just what I love. What lights me on fire every day is making things.”
Nina Berenato releases a new collection twice a year. From inspiration to being displayed in the shop, pieces take about three months to create. The many collections Berenato has created in her time as jewelry designer extraordinaire include:
Warrior: inspired by the stories of the Valkyries of Norse mythology
Shaman’s Trance: inspired by the traditions and art of the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert
Hidden Universe: inspired by the Dostoevsky Drama Theatre in Russia
Bichos: inspired by the sculptural works of Venezuelan artist and sculptor Gertrud Goldschmidt, aka Gego
Doors of Janus: inspired by the passages and entryways Berenato encountered when she first moved to Austin. Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, is also a fitting symbol for Berenato’s rebirth in Austin.
Chaos: inspired by the ancient myth of chaos symbolizing the shapeless heap from which the world began
Fortuna: inspired by the Roman goddess of fortune and luck
Mother: inspired by and a tribute to Berenato’s mother, whose favorite flower is the calla lily
Inferno: inspired by the fire each woman holds inside
Jumpsuit and sneakers, model’s own; Once Was Berkeley camisole, $160; Once Was Berkeley drape midiskirt, $260, available at Estilo, 2727 Exposition Blvd., estiloboutique.com;Luxe Deluxe De Chine kaftan, $346, available at Estilo, 2727 Exposition Blvd., estiloboutique.com;Nicole Miller Words & Letters miniskirt, $230, available at Estilo, 2727 Exposition Blvd., estiloboutique.com. Vest and T-shirt, model’s own; All jewelry by Nina Berenato,ninaberenato.com.